Interview with David Ward
Those numbingly uncomfortable seats up in the balcony at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre may well have put generations of school students off the plays (especially an uncut Hamlet) for life. But soon they will be no more, doomed to be swept away in the remodelling of the auditorium which begins next year.
By the time the theatre reopens in 2010 after a £100m Stratford make-over, Elisabeth Scott’s 1932, fan-shaped, cinema-influenced auditorium which directors have moaned about for 70 years will be replaced by a more comfortable, more democratic space modelled on the courtyards Shakespeare knew.
Those balcony seats were 30m from the stage. “It was like trying to act from Dover to Calais’, said Sir Christopher Bland, Chairman of the RSC’s board, when plans for the reshaping were unveiled at the Royal Institute of British Architects’ elegant London base in June. The most distant seat in the new RST will be just 15 metres from the action. “Crudely, the auditorium brings the audience closer to the actors so that you can see right up their nostrils and the particular shape of their eye muscles," said Michael Boyd, the RSC’s Artistic Director.
The drawings (exterior sketches; nicely drawn swans gliding on the Avon) in the press pack handed out that day at first gave no real indication of how radical this revamp, the work of architects Bennetts Associates in association with consultants Charcoalblue, will be. “Shakespeare wrote for an ensemble of actors sharing one room with the audience," added Boyd. It was, he added, a true meeting place between those who came to play their parts and those who came to watch.
Think Swan, but much bigger. Think Courtyard, the RSC’s new temporary steel-shed theatre that has turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the new RST: thrust stage, wrap-around stalls, two galleries; 1,030 seats, grouped in blocks of about 200, instead of 1,350 (losing those horrors in the gallery which have become increasingly difficult to sell).
Boyd came to RIBA just three days after the first audience had tried out The Courtyard, where he was preparing to open his productions of the three parts of Henry VI. He described that night as thrilling, probably because it had given him a glimpse of the new-look auditorium that will soon, if Stratford’s planners approve, be created across the road.
“Actors were scared of the old RST," he said. “But artists are now queuing at the stage door to work in the new space.” Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn have already signed up and will be working together in The Courtyard next spring. They had wanted to do Lear in the intimate atmosphere of the Swan. But Boyd said he showed them the model of The Courtyard and they were won over by the prospect of a close relationship with the audience.
The RST’s remodelling will not be confined to the auditorium. The existing Art Deco foyer and fountain staircase will remain but much else will change. Consultations before design work began suggested that people wanted a building that “reflects the magic that happens inside it”, “a landmark instantly recognisable the world over”, “something Stratford can be proud of” but with better links to the town.
Some might have preferred the RSC to flatten the 1932 building and start again. But that was not in the brief. So Bennetts set to work. “Our approach was to strip away the additions to the original building and show the façade that lies beneath," said Simon Erridge, Bennetts’ associate director.
Gradually the sketches in the press pack began to make sense: the riverside café, which was added to the original building, has disappeared; a drum-like shape has popped up through the roof; a tower has appeared on Waterside. Rab Bennetts explained that the café/restaurant would be up in that drum of the roof, leaving space at ground level for a public riverside walkway that will take strollers past the theatre, into the Bancroft Gardens, past the chain ferry and towards Holy Trinity.
A new foyer serving both the RST and the Swan will be built on Waterside, with new loos (for which women will be profoundly grateful), one box office serving both theatres, and a through route to the Avon. The tower, 33 metres high, will shout in a discreet way to tell visitors where to find the RSC. It will be at one end of new square that can be used for events and performances and will offer views over Shakespeare’s Stratford and towards the Vale of Evesham. With this change of alignment, the theatre will reach out to the people of Stratford and the town’s 3 million visitors, some of whom may have been put off by an entrance which hardly bellows, “Come in – you’re welcome”.
About £85m has been raised so far, much of it from Arts Council England and Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. Judi Dench has signed up to join Susie Sainsbury, Deputy Chairman on the RSC board, in the appeal for the missing millions.
The RST closes in its present form in April 2007 and the Swan follows four months later. Both reopen in spring 2010.
“The RST will be the best modern playhouse for Shakespeare in the world," claimed Vikki Heywood, the RSC's Executive Director, at the press launch.
“It will be a much more welcoming environment, drawing people into the building, whether they are coming for plays or not.”