Royal Shakespeare Theatre... Open for business

PUBLISHED: 14:33 22 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:20 20 February 2013

Vikki Heywood, RSC executive director

Vikki Heywood, RSC executive director

For four years Stratford's residents have had to put up with a huge building site right at the heart of its tourist area.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre... Open for business

For four years Stratfords residents have had to put up with a huge building site right at the heart of its tourist area. Now the pain is over, the theatre is a gem, writes Jane Sullivan.

The riverside theatre site has been noisy, busy and, in high summer, very dusty and dirty. Occasionally the roads have been shut making my little rat run from the shops up onto the Evesham Road impassable. The Bancroft Gardens which were ripped apart by the council and replaced with a modern cityscape type of open space were roundly criticised by those of us who loved cheery flower beds and pretty trees.
All those gripes are in the past. The theatre is brilliant. I started my tour in the Paccar Room which has an interactive exhibition where anyone can post their thoughts on the Bard. As the words streamed from a touchpad onto the huge screen it was like watching a DNA double helix being wound into the distance quite apt as surely Shakespeare is part of our collective DNA?
Then it was downstairs and into the colonnade. Here the two theatres the Swan and the RST have been joined by a wonderful open space that also houses the box office and the shop. Previously the two theatres had separate box offices and anyone whos ever nipped into the shop will remember the crush at busy times.
A bit of fun The Insult Chair you sit on it and trigger an insult read by some of our greatest Shakespearean actors. I couldnt guess which actor was insulting me I was too busy roaring with laughter at being called a mis-shapen dick. It turned out to be Noma Dumezweni who spoke the line, it was not a Shakespearean quote with which I am immediately familiar! (Although I did look it up later and it comes from Henry VI, Part 3 [Act 5, Scene 5, line 35] and the full quotation is: Lascivious Edward, and thou perjurd George, And thou mis-shapen Dick, I tell ye all, I am your better, traitors as ye are.)
A quick peak at the actors dressing rooms all have riverside views and are bright and functional. Then outside, and here is where I began to realise that the theatre is going to be at the heart of the town. The previous building had its back to the town. Facing onto the road was the stage door and delivery entrances which gave the theatre a rather industrial look (hence its local nickname the jam factory). On the river front the original 1930s building, designed by Elizabeth Scott, had been added onto in the 50s to make bigger restaurant and bar areas and not very sympathetically. All that has been stripped away and a wide new path along the river replaces the tiny little path that was once there. The path runs from the Clopton bridge up to Holy Trinity Church (where Shakespeare is buried) and there is a new entrance in the churchyard wall so visitors no longer have to walk along the road to get to the church. Now you can walk around the whole building and the 1930s faade has been revealed again and it just looks so right.
The auditorium now has 1,000 seats 400 seats fewer than the previous building. But 400 seats that were difficult to sell because they were so high that hearing and seeing the actors was a challenge. Its here that the biggest improvements to theatre-goers will be apparent. A huge amount of work has gone into perfecting the sightlines and acoustics and while it was hard to tell from sitting in the theatre listening to the press conference I am assured by all the people who know that the theatre is going to be good. Lets hope that it lives up to its promise when the live performances commence.
Then to the restaurant third floor with great views of the river and a great team of chefs. Then up the tower and here the views are simply wonderful. We always knew Warwickshire was a beautiful county but get up to the tower and see for yourself. You can see the Cotswolds and Bredon Hill in the far distance, then over to Edgehill, and, to the north, the Welcombe Hills. As Alycia Smith-Howard (see page 52) and I gazed at the view we really did feel this sense of excitement and the sense that all that talk of World Class Stratford might actually be true.
For the first time I felt that Stratfords theatre was really part of the town not this remote building for arty intellectuals and groups of bored schoolchildren forced to study the Bard. I cant wait to go again what a fab place to meet for coffee or even see a play.

The year was 1987. I sat perched in one of the top rows of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Despite the great chasm between the gods and the proscenium, I was utterly rapt by the tiny, mesmerizing figures on stage: Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw and Alan Rickman.
The play was As You Like It. The experience of that production, in that theatre, changed my life. My chums and I had come to the RST as part of a university study tour. They left with souvenirs and postcards, I left with the certainty I had found my raison d'etre.
However, even as a loyal RSC devotee, I found the old building dark, poky and foreboding. I never knew the RSCs studio theatre, The Other Place, in its original configuration, though I have chronicled its history extensively. That space placed spectator and actor on equal footing, and in equal levels of comfort and discomfort. Simon Russell Beale recalled The Other Place affectionately as: a shared experience of camping out. It is little wonder than that the world fell in love with The Swan, when it opened in 1982. Warm, cosy and cheery, it was a space that seemed to embrace you.
Good news then that Michael Boyd and his team have succeeded in retaining aspects of all three Stratford houses in the Companys new theatre. The new auditorium owes much to both the flaws of the old proscenium stage, and the lessons learned and cherished in The Other Place and The Swan.
In designing the new auditorium and theatre complex, Boyd has, literally and metaphorically, kept a firm grasp of the best of the Companys stellar past, with an eye to moving forward for the future. For example, the wooden planks of the old stage provide the flooring for the upstairs lobby, so everyone has a chance to tread those famous boards.
Without being Disneyfied, the new complex speaks clearly to the next generation of theatre-goers and Shakespeare lovers on their own terms. It is a bright, welcoming and inviting space where visitors are encouraged to encounter Shakespeare in variety of media, and in truly evocative ways whether one sets foot inside the auditorium, or not.
Throughout the building there are exhibition spaces, creative installations (to which visitors can contribute) and interactive displays, such as The Insults Chair, that bring Shakespeares language to life in ways that are instantaneous, engaging and hilarious.
There are at last the much-needed creature comforts that audiences have lamented for decades: lifts, improved toilet facilities, more extensive catering outlets and shared access between the main house and The Swan. There is also wireless internet access available throughout the building, a feature that suggests the Companys desire for this to become a place where visitors enjoy themselves throughout
the day, and not exclusively as a theatre-going space.
With a nod to Brecht, and his philosophy that the mechanics of theatre should always be visible, Boyd has positioned the load-in dock through the main lobby so visitors, particularly the young, can see how theatre is made.
The much-debated Tower is truly the icing on the cake. The stunning views it offers are simply breathtaking. The tower, too, is a reclaimed piece of the theatres history, a re-imagining of the original tower that was destroyed by fire.
There is a moment, while experiencing this birds eye view of Shakespeares world, when all the pieces come together quite magically. Shakespeare: the man, his town, his birthplace, his school, his home, his final resting place, his words and works. And, now, he finally has the theatre he deserves.

Alycia Smith-Howard PhD is a Shakespeare scholar and author, currently guest lecturer with the RSC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford. Before moving to Warwickshire she was professor of Shakespeare Studies at New York University, USA.


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