The first productions in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) – after an “on time and on budget”, four-year, £112.8 million redevelopment (albeit with £5 million still to be raised) – will be reprisals of King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, directed by Royal Shakespeare Company associate directors David Farr and Rupert Goold respectively and performed by the current ensemble.

Reopening schedule

These will run in rep from February 2011 – King Lear from 23 February to 2 April, joined by Romeo and Juliet from 3 March – ahead of a full-scale relaunch with the RSC’s 50th birthday celebrations from April. The full anniversary season will be announced in November 2010, but it will include two ensemble companies performing both a major Shakespeare repertoire as well as a review of “50 years of RSC commissions”, with Peter Flannery’s Singer, Marat/Sade and various Harold Pinter plays amongst the plays being considered for revival.

The refurbished Swan Theatre (with improved ventilation and newly upholstered seats) will reopen, at the same time as the RST, with Michael Boyd's production of Antony and Cleopatra and Young People’s Shakespeare productions of Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors. All five of these existing productions, currently running in the temporary Courtyard Theatre (the RSC’s sole performance space in Stratford over the past few years), return to the RSC home base after a winter season at London’s Roundhouse.

At a press conference held in London today, RSC artistic director Michael Boyd explained that, having consulted other similar capital building projects, the decision to open the RST with familiar work was a very conscious one, taken in order to fully test the auditorium and backstage facilities.

In the Swan, the opening programme will be completed by two premiere works: a new version of The Tempest created by Little Angel Theatre, directed by their artistic director, Peter Glanville; and performance workshops of Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece, an RSC Studio production, directed by Elizabeth Freestone and including sung text by sultry chanteuse and Edinburgh Fringe institution Camille O'Sullivan and music by Feargal Murray.

Following their return dates in Stratford, the current ensemble will also premiere three new plays at London’s Hampstead Theatre in April 2011 and take their repertoire to New York in July (see today’s Other News).

New facilities, old dreams

Ahead of the performance schedule, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will open to the public from 24 November 2010, with visitors invited to explore the building, which will have a brand-new 1,000-seat thrust stage auditorium, wrapping the audience around three sides; 36-metre high tower; new exhibition spaces; a new rooftop restaurant and riverside cafe; restored 1930s features; and improved public areas (not least 47 ladies’ loos, up from just 17). During the four-month reopening period, there will also be a series of special tours, talks and other preview events on offer to acquaint theatregoers with the new facilities and to honour the theatre’s past.

Speaking today, Boyd said it “feels slightly dreamlike” to finally be able to say that the RST will reopen in two-and-a-half months, a full six years after one of the first site planning visits. Throughout, the management and architects have been driven by the ambition to achieve “a miraculous marriage of the epic and the intimate” in what had traditionally been a difficult and cavernous space (with the furthest seat a full 37 metres away from the stage – one of the auditorium’s old seats still marks the spot, in what is now the new building’s restaurant). “I hate hyperbole,” said Boyd, but the result will be “the best auditorium for performing Shakespeare anywhere in the world”.

Battening down the hatches

Despite the good news, the spectre of swingeing arts cuts – expected to be 25-30% and due to be confirmed by the chancellor next month – loomed over today’s press briefing. “We are aware that we are a paradox, expanding as the rest of the world is shrinking,” said Boyd. But, while the RSC unveils a new building that will be more expensive to run (amongst other new duties, all catering will be taken in-house, adding 70 staff to overheads) and returns to a broader repertoire across multiple, permanent theatres, the artistic director assured journalists that the company is also taking all necessary austerity measures.

Wages and appointments within the company have been frozen “in a cautious response to a storm we know is coming. We’re already battening down our hatches at the same time as we’re unfurling our sails,” with the new RST, said Boyd.

A necessary byproduct of that austerity for the RSC may be the indefinite postponement of securing a permanent London home, which the company has not had since withdrawing from the Barbican in 2002. Boyd has previously said that finding a London home would be the priority once the Stratford-upon-Avon redevelopment was complete. Though he and RSC executive director Vikki Heywood today said that that remains the aim, they were unable to commit to any timescales and said they would wait until to Chancellor’s official Budget announcements to speculate further.

Annual report

The RSC also presents its Annual Report for the 2009/2010 financial, ended on 31 March 2009, to its Annual General Meeting in Stratford this afternoon.

While net inflow during the year was a significant £29.2 million, £23.5 million of that related solely to the Transformation Project of the Stratford Theatres. Net income included the annual grant of £15.6 million from the Arts Council; £8.6 million from box office receipts for 15 productions and theatre operations in Stratford, Newcastle, London and on tour (down £1.5 million on the exceptionally strong year before that included the David Tennant Hamlet and The Histories cycle) and £1.8 million from sponsorship and donations (under pressure due to the recession and the competing focus on Transformation).

Of the “well controlled” overall operating expenditure of £30 million, £26.7 million was spent on productions and theatre operations. The RSC ended the year with a surplus of £0.5 million.

Boyd said today that, in his opinion, the Annual Report headline is that the company has remained so “noisy” with activity despite a reduced performance repertoire. He paid particular credit to the work of the Education department as a creative powerhouse that has not only given greater arts access and understanding to children but also influenced government policy.