Follow-up interview with David Ward
Not so much a wooden O as a rusty steel solid rectangle: the new, temporary Courtyard Theatre has risen with what Shakespeare might call swift celerity on the car park next to The Other Place. There it stands, not beautiful but bold, changing colour like autumn leaves as it weathers in the Warwickshire air, a key element in the transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s riverside home during five of the most exciting years in the history of Shakespeare performance at Stratford.
Up on the Courtyard’s ridged-steel roof, with views towards the Cotswolds and the Vale of Evesham, workmen are completing the insulation to ensure that the gentle rain that droppeth from heaven will not drown King Henry VI and his court when performances begin next July.
Inside, imagination is needed to see a theatre: at present it has the look of a hangar, somewhere you might service a small Boeing; or a factory, somewhere you might make mighty lengths of chain. Not somewhere where words might wing.
Look down and you see a concrete floor, with a wide shallow pit resembling more a swimming pool for short toddlers than the solid foundation for an audience.
Suspend your disbelief, says Simon Harper, the RSC’s Deputy Project Director. Soon the cladding will be fixed to the interior walls and then an auditorium will take shape: thrust stage, two galleries, 1,000 seats. A kind of a tryout for the shape of things to come at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre across Waterside when the builders get to work in 2007.
The Courtyard Theatre, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects, is just a space for drama, a theatre shed. No toilets, bars, shop, box office: those are next door at The Other Place which has selflessly abandoned its own theatrical ambitions to provide the facilities audiences and actors need. Builders are in here too, bolting together and anchoring lengths of white steel to create a double-deck foyer and a two-tier toilet block: plenty of loos for women are promised.
"This is a big fast-moving project," said Harper. "The RSC has to keep on working while remodelling goes ahead at the RST. If we stop, the region loses £58m in revenue in a year."
The Courtyard has risen quickly and will come down almost as fast. This is not a permanent building: it will complement the RST during the 2006 Complete Works festival, when every word Shakespeare wrote will be heard in Stratford.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre site, including the Swan will close in Spring 2007 and the Courtyard Theatre will operate as the RSC's main house until the building work on the RST is complete. And then, like Bottom's most rare vision, it will disappear by March 31 2010 to comply with planning conditions imposed by Stratford-upon-Avon District Council.
Meanwhile, across the road at the RST, the show goes on even as Bennetts Associates consider how to reshape the 1932 fan-shaped auditorium. Their preliminary feasibility study, completed in the autumn, found that a thrust stage and the 1,000 seats on the ground floor and in two galleries, can be fitted between the existing fly tower and the foyer.
This simple-sounding fact is crucial: to demolish and rebuild the fly tower would be prohibitively expensive. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is also listed Grade II* but English Heritage has particular interest in the Art Deco foyer containing the steel, bronze and silver-bronze box office; the beautiful fountain staircase made of Swedish green marble and the original restaurant (on to which has been tacked on additional café bar and restaurant space).
“The RST’s auditorium was built in the age of cinema. It was a picture-book set-up in which audiences would have looked at, say, an impression of castle, a backcloth lowered from the flies,’’ said Flip Tanner, the RSC’s Technical Projects Manager. “Now we are flying in, much further down stage, a bit of a castle or something three-dimensional that suggests a castle.
“Over the last few years, we have been pushing the existing stage out to meet the audience but we cannot go any further because of sightlines.”
This is the latest attempt to bring audience and actors together, a problem that has troubled directors almost since the Royal Shakespeare Theatre opened. William Bridges-Adams, who, as director of the Shakespeare Festival, insisted on a fixed proscenium arch, described the building 20 years later as “the theatre, of all theatres in England, in which it hardest to make an audience laugh or cry”.
The problem has got worse as production styles have changed. “Modern styles are fighting the building as it is now," added Tanner. “It is acting as a straitjacket. The remodelling is about how our generation interprets Shakespeare.
“With the new auditorium, we want to bring actors and audience together in a single room so that actors can have a conversation with the audience.”
He explains all this during a canter backstage at the RST, a maze of straight lines but no curves; narrow corridors, cramped dressing rooms, inadequate storage. He climbs up iron ladders and twists and turns into the cove, directly above the forestage. Nothing much happened here in 1932 but now the cramped space is stuffed with air conditioning around which is deployed the winches and lifting points needed for productions which take the play as close to the audience as it can get. Tanner promises that directors and actors will lose many of their frustrations once a thrust stage is in place.
The change will also be good news for those in the cheap seats: gallery-goers will no longer be exiled to a separate stark entrance round the corner from the foyer. Once in the auditorium they will be no further than 15 metres from the stage, compared with 27 metres now, a distance which turns the most famous actor’s face into a blurred blank.
Bennetts Associates are working on a scheme to create a new foyer on the Waterside façade of the building to serve both the RST and the Swan. It could be approached from a new public square which should offer a more dramatic welcome to both theatres rather than the present shuffle to the RST through a mess of parked cars. Bennetts also promise “better pedestrian connections with the town and river”.
Back in the Courtyard, builders and consultants are playing out their own dramatic scene: should the interior cladding be horizontal or vertical? As in all the best plays, after debate and argument there is a resolution. The verticalists win.
Interviewed in July 2006