Such stuff as dreams are made of

The transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is now complete. The building came in on time and on budget, costing £112.8 million and taking over 3 years to finish. The _Boar_ was one of the first to admire the resulting space: an impressively luminous and de-cluttered building, where the entire workings of theatre are on show to the audience, not just those which take place on the stage. A selective and sensitive gutting of the original Victorian and Art Deco elements of the Swan Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) has resulted in a theatre not afraid to show its bumpy journey through the ages. It is brilliantly new, yet rich with the history of past theatrical endeavours.

The main auditorium itself has been completely remodelled and now features a thrust stage instead of a ‘cinema style’ – or proscenium – stage, driving the actors and the action into the centre of an almost-complete circle. The distance between the stage and the furthest seat has been almost halved, falling from 27m to just 15m. The RSC and the architects involved in the transformation project have been in the fortunate position of having a working prototype in the form of The Courtyard; a temporary 1000-seater theatre with a thrust stage where the company has been ‘camping in its tin-shack’ and putting on its performances since the closure of the RST and The Swan. This has given the project a unique insight into the advantages of a thrust stage, with the audience surrounding the stage – looking as much at each other as at the action.

During the press conference at the opening of the new space, Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the RSC, described the future of theatre and the design of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre as being inextricably linked. The future of what he sees as the “most fundamentally elaborate art form” lies in the sociability of theatre. In his own words “we live in a world where we don’t go to church anymore and we entertain ourselves in too lonely a way” and the new theatre for him acts as a counter to the miserable modern isolation of Facebook fanatics and reality TV junkies. The new space breathes new life into the theatre-going experience. The thrust stage, as Boyd sees it, allows the free flow of noise from one corner to another, whether that be a gasp or a snicker, with the actors having no where to hide, no ‘backstage’ in the traditional sense and an audience member looking at them from every angle.

The new auditorium is a sign of the changing world of theatre-going, which has evolved enormously since the days of the Elizabeth Scott design of the theatre in 1932. Where once a theatre was merited on its distinction between first class seats and cheap seats, an audience now expects more democracy in the auditorium, and are increasingly interested not in separating themselves from the action but in feeling a part of it. The RST’s new auditorium has now lost several hundred seats, but the Company are confident that the experience of going to the theatre has been greatly improved by tightening the whole theatre, wrapping the audience closely around the action, and losing the seats where, to the admission of the RSC’s chairman Sir Christopher Bland, “one could neither see nor hear properly”.

The rest of the building also strives to look back both to the rich past of the RSC and forward, to the future of theatre-going. The old doors of the 1932 theatre and the beautiful Art Deco spiral staircase, as well as much of the floor tiling and bar furniture has been restored to its former glory, sometimes repositioned within the building, but always giving the place an odd sense of timelessness. In fact, the fan shape of the old auditorium still stands, stripped back, creating wedge shaped spaces, or a ‘void foyer’, between the back wall of the new auditorium and the back wall of the previous theatre. Reminders of where stairs once stood, of which actors once trod the boards, and the boards themselves are everywhere, incorporated into the very grain of the transformed theatre.

Another relationship nurtured by the transformation project is that between the Swan Theatre and RST. Where once they were entirely isolated theatres, sharing only their proximity to one another, and where theatre-goers had to go outside to go between the two buildings, the two have now been incorporated into a theatre complex, with an interior go-between space containing the box office.

Another limitation that the pre-transformation theatres had was that despite the lack of cohesion for the audiences, the stages were back to back, with actors sharing one backstage space, and with no sound proofing between the two auditoria. Rumours exist in abundance of people running onto the wrong stage and of the canons of the RST sounding also in The Swan at the most inappropriate of theatrical moments. The Swan Theatre itself has remained largely unchanged, and it remains the most tardis-like theatre in existence- even from the terrifying aspect of front of stage, the room feels extremely intimate, considering it contains over 400 seats.

One of the key criteria that the RSC had for the transformed building was that it should be welcoming and should strive to become a part of the town. The doors are now enormous, obvious and easy to access – a far cry from the eternally-closed looking Elizabeth Scott 1932 design, and the box office is visible from outside, so there will no longer be a question of which door to use. Anyone can, and should, go into the RSC’s new space, the shop, box office and exhibition spaces, without the need for tickets.

The transformation has given the RSC a space in which they can show off to the full. During the opening press conference, both the directors and actors sung the praises of the new theatre design. One RSC actor actually remarked that “it’s now possible to be subtle at last” due to the impressive acoustics of the auditorium as well as the audience’s improved vision- previously actors felt obliged to constantly “give it large” in the words of Michael Boyd.

The transformed theatres provide more than just performance spaces, there are now exhibition spaces dotted around the building, both in large airy rooms and crammed into cubbyholes, striving to draw in theatre-virgins who perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily set foot in the door. The 36-metre tower is an attraction of its own, offering views over Stratford and, on a clear day, into the surrounding country side. The original inspiration for the tower came from the previous design of the theatre which originally occupied the site. The thinking behind the new tower is to give a view of the place where Shakespeare was born, and the church where he was married and is now buried from one viewing platform, based in the theatre where his plays are still performed. The tower does seem more of a tourist trap than an artistic statement, but none the less provides an interesting and, up to this point, unseen view over Shakespeare’s town. It definitely does not fail to impress.

The new design endeavours at all times to keep the audience and anyone in the building only a hair’s breadth away from the process of making theatre. The props and scenery arrive onto the stage across interior corridor/shop/box office space, and the costumes are wheeled over for all to see, and it is in this way that the transformation shows a shift in what people want from theatre. Now it seems it is less about mystery, and more about transparency.

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