Improvisation and informality

In the name of the Rose: rebuilding Shakespeare’s other theatre.

As improbable outcomes go, beat this: an unpromising commercial development in Kingston, south-west London just happens, miraculously, to contain a near-perfect theatre auditorium, based on the plan of the Rose from Elizabethan times. It opens for business in mid January with theatrical eminence grise Sir Peter Hall’s new touring production of Uncle Vanya. But can it become more – become, in fact, Britain’s first true university-linked performing arts academy?

That is the aim. Sir Peter, former director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, is chancellor of Kingston University, and the grand idea is to train up theatre professionals – from actors to designers and stage managers – which can feed two small resident companies in the two auditoria at the new Rose. As he admits, that plan is still at the fundraising stage, and right now, with the Arts Council in full slash-and-burn mode, is not an easy time to get an ambitious new producing house under way. But still…

“It’s to do with the English ability to make things happen by improvisation, and informality,” Sir Peter reflects as he comes to the phone after a long day of rehearsals for Vanya. “Who would have thought that a copy of Shakespeare’s Rose in modern guise would be built at Kingston, just because a group of Kingstonians wanted it? It’s absolutely crazy. If someone had told you that, you’d say – don’t be silly. That’ll never happen.””

Indeed, the Rose – costing some £11m so far – has had a difficult birthing. Ever since the site of the original 1587 theatre on London’s Bankside was discovered in 1989, it has raised awkward questions (What? No thrust stage for those hammy asides?) and suggested possibilities. There have been various plans to recreate it. This was where Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote and performed for impresario Philip Henslowe, as vividly portrayed in the film Shakespeare in Love, scripted by Tom Stoppard. But while the replica open-air theatre of Shakespeare’s later Globe was built with great success (and a similar Rose replica is proposed near Boston, Massachusetts), the Rose in Kingston is a different proposition. For a start, it has a roof. Secondly, it is not historicist – this is clearly a new building. And thirdly, it is not trying to be academically pure. The geometry is a little different from the original.

The local enthusiasts who so vigorously drove the campaign to get it built succeeded in getting a developer of riverside flats to build its shell, finished in 2001. That little planning victory however left only the bare concrete, shoehorned into a very awkward space, with a god-awful 1980s-throwback shopping mall-style façade. Inside, the 13-sided polyhedron of the original Rose becomes what is effectively an 11-sided version, with the angles rounded off. The stage takes the form of what archaeologists surmise was probably the second or third version of several built in a few short years at Henslowe’s playhouse. Above ground level, we’re even more in the realm of conjecture. It’s a matter of getting in two galleries and the technical level before you hit the thick roof slab.

There is no flytower, no back or sidestages, not even a corridor for actors to scoot round the back of the stage. Everything else – the lighting gantries, plant rooms, foyers and bars, studio theatre, dressing rooms, lavatories and an art gallery that found its way into the wish list – had to be crammed in somehow. Getting this done has been the really hard part. As stage designer Alison Chitty – an old accomplice of Peter Hall’s, who he dragooned into helping him on the project – puts it, ” Even six months ago, we didn’t really know if it was going to happen.” Chitty worked with BTH Architects to fit out the shell. The tight budget means that Chitty has had to postpone her design for a system of permeable, moveable walls lining the back of the stage – intended to make behind-the-scenes movement much easier for actors. It also means that Hall is opening with Chekhov because Shakespeare requires a bigger, costlier, cast – though there’s a reduced-cast Asian version of The Tempest coming along in February.

Purists may purse their lips over the accuracy or otherwise of the Rose Kingston, but in theatre it’s not geometry that counts – it’s feel. And this, remarkably, is its strongest suit. What could have been a misbegotten, odd-shaped concrete crate instead generates an intimacy and excitement you’d normally associate with small in-the-round theatres. At over 900 capacity in the main auditorium, Kingston’s Rose is pretty big, but you’re not aware of that.

Both Hall and Chitty say the same thing – they thought the idea was a bit daft until they went and stood in the raw space. Seasoned pros as both are, they immediately knew it would work. Subsequently the grand old man of found-space theatre, Paris-based Peter Brook, has been in and pronounced it good, too. He’s likely to use it as a London staging-post. What’s the magic formula? Hall says: “The Rose ground plan means a great deal to me. I stood on the stage of the original Rose when it was excavated, and I realised that it contradicts many things that are thought of as Elizabethan – such as the thrust stage. The Rose didn’t have that. Like our Kingston one, it had a lozenge-shaped stage. When you stand at the point of command, centre-stage or a few feet back, your eyes take in every member of the audience. That feeling of intimacy is what turns the actors on.”

The audience wraps round the front of the stage, which is raked very slightly towards them. Chitty has made the most of the fact that actors and audience effectively share the same room. The stage and the pit, for instance, have identical oak floors. Acoustic panels are made invisible. Everything is functional, nothing decorative. These are subtle touches but what it boils down to is that the stage designer, rather than the architects and other consultants, has conceived the entire theatre-going experience. Which is probably how things used to be in Shakespeare’s day.

There is no doubt that it will work as an auditorium, and Hall knows from his days in charge of the National that south-west London is stiff with theatre-goers. So he should be able to fill his seats. But will he be able to take it on to the next level, get his pioneering performing arts degree course up and running, establish his youthful resident companies? In other words, create a drama factory that reaches right back to the dawn of English theatre? Nobody ever accused him of being unambitious.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos by Chris Pearsall. Plan courtesy of BTH Architects. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on December 30, 2007, as “The Rose in full bloom”.


The Rose Theatre, Kingston:
The original Rose Theatre:
Shakespeare’s Globe, London: