When I was at grad school on the East Coast, the bane of every theater student's life was a mandatory class called "The Rep Ideal." Every week the head of the program, the curmudgeonly theater critic and sometime director, actor, and playwright Robert Brustein, would wax lyrical about the "good old days" — a sepia-tinged era in which theater companies behaved like nurturing families rather than box-office–obsessed businesses with little respect for those who sweated greasepaint under the lights each night. The class was tedious not just because of the teacher's preachiness. The content seemed pointless, too: The New Deal–esque "repertory theater" model Brustein prized so highly (the presentation of plays with the same core group of actors each season) seemed laughably anachronistic to a group of young people planning artistic careers in a post-Reagan world.
As yet another worthy, middle-aged British actor reminisces about playing spear carriers in Stratford-upon-Avon and learning life lessons from Laurence Olivier (recent Bardolatrous solo productions by such theatrical luminaries as Lynn Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, and Jane Lapotaire point to the trend) I can't help but feel conflicted about the erosion of the repertory system. With his Shakespeare-infused one-man show, What You Will, venerable thespian Roger Rees makes us yearn for a time when budding actors learned their craft on the job under the tutelage of seasoned professionals, while simultaneously inspiring relief that this is no longer the case.
In What You Will, Rees embodies the best and the worst of the repertory tradition. During the liveliest parts of this crowd-pleasing show, the 64-year-old demonstrates some of the benefits of spending 22 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Over that period, Rees worked his way up through the company's ranks, starting out playing a "silent nonspeaking huntsman" alongside Ben Kingsley in a 1967 production of The Taming of the Shrew to essaying both Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost's Berowne during the 1984 season. Unsurprisingly, all these years at the world's preeminent Shakespearean boot camp have endowed the performer with considerable range, a deep knowledge of — and irreverence for — the Bard's work, and some of the wittiest theatrical anecdotes I've ever heard.
At the show's start, Rees saunters onstage with Shakespeare's bust tucked under his arm, which he carefully places on a plinth. Lit like the Crown Jewels, the Bard's head remains a permanent fixture throughout the performance. Yet as much as Rees demonstrates his love for the dramatist throughout the 90-minute production, he's quick to pull Shakespeare off his pedestal. "Your plays kind of suck, actually," he says, reading from an exercise book filled with quotes by Shakespeare-hating high schoolers culled from the Internet. Rees reserves equal amounts of comical disrespect for his early years at the RSC.
The actor clearly knows his Shakespeare inside out. Besides mining ancient playbills and tomes by the likes of Dickens, Shaw, and Voltaire for interesting bits of Shakespeare lore and telling pithy yarns about Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, and other theatrical greats, Rees deftly rattles off some of the Bard's monologues. The most memorable of these include a hilarious and physically transformative interpretation of the Nurse's broody monologue from Romeo and Juliet Act 1, Scene 3 and the famous dagger speech from Act 2, Scene 1 of Macbeth. Rees performs this soliloquy with chilling aplomb. Captured in massive silhouette on the set's blood-red curtain, his frame echoes the Scottish thane's monstrous thoughts.
The trouble with the repertory system is that it often breeds actors who are too immersed in the classics. Rees has been living with Shakespeare's language for so long that he seems to forget that most people need to decipher the words in order to keep up with him. He monotonously barrels his way through Hamlet's soliloquies with little care for the iambic rhythm, coming across more like a dog-race commentator than a tragic hero. This misplaced casualness bleeds into other parts of the actor's performance. Rees' habit of peppering his speech with "uhs" and "uhms" is perhaps intended to make the Bard more approachable, but this tic mainly distracts.
The legendary status of companies like the Moscow Art Theatre, the Comédie Française, and the Berliner Ensemble owes much to the repertory system. But despite rep companies' emphasis on apprenticeship, building relationships, and developing work specially geared toward the core artists' talents, the system is far from perfect. Theater is a live medium in constant need of renewal. Putting actors on the payroll for years and doggedly favoring plays that fit around them rather than prioritizing dramas that are artistically fresh can lead to stagnation, as the fate of the closest thing the Bay Area has to a repertory company, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT), proves. Once the greatest repertory theater in the U.S., it supported a core company of more than 40 professional actors, boasted a thriving training academy, and mounted internationally acclaimed productions. Today, though the school still exists, precious few MFA students get to act with ACT after graduation. The core company has dwindled to six members, and its plays are frequently duds.
In one of the most touching moments of What You Will, Rees describes being lent a pair of boots by the RSC costume shop for his tiny role in Shrew. He was awestruck to find a label under one of them inscribed "Charles Laughton — King Lear." Treading the boards in the famous thespian's footwear made a profound impression on the then-fledgling performer. "I felt somehow I'd stepped into his shoes," Rees fondly recalls. The dwindling of the repertory system in which Rees cut his teeth isn't such a tragic thing, all in all. (Even the RSC hands out only truncated contracts these days.) But wouldn't it be wonderful if more actors could kick off their careers in such impressive boots?