David Ward, Writer
The shape of things to come
Now at last it's beginning to look like a theatre again. A very different theatre from the familiar old fan-shaped RST; but still a theatre. And an exciting one.
Many Stratford old hands, playgoers, actors and RSC staff, were shocked when the builders' big kit took over the site and started chewing great lumps out of the riverside café and then flattened most of the high wall facing Waterside. Some, it's said, wept with anguish when they saw the emptiness between the famous foyer, propped up with blue steel girders, and the fly tower.
"We have taken endless parties round and quite a few people were upset when they saw us deconstructing it," said Jim Gillespie, senior construction manager for Mace, the company that manages the Transformation project. "Those people have since come back on open days and been pleasantly surprised. Now they can understand what it is all about. The RSC has done a lot to explain the scheme but actually seeing it and touching it makes a difference."
Now there is a lot to see: a concrete semi-circle has risen to about the old proscenium arch and embrace a thrust stage. Now you can see where you might sit and the best stimulus to imagination is to stand at the centre of what will be the second circle – the cheapest seats – and look down on a compact one-room playhouse. Stand long enough and you start to see the strutting and fretting to come; you understand the essential Courtyardness of the new auditorium.
That stage, confides Gillespie, has caused the biggest headache so far. Not so much the stage as the space below it. It's all the Avon's fault. "Because we are sitting on a very high water table, we had horrendous problems with water. Below the stage is a concrete pit that goes down eight metres below ground level." Interlocking vertical piles have been sunk to create a watertight barrier in front of which concrete walls have been built. At the bottom of the stage pit, Gillespie and his team have laid a floor of concrete 1.8m thick to keep the river where it should be rather than seeping into, say, act five of King Lear, though it might be useful for Cleopatra's barge.
While Gillespie and his team wait for the pit's walls to harden, three pumps run night and day, occupying what will eventually be some of the best seats in the stalls. No water goes into the river but runs instead into a settlement tank and then into a nearby sewer. "It's crystal clear,'' added Gillespie. "We could have bottled it and made some money for the RSC."
Once the concrete walls have fully set, the pumps will be switched off. "We'll keep our fingers crossed. I have a £10 bet with the architects that we have got the space watertight."
Meanwhile the huge roof trusses have been lowered into place, the landmark tower is rising outside and will become the theatre's main entrance and the whole scheme is on schedule. "You are always going to get problems when you are trying to tie in old with new,'' said Gillespie.
One problem becomes obvious during a quick tour of the site on a grim day when the muddy Avon has spilled over on to the recreation ground. "We found some lovely brickwork behind the terrace café which we have to restore. The brickwork on the original building was well done but the people who built the restaurant took no care at all. They just bashed things about to make them fit."
The elegant decoration above the doors was carelessly battered; other vertical sections resemble cruel wounds that clearly distress Gillespie as he touches them with sad fingers. But he has already overseen some cautious repairs, with gashes patched with new bricks hand-made in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, to match those used in Elisabeth Scott's original building. They are glued together with new mortar produced after a forensic analysis of the stuff used 70 years ago.
There are many eyes for detail operating on this job and much thought has gone into the bricks. Many, both whole and broken, have been rescued from demolished walls and kept for repairs that will not be too difficult to spot: no one wants history to be hidden in a wall too pristinely perfect.
Thousands of new bricks laid by up to 50 skilled brickies will go into a new internal wall running all the way along the Avon side and round to stage left on Waterside. "It's barefaced brickworks and those who do it will have to be very skilled because it's not straight,'' says Gillespie.
Those new bricks will also clad the tapering tower to link it stylistically to the original building. It will suggest continuity while giving a clear and elegant pointer to new visitors in search of the theatre. Once they have found their way, those visitors can walk or take the lift to an observation tower offering views towards the Costwolds and the Vale of Evesham.
But it's not finished yet and nor is the roof, although the new ochre-coloured trusses look reassuringly solid and confident. "They are 30m long, weigh 30 tonnes and there are four bolts at each end. They first went on without any pushing or banging – it just slipped on. The rest of the steel work has gone in place in much the same way. Now we're ready for topping out."
Juneanne Hartley, site engineer for subcontractors John Doyle Construction, was responsible for seeing that the mighty cranes on the site dropped the trusses in the right place. "It was my job to set out everything for the substructure and superstructure according to the drawings,'' she explains.
Any anxious moments of stress, nightmares about dropping monstrous lengths of steel into the river? "I've had no sleepless nights. I've done many very large jobs – the Birmingham Bull Ring was one. The attention to detail here has to be just as strict as anywhere else and a vast amount of checking is done. It's one of the most interesting jobs I've had.
"I enjoy seeing everything coming together, even when I am not involved in that part of the project. It will be good to come and see it when it's finished. I'd never been to the old theatre but I want to see a play at this one."
Hartley will be off on another job by Christmas. But Gillespie is barely half-way through his stint and will stay till the summer of 2010. He lives in Essex but spends four nights a week in Stratford. With years of experience, there's not much that he doesn't know about construction projects. But this one is different.
"I think people on the site regard this as something special, a one-off. They are never going to do anything like this again. And I've never done a theatre before. It's fantastic. The RSC are the nicest bunch of people I have ever worked for. They have made me very welcome."