29 November 2010

New beginnings at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The year was 1987. I sat perched in one of the top rows of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Despite the great chasm between “the gods” and the proscenium, I was utterly rapt by the tiny, mesmerizing figures on stage: Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw and Alan Rickman.

The play was As You Like It. The experience of that production, in that theatre, changed my life. My chums and I had come to the RST as part of a university study tour. They left with souvenirs and postcards, I left with the certainty I had found my raison d'etre.

However, even as a loyal RSC devotee, I found the old building dark, pokey and foreboding. I never knew the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place, in its original configuration, though I have chronicled its history extensively.

That space placed spectator and actor on equal footing, and in equal levels of comfort and discomfort. Simon Russell Beale recalled The Other Place affectionately as “a shared experience of camping out.” It is little wonder than that the world fell in love with The Swan, when it opened in 1982. Warm, cosy and cheery, it was a space that seemed to embrace you.

Good news then that Michael Boyd and his team have succeeded in retaining aspects of all three Stratford houses in the Company’s new theatre. The new auditorium owes much to both the flaws of the old proscenium stage, and the lessons learned and cherished in The Other Place and The Swan.

In designing the new auditorium and theatre complex, Boyd has, literally and metaphorically, kept a firm grasp of the best of the Company’s stellar past, with an eye to moving forward for the future. For example, the wooden planks of the old stage provide the flooring for the upstairs lobby, so everyone has a chance to tread those famous boards.

Without being “Disney-ified”, the new complex speaks clearly to the next generation of theatre-goers and Shakespeare lovers on their own terms. It is a bright, welcoming and inviting space where visitors are encouraged to encounter Shakespeare in variety of media, and in truly evocative ways – whether one sets foot inside the auditorium, or not.

Throughout the building there are exhibition spaces, creative installations (to which visitors can contribute) and interactive displays, such as “The Insults Chair”, that bring Shakespeare’s language to life in ways that are instantaneous, engaging and hilarious. 

There are at last the much-needed creature comforts that audiences have lamented for decades: lifts, improved toilet facilities, more extensive catering outlets and shared access between the main house and The Swan. There is also wireless internet access available throughout the building, a feature that suggests the Company’s desire for this to become a place where visitors enjoy themselves throughout the day, and not exclusively as a theatre-going space.

With a nod to Brecht, and his philosophy that the mechanics of theatre should always be visible, Boyd has positioned the “load-in” dock through the main lobby so visitors, particularly the young, can see how theatre is made.

The much-debated Tower is truly the icing on the cake. The stunning views it offers are simply breathtaking. The tower, too, is a reclaimed piece of the theatre’s history, a re-imagining of the original tower that was destroyed by fire.

There is a moment, while experiencing this bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s world, when all the pieces come together quite magically. Shakespeare: the man, his town, his birthplace, his school, his home, his final resting place, his words and works. And, now, he finally has the theatre he deserves.

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