With a new team at the top and exciting new productions in the offing, there’s a fresh feel about the RSC as the celebrated national theatre company announces its next season of plays in Newcastle.
And what Erica Whyman describes as “a special relationship” between Stratford and the North East seems a little more special since she is now the RSC’s number two – deputy artistic director to Greg Doran – and previously spent several years in Newcastle as a multi-tasking boss of Northern Stage.
She knows about the North East theatre scene... about the audiences, the funding problems and all the various highs and lows (a vivid memory is of her looking stunned and wielding a mop as Newcastle was hit by a monsoon which flooded her theatre foyer in 2012).
Erica also knows how important the close association with a blue-chip arts company like the RSC is to those striving to sell the merits of a beautiful but relatively remote and economically challenged region to inward investors.
First things first, though... and a word about Erica’s domestic arrangements which lead me to suspect her famous multi-tasking skills must have come in really handy over the past year.
To elaborate, pretty much Erica’s first production in her lofty new role at the RSC was a baby girl, Ruby, who is now nine months old.
She is the result of Erica’s very special relationship with the playwright Richard Bean whose play The Big Fellah had a run at Northern Stage in 2011.
“I had taken the job (as RSC number two) before I knew I was pregnant,” confesses Erica.
“Because part of my job is deputising for Greg I was very determined to get back to work as soon as possible.”
Ruby, who glories in the name Ruby Whyman Bean, may well be a chip off the old block because she was born earlier than expected. It meant Erica was able to take a little more maternity leave than she’d planned – but still only four months.
Erica and Richard now live together in London... when they are together. They lead busy lives and Erica spends a few days each week in Stratford where she is able to make good use of the RSC creche.
Ruby Whyman Bean is destined, surely, for a theatrical career?
“I’ve got high hopes that she’s going to be an engineer,” replies her proud mum.
“She likes trying to find out how things work. She is particularly keen on the light switches in the kitchen.”
The novelty of motherhood aside, Erica says she is now starting to settle into her new professional role.
“I’ve been here just a little bit more than a year now. It was a big step and there were always going to be a lot of things to miss about the North East, not least the weather. It never quite gets cold enough for me down here.
“But I have adjusted and I’m starting properly to enjoy it. It was good sitting down with Greg to work on the programme for 2014.”
In fact, says Erica, she was closely involved in commissioning the stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which have been a big hit at the Swan Theatre in Stratford, directed by Jeremy Herrin who also used to work in Newcastle.
In her RSC role she is in charge of new writing, little of which we have seen in the North East in recent years.
Might this change? Discussing the 2014 Newcastle season, Erica says that while the relationship between the two places remains special (it grew out of the RSC’s desire to fulfil its obligations as a national company), it is unlikely we will ever again see the six-week seasons of the 1980s and 90s when plays old and new would transfer from three Stratford theatres to three Newcastle ones.
At that time, says Erica rightly, people in the North East would go to see the RSC but wouldn’t necessarily go to see anything else. The company raised the bar very high, created an appetite and others have since helped to satisfy it.
“In a way we’re victims of our own success,” says Erica. “But the commitment to Newcastle remains and we’re in the middle of some really interesting discussions about how we work going forward. It might change shape but the commitment to the relationship is there.
“We are talking about developing North East theatre makers. I think you could say there are going to be some more tentacles to the relationship going forward.”
One project for 2016 is a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the ‘Mechanicals’ (Bottom and Co.) played by talented amateur actors in different locations around the country, including the North East.
Erica also alludes to the RSC’s relationship with Newcastle-based theatre companies Northern Stage and Live Theatre, both of which have attained a significant national profile.
For now, though, there are three new Shakespeare productions to talk about. Erica says all three are part of a campaign, initiated by Greg Doran, called Young Shakespeare Nation. It’s a pledge by the RSC to perform all Shakespeare’s plays within six years, coinciding with the period a child spends in secondary school.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of just doing the plays that are known to be popular,” says Erica.
“There are plays that are very well known and popular but there are a lot of plays that audiences don’t really know very well at all. We wanted to mix them up a bit. Probably a lot of people know the Henry IV plays but not so many will know The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“We wanted to introduce people to the plays that they might not know so well and it’s also a great opportunity for young people.”
And before you retort that most people can’t get to Stratford easily and often, Erica says the screening of live plays at cinemas such as the Tyneside is proving very popular with audiences. The RSC is getting into that and is finding that the screenings are heightening the appetite for live theatre rather than the reverse, which you might have suspected.
Erica says the plays will be staged in batches so they complement each other in terms of familiarity and tone: tragedies with comedies, familiar with less familiar, early work with late.
In terms of casting, Erica naturally highlights the return of Sir Antony Sher. He and Greg Doran have been partners on and off stage for years but their track record of success in the theatre is phenomenal. Of Sher, she says: “I think he’ll be really fun as Falstaff. It’s possible you might not recognise him. I think there might be a bit of theatrical disguise.”
And it is with undisguised glee that she points out the casting of Jasper Britton as Henry IV. He also played George in Erica’s brilliant production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Northern Stage a few years ago.
Meanwhile, Erica is also looking ahead to the end of the year when her first main house production opens in Stratford. It’s an ambitious new family play by Phil Porter called The Christmas Truce, recalling the events of 100 years ago when opposing troops in the First World War left their trenches and met to exchange seasonal greetings in No Man’s Land.
As one of the undoubted highlights of this first year of 1914-18 commemorations, it will attract a lot of attention. This, as Erica is well aware, is the big time.
:: Tickets for the three RSC plays coming to the Theatre Royal in September and October go on sale to the general public on February 15. Box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk