Since it was built in 1932, the existing Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been regarded as fundamentally flawed - a two-room theatre (rather than the one-room space for which Shakespeare wrote) that owes more to cinema design of the period than other theatre buildings. Over the years, the existing proscenium stage and auditorium have been altered in attempts to bring audience and cast closer together, but the theatre is still regarded - by, says the RSC, theatregoers, actors and directors alike - as problematic.
The RST is historical for both theatrical and architectural reasons. Remarkably for the era, it was designed by a woman architect, Elizabeth Scott, and is meant to resemble an ocean liner on the Avon river. Of course, as the home of the RSC, it has also been the scene of many great performers (including Laurence Olivier, Robert Stephens and Peggy Ashcroft) and legendary productions.
Designed by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat, the rebuilt theatre village will, according to the RSC, be "the most significant new theatre building of the new century", with the ambition to be one of the best modern playhouses for Shakespeare in the world. The Arts Council has earmarked a total of £50 million for the project, with a matching £50 million to be raised by the RSC itself. The current redevelopment schedule will see design ideas completed by summer 2002 with completion of the work by 2008.
Work will be done on a rotational basis on the three existing Stratford theatres - the RST, the Swan and the Other Place - so that the RSC will continue performing throughout, with at least two Stratford theatres open at any one time.
The key elements of the new Stratford theatre village will include: a new 1,050-seat RST with adaptable auditorium, improved audience and backstage facilities and more offices for administration; new backstage facilities and refurbishment of public areas at the Swan; an extension for the Other Place, incorporating a film and video recording suite; and creation of teaching and support facilities for the planned RSC academy.
Commenting on the plans, RSC artistic director Adrian Noble said: "If we are serious about turning a new generation of people onto theatre and Shakespeare, then we need to create new 'ways in' to the experience. Making our theatres more accessible, more welcoming and more lively throughout the day is a crucial part of the mix."
He continued: "The idea that people will be able to engage with the RSC throughout the day is incredibly exciting. I love the idea that people could arrive in the morning, take part in an education programme, have lunch in a fantastic restaurant, visit a costume exhibition, join a fight or voice workshop, and then in the evening see a show.
- by Terri Paddock