Yesterday, a group of us were given a guided tour of the building. It’s a rather wonderful fusion of old and new - both re-assuringly familiar to those who loved the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but also radically transformed.
Arriving from the town, the first thing you notice is that the approach to the RST has been completely overhauled. Gone is the car park, replaced with more welcoming public spaces, which allow a clear view of the new entrance, which has shifted just to the right of the old Art Deco front, which is retained and restored.
The entrance - for the first time - serves both The RST and the Swan and there’s a foyer linking to the two spaces, with a gift shop plonked in the middle.
The ground floor also boasts a bar, where the old box office used to be, and a riverside cafe. The Swan also has its own bar and a reading room. Inside, The Swan itself is little changed - “loved up” with new seating installed and few tweaks here and there as our guide, RSC designer Tom Piper, explained.
Heading to the RST, the auditorium is now housed within a huge brick drum, in the footprint of the old space.
The big changes, though, are inside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Here, the old front-on proscenium arch set up has been completely transformed into a 1,040-seat thrust stage with seating on three levels. The pros-arch has been retained, but the performance now takes place in front of it with the audience on three sides.
What you think of the new stage will probably depend on whether you believe Shakespeare is best suited to being performed on thrust stages. RSC artistic director Michael Boyd clearly does and if you’re willing to accept his assertion - and from what I’ve seen over the RSC in the Courtyard and Roundhouse I don’t think I’d challenge it - then this is a wonderful space. If you’d rather have your Shakespeare behind a proscenium, you might need a little convincing…
My only concern is that the RSC might face problems when looking to transfer work out of the new venue, although Boyd insists this won’t be the case.
One thing that is indisputable is that this is a far more intimate space than the old RST. I had a wander up to the the upper circle for a view from the ‘worst seats’ and you are still very close to the stage. According to Boyd, the distance has been halved from old RST and indeed, there are seats in what is now the rooftop restaurant to show where the back of the old circle used to be.
Other features of the new building include the aformentioned rooftop restaurant, which is being run in-house by the RSC and should provide a welcome in-come stream, and the new tower, which, I’m sure, is set to become a new Stratford landmark.
The tower has been installed to house the lifts which help keep the building fully accessible to all three levels of seating. But the RSC has also had the rather canny idea of extending the tower so that it reaches up to 38 metres high and provides stunning views across the town and surrounding country side. I say it’s a canny move, because I’m sure that the view will attract locals and tourists to the building who might otherwise not have visited and could then be persuaded to buy tickets.