Everyone at the RSC breathed a sigh of relief on March 10 2005 when Stratford-on-Avon’s district councillors gave planning permission for the new temporary theatre to be built on the car park at The Other Place.
The building – sometimes known as the 'rusty red shed' but now officially named the Courtyard Theatre – is the key to a transformation of the Company’s riverside home during five of the most exciting years in the history of Shakespeare performance at Stratford.
There had been some local anxieties: would it intrude too much on neighbouring properties? Would the recycled red Corten A steel (from which they also made The Angel of the North) really blend with good Midland brick? Would construction cause local traffic chaos?
In the end, planners and councillors seem to have been swayed by that word 'temporary': they said yes – with the condition that the short-lived playhouse must fade away like Bottom’s dream by the end of March 2010.
Work started on the 1,000-seat Courtyard, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects in Summer 2005 and will be finished in time for the Complete Works Festival staged from April 2006 – April 2007 and when every word Shakespeare wrote will be heard at Stratford, with performances staged in the Swan, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Courtyard.
In 2007, the builders move into the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) to transform the 1932 Art Deco auditorium and the Courtyard becomes the RSC’s principal theatre during the building work . When the new-look RST opens in 2010, the Courtyard will close and The Other Place studio theatre will re-open.
But its role will have been crucial: without it, the whole grand project would be nothing. Hence the first (and only) night nerves as the councillors considered their verdict.
Six weeks later, at the RSC’s Open Day on the Sunday after Shakespeare’s birthday, the people who flock to see the plays had a glimpse of how the inside of the big red shed will look: up in the RST’s Circle Bar sat a large white model of an auditorium with a thrust stage and two upper galleries. “There have been 27 versions of the plan and nine models,’’ said Flip Tanner, who works on the Courtyard Project for the RSC and helped provide the architects with a detailed technical brief. “It’s terribly important to get it right.”
With Tanner, and also wearing an Open Day t-shirt, Tom Piper, the Company’s Associate Designer spent hours soaking up visitors’ comments. “A lot of theatres are designed without consulting the people who are going to use them," said Piper. “We are hoping to create a new holy space here. We are creating more than a municipal hall.”
It’s a fair bet that the revamped RST will have a thrust stage and galleries similar to those in the Courtyard but no detailed designs of the brave new world were on show: Bennetts Associates were appointed in March 2005 and are still thinking. Rab Bennetts, who established the practice with his wife Denise, was enjoying the Open Day sun and events with his children and later in the day was found doing important research at the Dirty Duck.
“We are not daunted," he said on the day his partnership won the RST contract. “The question still to be answered is to what degree the theatre is going to be altered and I don’t necessarily think we will end up ripping it apart.
“We will be examining the building, listening to everybody, talking to interest groups in the town and to the RSC to find out what really is required. It’s a picturesque building but it is not in good shape.
“I went back to the Swan, where you feel part of the same room as the actors. The big question will be the translation of that to a larger size. But the potential is there for something very good indeed.”
Back in the Circle Bar, many visitors who examined the Courtyard model paused to give their thoughts on it and the RST transformation to researchers as part of a public consultation scheme.
When they had done that, many chose to put their ideas in writing on a graffiti wall. “The play’s the thing. The shell doesn’t matter," said one. “Comfy seats: some plays can be hard on the bottom,’’ said another with feeling. “Keep the front door!” pleaded a third. (They will: the foyer and beautiful fountain staircase are listed and thus almost untouchable.)
Some wanted as much of the status quo as possible: “Please don’t modernise too much – the building is beautiful just as it is”; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Others wanted change, for both dramatic and comfort reasons: “How about space for some groundlings at some performances?”; “More leg room, please”; “A few more ladies’ toilets for the interval”.
Most writers had got the message that both Courtyard and RST schemes would go beyond the proscenium arch: someone asked for “an Elizabethan theatre with 21st century facilities”, which seemed a reasonable request; another writer added: “If the new design for the main theatre is so Elizabethan, please costume the plays in Elizabethan dress.’’
Whether this wall now stands permanently in the office of Michael Boyd, the Company’s Artistic Director, is not clear; but its messages will have been relayed to Rab Bennetts and his team.
As young and old expressed themselves in felt tip, Peter Wilson watched, listened, discussed and absorbed. Wilson has been hired from the Tate, where he supervised the transformation of a power station (Bankside) into one of the world’s most visited galleries (Tate Modern), to manage the entire RST project.
“There are not too many problems in the broad sense,’’ he said with reassuring confidence. “People often ask with something like this: ‘How do you do it on time and on budget?’ I tell them: ‘You need enough time and enough money’.”
The trick was to work out what the Company could afford and match expectations to budget. (It sounded easy when he said it.)
He moved on to practicalities based on a study of the RST. “We are talking with structural engineers – if you take out both the proscenium arch and the fly tower, you need to know what will be holding the building up.”
The decision by Stratford’s planners to approve the Courtyard released an £50m grant from Arts Council England, with the cash coming from the nation’s bi-weekly flutters.
”People who come here own this project – it’s their lottery money,’’ added Wilson. “You have to consult. The RSC knows what it wants and why. But what other facilities should the new-look building offer. What do the people want? At the end, people should feel that, although it is not the same, it fits.”
Interviewed in March 2005