All the world's a stage
Date Posted: 10/12/2010
Carrie Martindale attended the opening of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and asks: is it worth all the hype?
There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the three and a half year redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, mainly concerning the expense. The vast majority of the budget actually came from philanthropy, but nevertheless, this architecturally redesigned 1930s building cost a whopping £112 million.
So was it worth it? I may only be a humble member of the esteemed Group Leisure editorial team, but as an aspiring thespian and literati, my answer is yes – definitely. Read on for a description of the pleasant surroundings, but for me, this visit was all about the auditorium. Once I was sat down in Row C, with my eyes upon the new thrust stage, I was under the magic spell of the theatre, and although I was listening to members of the RSC chair answer questions about the redevelopment, I could just as easily have been listening to Lady Macbeth lamenting ‘out damn’d spot’. And the theatre is filled with the ghosts of performances past, even having the ashes of the auspicious actor, Ian Richardson buried underneath Row A.
The tour began by entering the Paccar Room – a handy new exhibition space currently housing Why?, an interactive exhibition. Visitors can text, or use the iPads there, to explain what Shakespeare means to them. Their messages are then projected onto the walls of the room, as part of a continuous swirl of words. I personally preferred the portraits of various actors playing a myriad of Shakespearean characters that line the walls of the tower stairwell, but what do I know about modern art? You can see Why? until April.
Although the building is über modern, there are continual reminders of the institution that is the RSC, and its history. As you look upon the ‘relic wall’ that rises through the centre of the building, you can see another installation called Ghosts in the Walls; archive video material and low-level sound of key moments from the RSC’s past productions that is projected throughout the day. I particularly like the fact that the floor downstairs in the foyer is the reconfigured 1932 stage floor – giving every visitor the opportunity to ‘tread the boards’. Other attractions include an audio insult chair, where visitors can be insulted in Shakespearean language.
"We think we are stickier now to bring people in, and to think about this as an attractive place to visit." Michael Boyd, RSC artistic director.
I found that the influx of information from the staff regarding the construction and architecture of the building, rather amassed the point of the new RST, however this only goes to prove just how passionate the team are about the entire project. It was interesting to hear how the tower was constructed, and how they salvaged the original bricks from the deconstruction of the old theatre, but not essential for those planning a group visit! If your group is interested in architecture though, there are some very knowledgeable members of staff who are more than willing to answer any questions that you might have.
Tours of the theatre are available for groups, and run every two hours, daily, exploring the public and private areas of the theatre. Learn about the history of the RSC, its theatres and the recent transformation. As the RSC is a working theatre however, they do warn that the auditoria may not always be available as part of the tour. Access to these spaces is subject to availability around rehearsal and technical work. For further information visit www.rsc.org.uk/tours
The building is rather industrial looking from the outside – it reminded me of Tate Modern, particularly as it also has a tower – but is nonetheless stylish within. The view from the top of the 36 metre tower is spectacularly panoramic; with extensive views across the town, the Warwickshire countryside and the River Avon. The tower is open every day, and a lift will take you to the 32 metre high viewing platform, and, as you descend via the stairs, you will discover an exhibition installed on the walls and in the alcoves.
Access to the theatre through the town, has been improved dramatically. There is now a walkway that leads all the way from the Holy Trinity church, where Shakespeare was baptised and is buried, to the theatre. The aim was to bring the RSC back into the town, and make it more a part of the community. The whole area surrounding the building has been developed, so that there are river walks, a fountain, and an attractive outside seating area for users of the cafe. There are also several theatre bars and the Rooftop Restaurant. The restaurant spans the top of the building, and its double-height space seats up to 150 people. During the day, floor-to-ceiling windows on all three sides make for a light and airy space, with most tables enjoying views of the Bancroft Gardens or the River Avon. The design is contemporary, with a nod to the Art Deco style of the original building, and includes many reclaimed features from the old theatre.
"We’ve created an auditorium and a theatre space which could be amongst the finest theatres - we believe - in the world for the production of Shakespeare’s plays." Sir Christopher Bland, RSC chairman
The restaurant opens daily from 11.30am (12pm on Sundays); serving freshly prepared British food throughout the day and into the evening. They promise seasonal ingredients, and locally-sourced food wherever possible. A special fixed price menu is available from 11.30am for matinees and 4.30pm for evening performances with one, two and three course options available starting at £10.95.
Travelling to the RST by coach is recommended. Stratford-upon-Avon is a short drive from Junction 15 of the M40, giving good access to the M42, M5, M6 and M25. There is a coach drop-off point adjacent to the Swan Theatre and long-stay coach parking in the centre of the town. If you wish to travel by train, Stratford’s station has services north to Birmingham and south to London Marylebone (via Warwick, Leamington Spa, Banbury and Bicester North).
There was some controversy over the new RST auditorium, as the theatre has lost almost 400 seats. However, the RSC’s representatives were quick to point out that the seats that have been taken away were seats in which you could neither see nor hear properly, and the resulting 1,040 seats all have good vision of the thrust stage and benefit from the fabulous acoustics. It is certainly an intimate space, and now there is no longer the traditional proscenium arch in place, the audience feels closer to the actors. Groups of eight or more adults are entitled to £5 off the ticket price, plus one half-price ticket for the group organiser for week night performances. Or RSC Group Membership (UK only) costs £15 and offers a number of exclusive benefits, including priority booking, ticket discounts, a dedicated box office line, and a deferred payment option.
Michael Boyd, the RSC’s artistic director, was asked what difference the new surroundings would make to the people, the community, the audience and the actors. He responded with: “Well, outfacing, we are welcoming folk – we are saying ‘come in’. Somebody stood outside the building one Sunday a few years ago, and counted tens of thousands of people walking straight past the RST on their way from an ice-cream, or feeding the ducks. But now, we have a building that is somewhere people are going to want to be. There is a much greater democracy in the auditorium now, and I feel in touch with absolutely every person here. And if the audience is engaged, they will come back for more.”
The redesigned Swan Theatre, which now has shared access with the main auditorium, has bench seating that has been carefully modified, with raised support behind the backs of your knees for added comfort. This smaller auditorium is a lovely informal space, with only 462 seats and improved ventilation and acoustics.
In general, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new theatre; and found the atmosphere and surroundings a real pleasure, with informative and passionate staff members. This was a place that was built out of love for the Bard, and if your group enjoys theatre, then the RST and Swan auditoriums would make a fabulous destination for a visit.
What’s on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre:
King Lear from 23rd February to 2nd April; Romeo and Juliet from 3rd March to 2nd April; Macbeth from 16th April to 6th October; The Merchant of Venice from 13th May to 4th October; A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 29th July to 5th November
What’s on at the Swan Theatre:
Antony and Cleopatra from 3rd to 23rd March; The Tempest from 11th to 26th March; The Rape of Lucrece from 30th March to 2nd April; Cardenio from 14th April to 6th October; The City Madam by Philip Massinger from 5th May to 4th October; Dunsinane by David Greig from 15th June to 2nd July and The Homecoming by Harold Pinter from 28th July to 15th October.
The Royal Shakespeare Company