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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
A THUMPING SUCCESS
at Stratford upon Avon

THE NEW ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium with audience/ Ph: Peter Cook.

The re-built and refurbished Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was officially opened by the queen on March 4 and unanimously acclaimed as a thumping success by the critics one week later. The three-and-a-half year construction project, completed on time and virtually on budget (£112m, £50m provided by the Arts Council), marks an important development in the life of the Royal Shakespeare Company, founded by Peter Hall in 1960 and operating, since then, in both Stratford and London.
 
Although the doors have been open to the public since last November, the new theatre swung into full operation mode with the first previews of last season’s revivals of King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, directed, respectively, by RSC associates David Farr and Rupert Goold, both reviewed at the Courtyard and in London at the company’s new base in the capital, the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, Camden Town. With the refurbished Swan in Stratford (which opened in 1986) tacked on ever more closely – with shared foyer and backstage areas – the RSC is now fully committed to a thrust stage aesthetic, greater intimacy and the “shared space” ideology of the Greek and Elizabethan theatres.
 
This must restrict presentation and design options, and perhaps drive towards a boringly one-style, swivel-around company, though acting with the audience bearing down on you on three sides requires, I’m told, much higher degrees of concentration and intensity. But, as King Lear demonstrated in the new 1000-seater auditorium (the seats are red, hard, but comfortable), the switches between declamatory speeches and meditative poetry, so distinctive and prevalent in Shakespeare, are much more smoothly negotiated.
 
It’s a steep, exciting new space, much like the temporary Courtyard across the road (on the site of the old Other Space tin hut venue where Ben Kingsley played Hamlet), the company’s Stratford home these past three seasons, but more compact and dramatic. The platform stage extends through the stalls level on two jetties, and the old brickwork proscenium allows for a minimum of scenic design or a gateway to a deep, continuing hinterland whence Mercade might arrive bearing bad news in Love’s Labour’s Lost, or Puck return from putting his girdle round the earth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
 
One of the remarkable aspects of this re-build is the extent to which the new theatre retains, and indeed highlights, the wonderful Victorian and Art Deco decoration of Elisabeth Smart’s 1932 building, affectionately known locally as “the jam factory,” itself a replacement for the 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre which was destroyed in a fire.
 
The green marble and silver foyer is now Scott’s Bar, with discreet low-level lighting and the old Art Deco silver box-office hoisted halfway up a wall, where it sticks like a showcase kiosk. There’s a new box office and bookshop, a new glass entrance area, and a rooftop restaurant with spectacular views across the Warwickshire gardens and fields.
 
It will take time, perhaps, to get used to a strange brick tower on the street outside that provides vertical circulation within the rest of the building and views of four counties at the top. The old car park has made way for a new public play and display area, and the riverside cafe gives straight onto the Avon and a new walkway linking the theatre through to the Bancroft Gardens, the brass rubbing monument and Holy Trinity Church, where the Bard is buri

 


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