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

To my surprise, having spent almost all my professional life in television I joined the Royal Shakepeare Company in 1994. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were the back-bone of my time with the company and at the beginning of 1996 we took Adrian Noble’s production of The Dream to America.

Jan. 3rd: Arrived at Grosvenor House residential hotel, San Francisco, seven-ish local time. Addressed by Pat (the boss) and warned about an area, south of Market Street, which is not safe after dark. She described a system known as matrix which the police run, whereby they push back undesirables (people living on the streets, who have been released from institutions, even gaols unemployed people) back, south beyond Market during the day, but let them drift some way north ‘over the border’ when the business day is done.The unwanted people live on the street south of Market because there are many intersecting flyovers and freeways to provide partial shelter. The Golden Gate Theatre is on the border of this grey area; Taylor Street. Political hints and nudges from Pat (general disapproval of Federal/State policy).

Jan. 4th: At the cable car turn table at the bottom of Powell Street discovered a spot I recognised from my first visit here with Anna; where I saw a man busking as a ‘living statue’ on the flat top of the balustrade leading down to the B.A.R.T. Later, a second reception, this time by Carole S Hays, one of the American ‘Dream’ tour backers, for the company in Orpheum Th. green room, followed by a performance of ‘West Side Story’. The theatre, vast, partly decorated like a mediaeval cathedral partly, in the lobbies, by ebullient, classically derived nymphs and putti but as if filtered through a Hindu mind.

Jan. 5th: The Dream is housed in a large, plain ex cinema & vaudeville house called the Golden Gate Theatre (on Taylor the wicked Street & Market) which has good acoustics if you face straight to the centre of the house, but probably not otherwise; and we shall be miked from the edge of the stage, I think. Looking back to working in New York in the 80s there is a familiarity to the especial, grinding delays in getting the machinery for the green umbrellas working as Adrian wants them. He stuck to his guns.More stories of the dangers of being caught in the Market St. area from Dave, my dresser; spoke of witnessing all kinds of happenings: a driveby shooting?

Jan. 6th: Ian McKellen suddenly appeared outside stage door; apparently to meet Daniel Evans. He is here, according to Daniel, to promote his film of Richard III. Strolled, with a friend, into the wings during evening session and went out front. (Stopped by Maggie McKay S.M. for Broken Heart also outside s.door, at lunch break, on way back from Australia to Stratford).

Jan. 7th: Emily Button (understudy) played for Lindsay Duncan as ‘Titania’ at shortened dress reh.! First performance (3p.m.) went well surprisingly, technically, smoothly given first indications. Security guards are used as guarantors everywhere; receptions, at the stage door… like sentries; what does the record show for the efficiency of sentries?

Jan. 8th: Cable car, for the first time down to the post office in the basement of Macy’s (closing down sale). Outside, passed the beggar with the three cats used as an example by the ‘boss’, Pat, in her description of sturdy beggars who are really well off. And, indeed, when I came out, fifteen minutes later the old cat beggar had metamorphosed into a young one. On the way up the hill we passed the Sir Francis Drake restaurant, perhaps hotel too, with a recognisable Beefeater outside with a Japanese face. The shiny fire engines are everything ultimate about saying ‘I’m here, I exist, don’t ignore me, I matter’ with there multiple flashing lights, whine and groaning, grunting horn. Saw a more elaborate replica of and then the veritable gate to Chinatown spotting the baby lion suckling via its parent’s claws, that I’ve been reading about. (In explaining the ‘body bags’ sequence to some American staff I mentioned the reference in the text to ‘nymphs’ that the lovers become lovely butterflies and I’ve just remembered reading that Shakespeare supposedly was influenced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Jan. 9th: Was the post office really under Macy’s as everyone refers to it; the sign over the building reads EMPORIUM; and Macy’s seems alive and well in Union Square?

After the press performance tonight the management bussed us to Planet Hollywood in Stockton St. for a small bite and a drink. It’s a hideously decorated, large dive full of movie mock ups and active screens, running old loops. I wonder how it’s rated by the middle class supporters who joined us? Penny Wesson, who last greeted me after a performance of Zenobia (I hadn’t seen her since early William Morris days), was present and claimed, but very modestly, to have had a small hand in getting The Dream here by steering Elizabeth McCann to Stratford. She, Penny, seems genuinely appreciative, warm, and… unhurried.

Reaction to the first show on Sunday surprisingly sharp. And today’s ‘dress rehearsal’ audience supposedly mostly under privileged kids, certainly reacted at curtain up and to the humping in the bower at the end of Part I with the same whoops we received in London. Perhaps people, in similar civilised societies, are…the same.

Jan. 10th: (Adrian Noble pointed out to us at notes, yesterday, that American theatres are offered to managements bare, stripped of all equipment; each must supply his own which might account for the major technical hurdles in the crew’s way at the tech. and explain the slow progress.)

The crunch has come. Emily Button played for Lindsay Duncan as ‘Titania’ at the dress reh., the public dress and then the Wednesday matinee. Lindsay is going into hospital for an operation on her painful neck or shoulder or back. Will supposedly return to the show in a few weeks! It’s been anticipated for months but, according to Desmond, Adrian brushed the signs aside.

Jan. 11th: More beggars with cats, I see; dogs, too. The original two marmalade and a dark tabby on Market are wonderfully stout and somnolent.

M.O.M.A. has an exhibit of three trailers which some lady was paid to interior design to suit herself, her parents and a friend with a baby, all travelling between San Diego and here, I think.

Jan. 12th: The California Palace of the Legion of Honour, beats the M.O.M.A. flat; is comparable to the Burrell Collection and would have to be returned to again and again to savour it fully. Emily Button on as ‘Titania’; Lindsay Duncan to hospital.

Jan. 14th: There is a very good public service radio station which relays quite a lot of the B.B.C. World Service (C.B.C., also). This morning, in part of a continuing series about prisons in the southern states there was interviewed a black prisoner who, in 1950, was given a fifty year prison sentence for snatching twenty four dollars out of a white man’s hand. The charge was robbery. He couldn’t reconcile himself to this treatment and repeatedly escaped. That’s stopped, now, because he’s had a stroke. He feels that robbery implies use of a weapon and still hopes to be free; and muses about writing a book useful for young black people. This episode of the series was about the aging in prison; a spokesman said he thought at any time some of these people could re offend. Because of current policy, a prison building programme is under way. (Contractor led, I wonder).

Later, there was an item perpetuating the fascination with Margaret Thatcher, who has just spoken in celebration of Keith Joseph and praised all strands in the party knocking Major’s policies, omitting to mention the latter by name.

Jan. 16th: (Emily Button much improved as ‘Titania’ – Sunday’s performance). The man (Mr. Baggett) who fixed my flat tyre, early Monday morning in Hilmar, is convinced that for a quarter of the year he is ‘working for the government’. He has no sense that ‘the government’ could be doing anything valuable for him. Recounting a story of an ordinary man, a government worker, who became ‘worth a millon’, all of a sudden, he hinted pointedly that there was no way he could see his achieving that merely from doing his job. ‘And then they put away a man for robbery for seven years’ was the follow on. Also, came quite a litany of the vastly increased spectrum of racial mix invading the locality there were supposed to be one million illegal immigrants, officially, but reckoned it was closer to five; especially Mexicans; and they had provoked laws whereby all kinds of documents, notices had to be offered in ten, or so, languages, making it an offence not to comply. Seemed to be regretting the ‘melting pot’ (also described by Alastair Cooke). Spoke of his own mixed and muddled heritage and his Swedish descended wife’s but this was European, of course. Bosnia the word came up, with the idea that America was perhaps still too busy imposing its own, idealised, ways of living on the world, whereas there are more than enough matters to improve and get right at home; (Branwen has conveyed the same sentiment in a couple of her letters; presumably echoing opinions expressed around her, in Highlandville). Politely, gently, not angrily expressed…

Yosemite, later that morning, was grand and lovely in the light, but already snagged by tripping cars. Then, the Village turned out to be like London Zoo at its worst. People there for the cheap outing in ‘nice’ surroundings, grossly over weight parents with their kids in the fast food places, the unemployed, or casually employed for a pittance, hanging around: squalor. Then, it emerged, that with their limited resources, doggedly as in other American parks, the staff is trying to contain human pressure by forcing most of them into a smaller area and, at the same time restoring abused sites using, it seemed, voluntary labour; for example from Chevron. The asphalt at old picnic sites had gone; a shuttle bus serves campers, but also offers sight seers places from which they must walk to exceptionally beautiful spots to which one can no longer drive. “Shame”, said one of the dressers at the theatre.

There is an American’s sense of his freedom to cut down trees and put a used tyre lot anywhere on the planet he chooses. I remember the rangers talking of this pig headed war of attrition when I was over here with Anna, and at the Everglades slowly the day improved and Yosemite slowly recovered some of its ancient magic; the drizzle helped. I’ve heard no one talk of the natural, horse sculpture (in wood) beside Mirror Lake (which is slowly silting to dry land and will not be dredged by Corporation of America). There was a lizard, too, I think on the short track to the foot of Yosemite fall. Driving back via the 120, at 6,000 feet it snowed.

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

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