408 years after The Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company finds it’s a pretty good template for its new theatres. What took them so long?

Once upon a time, the Royal Shakespeare Company built itself a theatre and it turned out to be a bit of a dog. That was in 1932, and the lumbering Stratford-upon-Avon playhouse has been a problem for actors and audiences ever since. It is even possible that the much-spoofed declamatory Shakespearian style of old was perpetuated by actors desperate to fill its Odeon-sized spaces. Well, now the RSC is going to rebuild it. And to make sure they don’t get it wrong again, they have built a full-size working prototype.

No, really. The RSC has just unveiled its first thoughts on how to gut the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) and drop a new 1,000-seat roaring circle of a Shakespearian thrust-stage theatre into the hole, so bringing actors and audience into close proximity with each other. Will those drawings work? We’ll know soon enough because just down the road a big new, deliberately rusty metal box contains a secret weapon: a real, working 1,000-seat three-tier, intimate auditorium that opens for business next month. This is the new temporary Courtyard Theatre.

This way the new permanent house will be more thoroughly rehearsed than any production. We can all compare and contrast, because the RST is being kept open along with the new one for the two-year duration of the “complete works” Bardathon. After which, the accumulated knowledge of what a Shakespearian theatre should be, right at the heart of the Shakespeare industry, will be transferred back up the road and set in steel. It is just a bit reminiscent of the way actor-manager Richard Burbage dismantled his father’s original “Theatre” at Shoreditch in 1598 – with Shakespeare’s help, legend has it – and took the pieces south of the river to help build the Globe.

What other group of strolling players could pull off a very expensive stunt like this? Today’s cost is £100m all in, which includes £6m for the temporary theatre. It is the last of the great cultural Lottery projects. Moreover, what other theatrical troupe would have the nerve to open a brand new venue not with a crowd-pleasing favourite, nor with any of its established Hollywood-friendly stars, but with the demanding Henry VI trilogy, and relative newcomer Chuk Iwuji in the title role? This, it seems, is the template of Michael Boyd’s RSC. For him, the ensemble is the thing. An ensemble system now operates on the design side, too.

The Courtyard is designed by architect Ian Ritchie, while the design for the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre is by Bennetts Associates, known for the far tinier new Hampstead Theatre in London. Both architects are working with theatre technical consultants Charcoalblue. The RSC’s executive director is Vikki Heywood, who oversaw the highly successful transformation of the Royal Court in London. So there is a lot of feedback happening all round. Outside their relative auditoria, however, the two designs could not be more different.

The former artistic director Adrian Noble had wanted to demolish and rebuild the RSC at Stratford using a Dutch star architect, Erick van Egeraat. That plan failed. Architect Elisabeth Scott’s relentlessly bricky 1932 theatre was dubbed the “jam factory” when opened. Composer Edward Elgar described it as “that distressing, vulgar, and abominable building”. But it had enough Deco details in it – especially its cramped foyer and staircase – to bring the preservationist lobby out in force once it came under threat. I think Noble was right: it would have been much better to get rid of the thing and start again.

Backstage in particular, conditions are terrible. Front of house is ludicrously cramped. And everybody knows that the auditorium in between is rubbish. So it should be a no-brainer. But starting from scratch is not the English way. We have a make-do-and-mend culture. We like to spend lots of money doing insanely complex things with old buildings – and try not to show it. Thus the ugly carcase of the 1932 playhouse must remain while fundamental rebuilding goes on in and around it.

Ritchie’s Courtyard is a simple (but artful) metal box dropped like some jumbo shipping container right next to the RSC’s existing studio theatre, The Other Place or TOP. TOP has been transformed into the Courtyard’s combined front and back of house, provides all the bars and toilets and dressing rooms that a theatre needs. Once the Courtyard closes, probably in 2010, TOP will revert to being a studio theatre again. All clear so far?

Ritchie selected Cor-Ten steel – the sort that deliberately rusts without going into holes – to clad the Courtyard. This sounds strange until you see it in context. The weathered old bricks and timbers of Stratford coalesce into a russet brown. Ritchie’s rapidly-darkening rusted steel does exactly the same. His metal box is deeply ribbed, as functional as sheet piling. There are no architectural flourishes. It’s all to do with the interior, and this feels very good indeed, with the thrust stage coming right out into the centre of the intimate stacked circle of seating. After much experimentation, the stage dimensions turned out to be remarkably similar to the Rose Theatre, the Globe’s Elizabethan precursor on Bankside. Moreover, Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part One, was performed there. Uncanny, eh?

It does not feel remotely temporary inside. It is solid, well insulated and ventilated, lined with light plywood, with comfortable red-fabric seats. Slender steel columns support the upper levels of seating. There’s nothing second-rate about it. And the viewing distance from the furthest seat to the stage is half as far as in the current main theatre. I sat in the equivalent seat in both theatres and the improvement is enormous. You’ll feel physically involved, sharing the same room with the actors.

Now for the RST. Since knocking down this pig of a place is seemingly now out of the question, what to do? In redesigning this main house, architects Rab Bennetts and Simon Erridge have performed heroically. They have actually managed to make sense of the place. By pulling the stage forward into what is a smaller, tighter auditorium, they will make more backstage space. Because the new auditorium will be broadly circular, that frees up the corners of the old room to make more audience spill-out areas. They have found a way to combine the foyers of the main theatre and the Swan for the first time, with a shallow extension on the north side. They will make more space up on the roof. They will clear away the clutter along the riverbank. And – in search of a 21st century touch, as Bennetts cheerfully admits – they want to add a romantically pragmatic viewing tower to the north-east corner by a new entrance. At 108 feet, this is around the same as the long-vanished campanile of the Victorian theatre now housing the Swan. It went after the fire that gutted that building in 1926.

This is a clever move. Stratford is all about places associated with Shakespeare, yet for 80 years there has been nowhere you can see them all from. Meanwhile most of the tourists who come to Stratford – wall-to-wall Americans and Japanese, mostly – never visit the theatre, which turns its back on the town. With the viewing tower, the theatre becomes part of the tourist trail. It’s great. Please don’t let the spoilsports cut it out on grounds of cost. Over the years it will spin money and goodwill for the RSC.

All of which is very interesting in design terms, but what does it mean for the actors who will entertain us? As the player who has to kick all this off as Henry VI, the Nigerian-born, American-educated Chuk Iwuji bears a heavy responsibity. But he’s been to inspect the Courtyard, and he’s happy. “When we walked into it for the first time, there was an audible gasp,” he says. “It’s so high, like a cathedral of theatre, but then you notice how close the audience is. The space is big, but they’re right there. In something like Anthony and Cleopatra, you have this sweeping epic, but it’s also very domestic. That’s the impression I get of that place. It’s a perfect example of marrying the epic with the domestic and the personal.”

Iwuji, now 31, wants to play Anthony one day, also of course Hamlet, and more unusually Petruchio, tamer of the Shrew, as a change from the heavy roles. He, like the Courtyard, is the face of Boyd’s new RSC. We’ll be seeing a new generation of stars emerging from the new place. And with any luck, they won’t have to shout so loud as the old guard.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. Drawing of proposed remodelled Royal Shakespeare Theatre courtesy of Bennetts Associates. First published in The Sunday Times, June 18 2006, as “RSC puts its house in order”.

Chronology of existing RSC Theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) built 1928-1932 and much tinkered with since; the much smaller Swan theatre adjoining it, opened in 1986 but built in the previously burnt-out shell of the original Victorian-gothic Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879; The Other Place (TOP), studio theatre down the road dating from 1974, rebuilt 1990; and now (2006-2010) the large temporary Courtyard Theatre alongside and absorbing TOP.

Links

2001 RSC article: http://www.hughpearman.com/articles2/stratford.html
Ian Ritchie architects: http://www.ianritchiearchitects.co.uk
Bennetts Associates architects: http://www.bennettsassociates.com
Royal Shakespeare Company: http://www.rsc.org.uk