After three years and more than £1.1 million worth of consultation, the Royal Shakespeare Company has finally officially scrapped plans to demolish its Grade II-listed Royal Shakespeare Theatre (See The Goss, 14 Sep 2004).

Instead, as part of a new £100 million redevelopment plan, a new, more intimate thrust-stage auditorium will be created within the existing 1932 riverside building. Work is due to begin in spring 2007, after the year-long Complete Works of Shakespeare Festival (See News, 14 Sep 2004). The decision, approved at a meeting of the RSC’s Board of Directors this morning, will be communicated to the rest of the company at a meeting at 4.30pm today.

Former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble caused a public uproar when he announced the demolition of the RST (pictured) in favour of a 21st-century “waterfront theatre village” (See News, 18 Oct 2001). The controversy surrounding that and his decision to withdraw the company from its London residency at the Barbican Centre eventually led to his resignation in April 2002 (See News, 24 Apr 2002). Since succeeding Noble in April 2003 (See News, 31 Mar 2003), Michael Boyd has been dealing with the consequences of Noble’s company changes, almost all of which have now been overturned.

The new 1,000-seat RST auditorium will be a ‘one room’ theatre where the stage thrusts into the audience with theatregoers seated around. Once redesigned, the distance from the furthest seat to the stage will be reduced from the current 27 metres to between 14 and 16 metres.

Boyd’s £100 million plan includes expansion of both front of house (more disabled access, bar, restaurants, toilet and exhibition space) and backstage facilities (improved dressing rooms, technical and support areas). The Swan and The Other Place theatres will be retained, and a new dedicated space for the company’s educational activity will be created. Throughout the construction period, the RSC will continue to perform in Stratford.

Commenting today on the revised RST approach, Boyd said: “Most major new theatres of the last century have moved away from the ‘us and them’ of the 19th-century proscenium ‘picture frame’ in search of spaces which celebrate the interaction cinema can’t achieve. Our commitment to bring an immediacy and clarity to Shakespeare means we need to bring the audience to a more engaged relationship with our actors. The best way we can achieve this is in a bold, thrust, one-room auditorium – a modern take on the courtyard theatres of Shakespeare’s day. Actors, directors and audiences alike want a more intimate experience than the current RST can offer.”

Support for new redevelopment

The RSC will soon launch the search for the project’s architect, for whom the brief will include preservation and restoration of the key heritage elements of the 1932 building, including the art deco façade, foyers and ‘fountain staircase’ which links the stalls and circle bars. The Victorian gothic exterior of the former 1879 Memorial Theatre – partially destroyed by fire in 1926 – will also be preserved and restored.

The new plan has been supported by many historians, performers and others who previously attacked Noble’s demolition plans. Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage said: “The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is an iconic building and draws audiences and actors from around the world. Yet it has long been acknowledged that the theatre has many shortcomings and fails to meet the expectations of today’s increasingly sophisticated audiences. We are delighted that the RSC is going to refurbish the 1932 theatre in a way which will see its outstanding art deco interiors retained. We believe there is great scope for upgrading the historic building while maintaining its special character.”

RSC Honorary Associate Artist, Dame Judi Dench also lent her “full support” for the “spectacular idea”. She said: “As someone who has played all the RSC theatres, it seems to me that what the company has now found is a brilliant way of retaining the original building while constructing a new theatre inside it which will work wonderfully for actors and audiences alike.”

Chairman of the RSC Board, Sir Christopher Bland added: “The RSC will now apply to Arts Council England and Advantage West Midlands for financial support for the design phase. This project has been on a long and valuable journey. What’s always been clear is the need for a new main stage in Stratford. I’m confident now that we have a plan that will work for both audiences and artists.”

Michael Boyd has promised that, once the Stratford redevelopment was decided, the company would concentrate more fully on reversing Noble’s other controversial decision concerning the company’s London presence. He has already announced a 22-week winter residency at the West End’s Albery Theatre for five productions from the Stratford season and vowed that, within the coming years, the RSC will once again have a permanent base in London (See News, 15 Jul 2004).

- by Terri Paddock