The Royal Shakespeare Company’s U.S. Tour – Robert’s Diary Chapter Three

Feb. 2nd: The third week, playing ‘Dream’ we had sharp, comprehending responses from the audience this last week we’re back to dull, slow reactions (except for the Wednesday childfilled matinée); yet, especially last night, there is cheering at the end, with more people standing than ever… and some walking out before the end of the calls: odd.

On the radio heard part of a discussion about the reliabilty of recalled memory of longpast episodes of supposed sexual abuse children v. parents, and so on. Interesting that the issue is still taken seriously, here, like the sweaty palm lie detector ‘demonstration’ at the the Ac. of Sciences.

Editorial on the Guardian newspaper, referring to the arse crawling media coverage of Mayor Brown’s re-election campaign, says: ‘everyone knows if you fuck the elephant, you can’t cover the circus’. This is printed in a respected paper and couldn’t have appeared in the New York press, when I worked there. I checked with a couple of locals (Dave my dresser) who says it’s perfectly acceptable for S.F.

Feb. 3rd: At the shop (in Powell St.) where I get my ’phone cards I saw, in the window, a set of ‘Death’ playing cards. There were two kinds. One whose theme was drugs, the other cigarettes. Each card had a factual nugget warning about the dangers of indulging – ‘doing’ these substances, surrounded by horrific graphics. The main ‘marquee’ of the shop advertises ‘the little or the complete smokers’ shop’.

The Welsh lady (he tells me her name is Lyn Danby, who follows Desmond all over the planet, turned up outside the hotel, I think it was yesterday. She had a man, Dave, with her who, Des says, is her husband. She halfheartedly throws out comments about studying something. Well… Des told me in the wings today that within a minute of his getting back from the Napa Valley the phone rang. It was her: she had been watching from the Holiday Inn and had seen the light go on in his room! Houses haven’t built: just tended to be fuller towards the end of the week. Sundays have been most consistenly rewarding.

As I leave S.F. I keep harking back to the extraordinary incident of the old (cleanly kitted out) man with no hands who swooped onto a table at a diner (probably on or near Market St.) and with great deftness, using his teeth to help himself, clipped a fork perhaps a knife, too onto his wrists with prepared rubber bands and began wolfing down a half finished meal to be given the bum’s rush after a few mouthsful by a waiter; a happening which took place when I was here with Anna in ’82.

Feb. 4th: As we approached the departure gate at S.F. Airport the walk through was flanked on each side by a most beautiful exhibition of culinary arts from 7,000 B.C. to the present day provided by the Academy of Sciences, and arriving in Chicago (larger, grander, high tech airport) we passed beneath an intermittently flashing, several coloured neon sculpture which had a simple forward impetus, something like large scale chaser lights.

Greeted at the airport, especially by an old lady in a fur (the temperature is 2 degrees Fahrenheit) who told us a bit about the city as we detoured our way to the Union League Club, where we are staying; (it has a dress code!)

Feb. 5th: Noon, company invited to the C. Cultural Center to be received by Mayor Richard R. Daley (son of the celebrated and notorious Mayor Daley of riotous Democratic Convention fame) and given the freedom of the city; he declared today RSC Day, whatever that means. Members of various cultural groups there; heard of a compilation including parts of ‘Henry VIII’, plus bits of trial scenes and other additional material, intended to air the problems of divorce in America; put together by an expat English actor who has gone back to work with the new Globe. Seems to be lots of theatre here.

Given lunch and then all taken by bus on a very well guided tour of the Chicago Loop area. Good view of the architecture from Lake Michigan shore. Asked about pollution and told, with just a trace of bitterness, by the guide who’s actually once from Boston, that all industry has gone from the city (except some light) and it’s now a tourist! and international conference centre. Not clear how the pollution clean up is going, except that the river has gone from very toxic, to toxic. Told that C. has three of the tallest buildings in the U.S. (comic rivalry with New York a strand in her commentary) and of the great fire of 1871, supposedly started by a cow kicking over a kerosene lamp in a barn though spoilsports say it was really lightning. Much made of the ‘free’ land available to the citizens, for example by the reclaimed lake shore; two riding ‘Indians’ on plinths were meant to be the grand entrance to a traffic free foreshore.

Practicalities prevented it; in fact, that highways cut it up in ribbons makes the park a semidesert, certainly in winter, just like the car sodden rivage in Paris which spoils the banks of the Seine. Something said, too, about the river (after the fire) being made to flow the wrong way away from the lake and not into it, because it was so polluted and Chicagoans get their drinking water from the lake; done by two ‘brilliant’ Frenchmen the first such feat ever. Today, the temperature was climbing; almost reached freezing point in the afternoon sun, to come back to 9 degrees C. this evening. (Something approaching a pro English feeling at the reception and in the tone of the guide, come to think of it.)

Feb. 6th: Spent most of the day at the Art Museum (happened to be a free day, but we have been given passes, too).

Feb. 7th: 10a.m. went on a guided architectural tour of the Loop area. The fire of 1871 (as the earthquake and fire in San Francisco of 1906) mentioned again as promoting a tremendous building spree stone buildings for wooden ones and, reputedly, the first sky scrapers in the world began here; up to sixteen floors tall! Which was as high as loadbearing walls could go and still let in enough light; after that cladded steel framed construction shot everything sky ward. Brief word said about the Chicago River being made to join up with a Union Canal to try to create an extended water way. In the Marquette building (Marquette discovered the Chicago River) there is an illustrative mosaic including Chief ‘Chicago’. The guide told us that chicago means wild onion. Constant reminder of the contrast between what people prefer to hear and the truth. This building’s lobby is another one of their landmark ones, the best liked being Frank Lloyd Wright’s reconfiguration of another, earlier on the tour.

Security at the Shubert Theatre even tighter than in S.F., where men in short, orange dayglo tabards hung around all day, ‘checking’ everyone passing through. Here, everyone has to enter front of house all other openings are sealed. Limits the effort to one, careful watcher in the lobby. At the first C. performance there was an immediate sense of contact with the audience unlike the feeling we had of playing in a tram shed in S.F. The auditorium has stalls plus three balconies and seats about 2,000. Although there is hugely more fuss being made of us here and a sense in every breakfast bar and other spots like the Architectural Institute shop that they know the R.S.C. is in town, yet bookings are supposedly even worse than in S.F.; 30% according to Desmond.

Very bright response from the first audience but, by the time we were on for ‘Bottom’s’ return there was a sense of flagging; a revival of interest for the play within a play, but only a moderate reception at curtain. Wonder if American audiences really cannot stand a three hour straight play; as one listens, even to public service radio (which is not as good here as in S.F.) you are very conscious of the constant short breaks, little punctuating interludes; on P.S. radio, with no commercials, it’s achieved with tasteful and often quite classy guitar pieces and so on. Sense, in this city, of its being a breakfast and lunch place, mostly based on fast food it closes up very early at night. Of course, this is the financial and shopping, rather than residential, district but it was hinted by both unofficial and official guides that late places to eat, even in the recently gentrified old Chicago, were rare; seems as if the stayers up late hang out in Blues bars. (Thinking again about contrasts to New York prudery/hypocrisy, almost the first thing I heard on the Club radio, flicking through its possibilities, was a sex help ‘phone in’ which was wholly explicit and straightforward on both sides; i.e. lady caller and male and female studio experts/therapists.

At 7a.m. local, Vivienne telephoned sounding hugely different, cheerful and hopeful because a dentist has discovered a very large cyst beneath an impacted wisdom tooth, which could be the source of all her six years’ increasing head pain. Also, Alex has been offered a choice of two Univ./Poly places to study English and has a part-time job, and… Mandy has a perfect new boyfriend, who brings Vivienne flowers and chocolates! (Is in computing; sounds a person of some scope and capacity; quite un-bum-like altogether.)

Feb. 8th: At the matinée we could have been playing to, only, the entire Chinese community of Chicago if there is one; kids, but from God knows where. Evening, press, performance a respectable response, that’s all, but seemed to stay with us to the end. Major gathering, after, at the Union League Club at which Chairman of the R.S.C. Council was host. Main objective to drum up American funding for future R.S.C. world touring with major productions, which has been in abeyance for twenty years. Talked first to Bertrand Goldberg who is the architect (amongst other projects) responsible for the two cylindrical towers we were shown on our bus tour, which have boat moorings at the foot, car parks in the middle (cars visible to the passerby) and apartments on top. The problem has been to find furniture to fit the wedge shaped rooms. Our Boston tour guide said she lived there when she first came to Chicago and has seen strong removal men cry as they tried to accommodate various pieces to the pie shaped rooms. That I’m looking for plays to do in England came up in the conversation and Goldberg gave me the ‘phone number of his sister who has long connections with the theatre.

Also, a long conversation with Richard Ilsley, young yuppie being employed by the R.S.C. as a management consultant (handed Jonathan Pope a list of contacts while we were talking). He is fatally, destructively, susceptibly, dangerously stage struck enough to want to act himself! Has been on some sort of course and ‘done a bit’, non-paid. His thesis is that it is possible to apply more or less rigorous business methods to theatre, etc. and for performers and business people to interweave their activities. Since there will never be fully funded arts again, certainly in the Anglo Saxon sphere, could he be a sympton of a change in a useful direction? There is a problem of a certifiable product, I believe; a show isn’t quite the same as a Canon printer.

Feb. 9th: According to Elizabeth McCann, whom I’ve recently been running in and talking to, the ‘papers’ were helpful (sounds better, so far than S.F.) She’s worried about the return of Lindsay Duncan who, she says, seems scared brief discussion, ended with her thinking it could help if a ‘rude American’ said a word, with which I agree.

Dropped in to the Art Institute again, a.m. and then, in the afternoon, did the second leg of the architectural tour modern and ‘post modern’, from 1950 to now. Sculpturally, the effects of the later additions can be magnificent, but close to the old buildings, usually, still are more attractive. Interesting about Mies van der Rohe and his meticulous aesthetics, yet quite drab impact close to. The pie segment, cut off domed State of Illinois building one of the most interesting we saw, especially inside; (Richard Rogers/Pompidou Centre exposed services interior). Telephoned Lucille Strauss, Mr. Goldberg’s sister, to learn that she played ‘Rosalind’ and ‘Titania’ for a British director who sounded like B. Iden Payne after the Stratford fire of 1926 or 7. Turns out she is ninety. Said she would think about plays and call back. I telephoned Branwen Rhiain in Highlandville; her Parkinson’s continues to be unpredictable and intermittent sounded fairly cheerful; still working on scripts, on various borrowed or given computers.

Caught part of an item on the radio of presenter sending up a tape that has just come out helping singles to cope with Valentine’s Day. All about how to give yourself a dinner with candles, etc. etc. (Seems to be more of thing here, in that Branwen mentioned her intention to send me a V. card, as she has done over the years and, indeed my dresser number two, Ruth, in S.F. came up with a mug and a bag of chocolate hearts).

Feb. 10th: Telephoned by Lucille Strauss who came up with some possible plays. Dropped in at the Art Institute for forty minutes continuing sense, over here, of objects out of context just collected (stolen?) from everywhere; suberb as individual items, but no archaeology because provenance unknown and even date often vague. The only detail offered is about the process of making the thing. Mayor Daley, we were told, at the evening performance; a tightarsed response (though Alex squeezed three calls out of them, wickedly) and his worship did not show after, as we were told he just might.

Read Chapter Four of Robert’s RSC US Tour diary. 

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