The Bard in our backyard

Oct 25, 2006 at 12:00 am

With three complete Shakespeare productions, 75 actors and 140 lectures, readings, roundtables and demonstrations in just three weeks, the residency of England's Royal Shakespeare Company in Ann Arbor is, arguably, the largest theatrical venture to take place in southeastern Michigan. This year's 21 performances will draw about 25,000 spectators from the United States and foreign countries.

Based in Stratford, England, since 1879, the Royal Shakespeare Company was founded by a Stratford-based brewer. Its repertoire focuses on the writer and others of his generation, but they also occasionally produce some contemporary theater, such as a recent adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

According to University of Michigan English professor Ralph Williams, who teaches and lectures on Shakespeare, the company is dedicated to improving the quality of its shows. For instance, they constantly rework text and offer all kinds of classes, such as speech and movement classes, for actors. Its resources, Williams says, are unequaled. That's why he's been more than willing to make frequent trips to England as a consultant to the British ensemble. "It's been absolutely delicious for me," he says.

Although Williams has no official title, he's a tireless advocate for Shakespeare and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He's one of a few key players who have organized Royal Company residencies, presented by the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor twice already since 2001. University Musical Society President Ken Fischer and the Royal Company's David Boyd got this collaboration going. Thanks to their efforts, the residency is about more than just great programming — it's also about outreach. When the British group visits this year, the actors and designers will go on the road, visiting with more than 100 community organizations, such as Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre, a group of teenage performing actors. "The community is taken seriously by this residency," Williams says.

In the past few decades, the University Musical Society brought renowned theater companies, such as Canada's Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival, to Ann Arbor. Back in 2000, Barbara Groves, an arts consultant and a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company's American committee, knew that the theater company was looking for a stateside venue, so she approached the musical society's Fischer about Ann Arbor. His response was "It would be a residency to die for."

A few years later, David Boyd ascended to the company's top spot and came to visit Ann Arbor. On a cold March evening, he met Fischer for dinner. Fischer invited along Williams, who impressed Boyd with his passion for the Bard. As Fischer remembers it, "Boyd pointed to Ralph over his head and mouthed the words, 'We've got to get him to England.'"

That year, Williams flew to England five times, and, as Fischer recalls, became "a spiritual and intellectual partner to Boyd." A year later, in 2001, the British company made history with a U.S. debut in Ann Arbor, and specifically, with their excellent production of Henry VI. The ensemble returned for a performance in Ann Arbor in 2003. Subsequently, this year, Fischer met with Boyd, newly appointed as the royal company's artistic director, for a meal at a London train station. They shook hands on a deal for a return visit this year — and, one hopes, more in the future.

This season the troupe presents "The Complete Works," showcasing his complete works in repertory, including sonnets and poems, with other works by visiting companies. Of the three plays being produced here, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Julius Caesar, Patrick Stewart, a Broadway and London actor known for his roles in the X-Men trilogy and the most recent Star Trek movies, stars in two. Harriet Walter, who is as respected as Judi Dench in England, co-stars with Stewart as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.

Williams, who was grew up in St. Mary's, Ontario, remembers seeing Shakespeare as a high schooler in a small town that's home of what's arguably North America's most famous Shakespearean Festival: Stratford, Ontario. As a student, the experience enthralled him. He believes the educational programming is an important part of the residency, especially the lectures given by directors and others, that offer insights into the creative process. "The real joy of theater exists between the page and the stage," where, he says, the magic occurs. Most of the 40 or so lectures are free and open to the public, including Williams' own talk, entitled "Of Principle and Power, the plays of the Royal Residency 2006," which runs every Monday evening for a few weeks. And as for the university's theater and English students, William says, "It gives them the imagination of possible excellence."

Though the 21 shows are sold-out, there's a waitlist for each one, beginning 90 minutes before curtain. People who decide they are unable to attend may turn back tickets, which will then be made available. And if you don't get a chance to see a show in 2006, make some time in 2008. A return residency seems to be in the cards for the kings, queens and jokers that Shakespeare immortalizes.


Royal Shakespeare Company performs Tuesday, Oct.24, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Power Center for Performing Arts, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For more info, call UMS at 734-764-2538 or visit

Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]