The Shakespeare that played at the Roundhouse from the 1960s was far from traditional – plays were totally reconstituted and deconstructed in form. Directors found that the building encouraged and allowed for experimentation and exploration, and that led to the creation of shocking, spectacular and mind-expanding theatre.
From the 1960s, the Roundhouse was a key London venue for performing convention-defying Shakespeare. The Roundhouse was very different to the plush West End theatres that usually housed Shakespeare productions and the space allowed for experimentation and exploration.
It was a building that encouraged directors such as Peter Brook and Steve Berkoff (two of the most experimental theatre makers of the day) ‘to exploit every staircase, pillar and gallery’ and to play up the mysterious and enigmatic nature that they felt the building exuded. As a result, the Shakespeare that played at the Roundhouse through the 60s and 70s was far from traditional – the well-known plays were totally reconstituted and deconstructed in form.
Critics found the Shakespeare productions that they saw at the Roundhouse during this era hard to classify as ‘theatre’ and at times, even found it hard to recognise the piece as one of Shakespeare’s works. But, even the most baffled of journalists (such as B.A Young who wrote a review in the Financial Times for Peter Brook’s 1968 version of The Tempest) agreed that what they witnessed was an ‘extraordinary experience’.
By the late 1970s theatre as an experiment was considered normal across London. The fourth wall was commonly broken and the line between performer and audience merged. Anything was possible and encouraged. Landmark performances at the Roundhouse contributed a great deal to this shift in attitude. It was known as a space for “simple, uncluttered Shakespeare in the round.” (Daniel Hahn, The Roundhouse Guide 1846 – 2006)
which in and of itself was considered radical, as previous to this era, a performance of Shakespeare would be accompanied by ornate sets and very elaborate, 17th century inspired costumes.
Here’s ten key Shakespeare performances at the Roundhouse that you should know about:
1968 – The Tempest directed by Peter Brook – Theatre and film director Peter Brook is known for his controversial productions. In 1968, his theatre company were forced to transfer a two-month residency in Paris to the Roundhouse, after student protests and unrest made their stay difficult. After Brook’s 1955 production of Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford (that was said by The Guardian’s Michael Billington to have “reclaimed the play for modern theatre”), he had developed quite a reputation for challenging the boundaries of what theatre could be and his version of The Tempest was as boundary defying as you would expect. His experimental rendition includes, mime sodomy, rape and domination and was described (by Orgel, 1987:87) as an attempt to strip the play of preconceived language patterns connected with classical interpretations of Shakespeare. (see Peter Brook at the Roundhouse for more information).
1969 – Macbeth by the National Youth Theatre (N.Y.T), directed by David Weston
The National Youth Theatre was founded in 1956 with an objective of helping young people develop through performance. It became a breeding ground for many British actors and often presented theatre in an original way. Here’s part of a review from The Stage of their 1969 Roundhouse performance:
“The traditional Macbeth jinx had little effect on the National Youth Theatre when they staged Shakespeare’s tragedy at the Roundhouse on September 9…tricky scenes were handled expertly by the director and cast.” However, “several of the youngsters appeared in need of extra coaching and the raw acting robbed the performance of its full impact… not one of N/Y/T’s peaks but at least a promising directional debut from David Weston”. (Review from The Stage 1969)
1970 – The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Theatregoround festival
RSC brought three plays to the Roundhouse during the year of 1970, as part of their Theatregoround Festival. Each played only once in a modern minimalist form, with actors stripped of their Stratford sets and costumes. The featured works were Midsummer night’s Dream (Peter Brook), Hamlet (Trevor Nunn) and Richard III (Terry Hands)
1970 – Catch My Soul – an Othello rock musical
The costumes were from Kings Road, Woodstock and Mexico with music that included Aramaic mass and Louisiana swamp rock.
Catch My Soul memory – Public submission from Robert Sumerling:
“It must have been around 1969 or 1970 that I first went to the Roundhouse and saw a show Catch My Soul which was a musical based on Shakespeare’s Othello. It was winter time and the Roundhouse had only been roughly converted – it was a very exciting building and so different from the then very conventional theatre. It was unusual in those days to see an African lead and I have a memory of the actor playing Othello.”
1971 – Titus Andronicus directed by Keith Hack
This notoriously gruesome play was appropriated in various ways by directors in the 1960s and 70s so as to tone down the gore and explore other themes in more detail. Director Keith Hack is best known for his work in film, but below is a snippet from a review of his theatre production of Titus Andronicus at the Roundhouse:
“The set is dominated by a massively precipitous staircase that naturally lends itself to hierarchical groupings. The play’s carnival of rape and mutilation is shrewdly stylized so at only one point do we see stage blood literally being shed.” (Michael Billington, The Times 1971)
1972 – Black Macbeth (set in Barotseland)
This play was based on the principle that since Macbeth depicts a tribal community with a belief in witchcraft and regal divinity it’s reasonable to give it an African setting. In Michael Billington’s review in the Times he credits “some ingenious textual rewrites” but wishes the director, Peter Coe, took the production further into the setting and was less vague about exactly where in Africa it was to have taken place. (Michael Billington, The Times 1972)
1973 – Prospect Theatre Company directed by Toby Robertson
Toby Robertson is said to have nurtured the leading lights of the British stage. In 1973, the Prospect Theatre Company presented a season at the Roundhouse. By this stage, Robertson had helped to re-established the good name and reputation of touring theatre in the UK and saw the Roundhouse as the perfect place to stage the following five productions:
- Pericles – starring Derek Jacobi
- Twelfth Night – starring Derek Jacobi
- Royal Hunt of the Sun – starring Sir Andrew Aguecheek
- Henry IV starring Timothy Dalton, directed by Kenny McBain
- Henry V starring Timothy Dalton, directed by Kenny McBain
1975 – Taming of the Shrew by New Shakespeare Company
This production starred Zoe Wanamaker and Jeremy Irons, who according to this review stole the show: “Jeremy Irons’ Petruchio dominated the evening. A tall personage, sporting cravat, cigar and big boots, he had something of a loner hero about him and mellowed the part by a quieter and more thoughtful performance than usual.” (Harold Atkins, Daily Telegraph 1975)
1976 – Hamlet directed by Buzz Goodbody – Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) on tour
Goodbody is the only women to have directed Hamlet for the RSC and this production is considered a breakthrough point in her career by Dr Nick Waldon in the Past Productions: On the RSC Stage – 1975 page on the BBC website. She is often credited with discovering the possibilities of ‘studio space Shakespeare’. This is because this production was initially produced in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s intimate studio theatre, The Other Place before touring to the Roundhouse. It was consider ‘rough theatre’ as it had 13 actors performing 25 roles and actors making their entrances and exits through the audience.
1980 – Hamlet (“heavily stylised”) directed by Steven Berkoff
Berkoff is an English actor, author, playwright and theatre director best-known for his provocative interpretations. (He also directed minimal, but hard-hitting versions of Kafta’s Metamorphosis, The Trial and Argmemnon at the Roundhouse).
“In 1980, Berkoff played Hamlet at London’s Roundhouse in a production that he staged with, in his own words, ‘utter simplicity’. When Nicholas de Jongh gave Hamlet a bad review, Berkoff threatened to kill him.” (Stage Writers, The Guardian website, 2007)
The year of 2016 marks 400 years of Shakespeare and the new interpretations of his work that emerged during the 60s, 70s and 80s remain revolutionary today. Many of the most challenging interpretations played out in and were inspired by the Roundhouse, which is something to celebrate.
To comprehend the full atmosphere of the time, it’s important to keep in mind that all of this Shakespeare was happening at the Roundhouse alongside gigs from some of the eras biggest musicians, mind-bending circus productions, club nights and various festivals. “The programming had diversity of style and artform unlike anything else you could find in London, and a range of events that ensured a diversity of audience too” (Daniel Hahn, The Roundhouse Guide 1846 – 2006).
A couple of additional productions and residencies worth mentioning include:
1981 – The Duchess of Malfi featuring Helen Mirren
Although this play is by John Webster (c1613) and not Shakespeare, the original script was written in the same era and similarly to the above, was reinvented for a contemporary audience in a truly transformative way.
The Observer noted that the production “seems to owe little to currently approved trends, since it is neither puritanically simple nor outrageously ornate”, while Michael Billington of the Guardian remarked that “The virtue of playing up the horror is that it makes the inherent moral goodness of the Duchess an even more powerful moral antidote. Helen Mirren also plays her excellently as a woman of strong sexual instincts who yet has a reassuring nobility of character.”
2002 – Royal Shakespeare Company season at the Roundhouse
For the years preceding 2002, the RSC had used the Barbican as their London base, but after deciding it was time for a change they looked to the Roundhouse as a new inspiring space.
They brought The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale and Pericles down from Stratford, staging elaborate productions that included a sea of Turkish lanterns, characters on the trapeze and a real life swooping bird.