1990 | Richard III European Tour

We began with a summer season in London and a tour of the United Kingdom. Nothing remarkable in that for a company which is, in part, funded by the nation to serve the nation. Touring abroad, however, requires extra effort and extra resources.

There were 30 experts from all the various backstage departments and 27 actors, including four princes who took it in turn to be murdered by Richard III in the tower. Three intrepid truck drivers carried the sets and equipment through rain, shine, blizzard and fog to ten far-flung foreign cities. The most ambitious tour in the National Theatre’s history could not have been achieved without the British Council and our sponsors from commerce.

First stop was Tokyo, where they love Shakespeare. Their Globe Theatre, a high-tech replica of Shakespeare’s own, presents nothing but his plays throughout the year. Our visit was a prestigious British export. Not for the last time, we found ourselves acting as cultural diplomats. One afternoon I addressed an assembly of Japanese businessmen (in their own language – just). Elsewhere we met heads of State and dined in embassies. We proposed toasts in the local beverage to our hosts, to Shakespeare, and to the future of international theatre.

But our real work was always in the theatre and it was always fulfilling. It wasn’t just the full houses – with Parisian students sleeping out all night in the hope of return tickets. Nor was it just the rave reviews and the applause – 15-minute standing ovations in Hamburg. What was unforgettable was the welcome from local theatre people who accepted our interruption of their routine with friendliness and enthusiasm. The only exception was in Madrid, where a local technician’s strike for fairer wages prevented us from playing during our stay. So we went instead to the newly-built British Council School and did some Shakespeare for the teenagers.

It was instructive to compare British theatre with local conditions. In Western Europe, we marvelled at the generosity of government subsidy to the arts. The new Europe, learning democracy after so long, was the biggest shock. In Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany before their revolutions, theatres were well-favoured. Drama students were guaranteed jobs for life in societies where unemployment was illegal. The new freedoms include the freedom to be out of work. Long-established theatre companies are being disbanded, actors on the breadline. In freezing Bucharest one of them slept backstage, unable to afford heating at home.

Yet, theatre workers initiated political change in Romania. Ion Caramitru, who played Hamlet last year at the Lyttelton with his Bulandra Theatre, rode the tank which led the crucial charge on Ceausescu’s television station. For him and his countrymen, our Richard III was an important event. At the death of the mediaeval tyrant, our audience stopped the performance to applaud and cheer in recognition, keeping faith with the recent drama of their own lives.

In Czechoslovakia, too, actors and playwrights launched a revolution. President Havel and his radical cronies, reviled and imprisoned by the old regime, are now freed and in power. After seeing our King Lear, he said it demonstrated what he had learnt since becoming President: that “People kill and nations fight, all because of personal rivalries.” But will even his sympathetic government be able to protect he theatre from the harsh and variable winds of the market economy?

The new Europe is full of such questions which, in the short term, may only be answeredc by the generosity of richer foreign economies. Perhaps the visit of a thriving National Theatre, subsidised by the tax-payer, will help convince our hosts that democracy needs theatre and that public funding is a small price to pay.

Ian McKellen as Richard III

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