I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it

A visit to the rebuilt RSC theatre complex on 8 January 2011

Despite regular trips to Stratford during the construction period that had enabled me to get a general feel for the shape of the structure, visiting the finished building in full use with the wraps off and scaffolding removed made a distinct impression as if seeing it for the first time.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

Approached from any angle, the tower makes an imposing sight. Its dominant position on the skyline signifies the key role the building occupies in town’s economic life and its significance as a major centre of Shakespeare production.

Waterside, the street running alongside the complex, has been narrowed, made one-way southbound and the pavement correspondingly widened. The road surface has been brought level with (and coloured as) the pavement at the junction with Sheep Street. This has created pedestrian priority for people walking to the theatres from the main restaurant drag. The roadway has also been raised to pavement level along the length of building to create a similar pedestrianisation.

The unsightly and obstructive car park has been removed from the front of the building and a cycle rack stands in its place, both as a practical facility and as a symbolic embodiment of the modernity of the overall project.

The RST entrance
The RST entrance

A short flight of steps leads up to a small paved area in front of the four-storey glazed entrance with its illuminated RSC logo. Its single automatic door replaces the original theatre’s row of entrance doors along its north side. The entrance links the main building to the tower and also provides access to the colonnade.

Once inside the brightly lit interior a casual visitor is immediately drawn straight on to the shop and box office in the colonnade. This new feature has been constructed outside the wall of the original building and runs the length of the west side linking the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with the Swan Theatre into one complex.

It’s very pleasant and attractive. But herein lies its flaw. People not actively shopping, collecting or buying tickets tend to mill around just inside. This can mean that anyone wanting to get to the shop, box office or Swan end of the colonnade has to push past clutches of people blissfully unaware of the stoppage they are causing.

Things are not helped by the close proximity of box office and shop and the queuing system that sends the end of the box office line down into the shop area. At peak times considerable congestion is going to occur as shoppers, patrons and general millers all try to occupy a small part of the building.

By contrast the temporary Courtyard theatre has things the right way round. Beyond the large foyer there is a large bar area, after that the box office, with the shop hidden round the back.

The other half of the colonnade is quite empty and dimly lit, with the atmosphere only perking up once the Swan foyer is reached. The Swan shop has been transformed into a very attractive dark panelled bar. The original stone fireplace, formerly housing the Swan shop’s poster collection, has been restored to elegance. The reading room beyond, currently home to poet in residence Malika Booker, has been preserved unaltered.

Something tells me that the innate character of the Swan bar might make it a stylish bolthole for visitors wanting a quiet drink away from the large bars at the RST end of the complex.

Turning left at the entrance, although the less obvious choice, leads to a finer selection of facilities. Firstly, the voluminous cloakroom and the Scott bar, named after Elisabeth Scott the architect of the 1932 RST and occupying the former foyer area.

The original RST auditorium began where the foyer ended. So the new theatre with its smaller footprint has created a space between what is now the Scott bar and the brick drum wall of the new RST. Standing in this gap, or better still viewing it from one of the walkways on the upper levels across the gap, provides a view of the back wall of the original RST auditorium which has been left rough with exposed brick and remnants of girders. A sequence of images from previous RST productions is projected onto it.

Higher up in the new rooftop restaurant, three seats from the back of the old circle remain fixed to the wall as a reminder of how the new theatre has reduced the distance between the furthest seat and the stage from 27m to 15m.

The fountain courtyard and upper circle bar remain intact. A new Ruinart circle bar on the first floor looks out onto the river and down onto the drum wall. Hopefully the name, which separated into constituent English words spells “ruin art”, is not ominous.

As someone who has never found the RST restaurants and cafés that appealing and does their eating and drinking in town, usually at The Garrick, my interest in the new catering at the complex is limited. The big restaurant is classy and expensive. The small café provides a limited range of simple meals, its main attraction is the riverside terrace which should be a glorious place for a quick drink or snack in summer. But like many I will probably stick with the plentiful and varied range of eateries in town and then roll straight into my seat.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

A theatre tour provided a look backstage at facilities like the dressing rooms, laundry and the RST control room. Stepping into the theatre’s flight deck afforded an initial spine-tingling glimpse of RST from high up. While the guide explained the properties of the sound and light desks, I stared through the glass at the auditorium beyond.

Next stop on the tour was the renovated Swan. This looks just the same as before apart from some new carpet.

Not being booked in to see a performance in the main house, the highlight of the whole tour for me was the brief period spent in the RST circle. The theatre was being used by a choir rehearsing for a performance later that evening of Handel’s Messiah. So our tour party snuck into the circle during a pause and sat there for a few minutes.

The new RST theatre has an almost magical sense of solidity to it. This has something to do with it being housed within a substantial brick structure. The auditorium is reached by passing through a well-appointed building that exudes strength and permanence. These characteristics affect perceptions of the interior performance space. The Courtyard, by contrast, always felt that if hit with a hammer it would clang like a metal bucket.

The sight of the exposed brickwork of the original RST proscenium arch at the back of the thrust stage provides not only a sense of the history of the building, but also reinforces the sturdy feel of the structure. The interior brick is a subtle reminder of the exterior masonry.

The theatre feels like a chunky version of Courtyard. It appears to have a shorter, squarer thrust stage, something I was able to verify afterwards from the press pack which reliably informs us that the RST stage is 26cm shorter and 20cm narrower than its prototype. This makes it seem less like a diving board.

I looked down with anticipation onto the stalls seats I have booked in row G for future performances.

A visit to the new complex would not have been complete without an ascent to the top of the viewing tower. And at the members’ price of just £1, it was very good value for money. The views were excellent, even at dusk when I went up. But the trip up there is probably something that regular visitors would only want to do once or twice.

The tower provides excellent vistas to the south, east and west. However the north aspect is where the tower steps lead down and practical viewing in that direction is limited to two small narrow windows either side of the flight of steps. The staircase inside the tower displays large photographs of actors from previous RSC productions.

Another benefit provided by the tower is that the building now looks very good when seen from the Tramway footbridge over the Avon. The best time to photograph it from that position is in the morning when the sun is in the east and shines onto the river-facing side of building.

But despite the attention being paid to the renovated building, the theatres are there primarily to facilitate the enjoyment of the plays. The success of the new complex will be gauged by the extent to which it slips self-effacingly into the background while enhancing our experience of the RSC’s productions.

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