The opening of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre was always going to be a cause of major excitement and controversy. My association with it dates from 1989 when a school trip from York brought me to see John Caird’s punk A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was unforgettable. And, since 1995, I have seen virtually all of the RSC’s productions, and certainly all of its Shakespeare and the work of his contemporaries.
The last three years have been a fallow period. The Courtyard has importantly kept the flag flying. Stratford has struggled economically; all eyes have been on the new-build. There have been many early mornings over the last three years when I’ve jogged past it, mentally saluting the site. I’ve watched the tower slowly rise; I recall jogging on the spot in shock when I saw how little seemed to remain of Elisabeth Scott’s original 1932 building, and I have longed (more than for anything else during this arduous process) for The Swan Theatre to re-open.
Last Saturday was ‘Builders’ Night’, a time of thanks and celebration. Theatres in Stratford have come a long way since 1879, and yet Sir Charles Flower’s founding vision of having a theatre, a library, and a gallery is palpable yet. The RSC’s library is here at the Shakespeare Centre. It amalgamated with the collections of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1964. The gallery now expresses itself throughout the new building. Projections of past productions emerge on the back wall of the old auditorium, plasma screens show Shakespeare inspired film installations and there is a digital sculpture which invites us to text our responses to the question ‘Why Shakespeare?’ which are then added to the swirling words before us.
What struck me most was the building’s eclecticism, a real sense of the new evolving from the old. This choice was in part determined by Scott’s theatre being a Grade II listed building and part by the budget. £113 million is certainly not too much money with which to re-model a new auditorium in the shell of the old and create new spaces around it. I was quite moved as I entered the former box office area (now a bar) and saw Gertrude Hermes’s splendid mosaic fountain at one end of it, bubbling away. And upstairs in the restaurant (wonderful views, nice food, but a bit pricey) are three seats attached to the wall above our heads, ghosts of the back row of the old balcony. I have sat there ‘I know not how oft’ (Hamlet, 5.1.184).
I smiled as I read in the ‘Welcome’ information what George Bernard Shaw had said about the earlier theatre designs. Of the 1879 theatre: ‘an admirable building, conceived for every possible purpose, except that of a theatre’ and, when it had burnt down, ‘Congratulations. It will be a tremendous advantage to have a proper modern building. There are a number of other theatres I should like to see burned down.’ Incidentally, I happened to be chatting to Shaw’s biographer, Sir Michael Holroyd, at our half-annual Trustees’ meeting earlier on Saturday who assured me that Shaw ‘liked new things.’
Jane Lapotaire read beautifully a poem by John Masefield written to celebrate the opening of the 1932 theatre and musicians played John Barnard’s ‘Overture Shakespearian’ composed for the same occasion. Julian Glover delivered the prologue to Henry V, the project’s major benefactor, Lady Susie Sainsbury revealed her natural gift for comedy, and the builders did a dance. The new house was blessed by the words of Oberon and Titania towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Everything in new RST is geared towards bringing Shakespeare closer to people. Artistic Director Michael Boyd said that walking on the thrust stage is like being part of a brain that argues, engages and reacts. And he spoke passionately about the function of theatre being church-like in the way it helps us to pose the big questions about life and death.
The new RST will pose those questions boldly. In doing so, I’d like to see the RSC produce as much Shakespeare as it possibly can. Its new thrust stage is powerful, but I don’t yet believe in an ideal playing space. Shakespeare’s playing company performed in a variety of venues. Far more importantly, our critical responses need to be founded on the quality of acting and the interpretative commitment of a production to Shakespeare’s language and dramatic possibilities.