Construction work begins
We stroll across the tramway bridge in the autumn sun, glance left across the Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and our jaws drop: an aggressive machine is biting chunks out of what was the RSC's busy riverside café.
So now it's happening: after all the talk, the plans, the models, the council meetings, the reconstruction of the RST is under way. There is no going back.
As we reach the Bancroft Gardens, we can see this is a serious project from the sheer bulk of the three-storey temporary office complex housing the contractors. The whole site has been enclosed by high red hoardings bearing pictures of Ian McKellen in King Lear, Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra and Tamsin Greig in Much Ado About Nothing.
They proclaim that the RSC is still in business down the road at The Courtyard Theatre and that actors will be back in the RST in 2010 once it has been converted to a 1000-seat, one-room, thrust-stage auditorium. The Company claims it will be the best Shakespeare playhouse in the world.
We walk on and our jaws drop again: there is a huge three-storey gash in the familiar theatre wall facing Waterside. It looks as if Stratford has suffered some appalling localised earthquake. Soon a monster 125-tonne super-chewer will arrive and begin chomping its way from here right through the building to the riverside terrace to provide a new through route to the Avon.
Everything to the left of the crack will also be demolished: windows (including those in the former office of the RSC's Executive Director Vikki Heywood) hang open, several now without glass. A forgotten chair loiters in an empty room.
Hard hats on heads, we make our way into the site and look at the glazed entrance to the theatre. It looks wan and empty, missing the people who hid its tattiness.
We walk into the foyer, from which most of the Art Deco detail has been stripped and stored. The clock has stopped at twelve minutes past twelve and the door frames and box office have been carefully protected with plywood boards and the elegant staircase (one of the RST's gems) has been sealed, sent to sleep until rebuilding is complete.
"When we removed all the clutter – the poster panels and the ice cream freezer - from the foyer, it looked wonderful,'' said Simon Harper, Deputy Project Director for the RSC's £112.8m Transformation project. "It's really exciting to think that we will be returning it to its original condition."
We move from the foyer to the back of the auditorium. But today there are no ushers, no playgoers. And no seats: they all went in what's called the "soft strip". The tiers on which the seats were anchored remain but the side balconies have been reduced to their bare timber supports. The bare brick wall at the back of the stage has been revealed and the stage itself is no more than a steel skeleton on which only a well-balanced Hamlet would survive. It's an eerie scene that would tempt directors who fancy what they call found spaces: perfect for a grunge Macbeth, perhaps.
The main brick walls remain to left and right but the monster muncher will soon devour them to create the space in which the new auditorium will take shape.
Safety barriers prevent us playing out our own fantasy scene so we go back to the foyer and into the desolate bar, with not a gin and tonic or glass of red in sight. The café, with a hole in its ceiling, is just as bleak, waiting resignedly for the end.
We climb the narrow stairs leading to the circle bar and pass the gents' toilet, intact except for the wall separating the cubicles. The circle bar is empty and its carpet has seen more glamorous days; but eventually the bar will be restored to original glory and a new bridge will lead from here over a void into the new auditorium.
We pass into what was Quarto's restaurant, where a mini-muncher starts up and prepares to continue its destructive journey through a once sophisticated dining room. It will eventually shove its debris down into the café below.
The drills are starting up after a break and the dust is starting to fly. Time to hand in the hard hat and head for the RSC's new offices over the road in the former Union Club in Chapel Lane.
Refurbished and extended to designs by Bennetts Associates, architects for the Transformation project, the open-plan spaces bring together all staff, including those whose offices in the RST are about to be demolished. This is another important piece in the rebuilding jigsaw.
Michael Boyd, the Company's artistic director, has an inspiring view of the garden of New Place and a nearby convenient balcony on which to linger on balmy Stratford days. At the other end of the building, Vikki Heywood can keep an eye on the RST's transformation from her own balcony.
Harper sinks into one of the chairs rescued from the theatre café and explains, with some relief, that the project is still on time and on budget. He also admits that some of his private fears have not been realised: "We were warned about what we might find when we started digging below the auditorium floor so we brought in a drilling rig and worked 24 hours a day for five days to take sample cores. We now know where the water level is.''
Apart from finding new pockets of asbestos, there have been no nasty surprises. So far. And Harper has no regrets about bashing about a much-loved building: "I have no sentimental feelings about it. We are keeping the bits that we like and that are lovely."
We go back out to imagine where the new theatre tower will stand. Following tweaks to the design since the original planning permission was granted in April, it should now be more slender, but still offer grand views over the river, the town and beyond.
We also take another look at that big crack and hope that the contractors who bashed all those bricks away know what they are doing. We are told that a sophisticated monitoring device, fixed by a window outside the circle bar, will give a warning of the merest hint of movement. This is reassuring. We think.