A New Home for Shakespeare
The transformation of the Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres has involved tremendous challenges, both architectural and technical, over a period of six years. It will revolutionise the RSC’s relationship with its audience and with the town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
It transforms the appearance of the site, yet retains the character and history of the existing buildings. For the many people working on the project, it has been an unrepeatable and enormously rewarding experience, thriving on an atmosphere of teamwork and mutual respect fuelled by the desire to create the best possible theatre for Shakespeare, The RSC and Stratford-upon-Avon.
The transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has brought together a number of important architectural themes. At its heart, the new auditorium will revolutionise the way audiences experience live theatre. Its public spaces are enticing, accessible and welcoming, and its relationship with the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon has been reinvigorated by the creation of the Tower, new external spaces and routes. The design has sensitively incorporated the most significant remains of the earlier theatres which stood on the site and retained their essential character. But the whole project is about more than just the experience of the new auditorium, or historic building conservation, or an urban masterplan, it aims to be a seamless combination of all three.
Approach to theatre design
Modern theatre buildings are a reflection of the multifaceted organisations which commission them. They are a building type which at once needs to thrill the audience, to nurture the creative spirit of the acting company and to facilitate the stealth and ingenuity of the technical team. Balancing the sometimes conflicting needs of these three groups is essential.
In this project, the constraints of a tight budget forced realistic expectations to be set early in the design process as there was little possibility of increasing the building’s footprint to accommodate any extension of brief. The challenge was one of maximising the value of every millimetre of space between the retained Bancroft façade and the Swan Theatre, and to celebrate the character of the resulting spaces. The dramatic spatial quality of the foyer, the panoramic shape of the Rooftop Restaurant and its terraces, and the creation of a public square were all the result of pre-existing site conditions and the building is stronger as a result of them.
Theatre people have a passion for the ephemeral quality of ‘found spaces’, and in the same way that theatre designers thrive on the quirkiness of a warehouse, a church or a railway station, so the RST has derived richness from the immovable elements of its own history.
Working with the existing building
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s progression from the original nineteenth century summer festival theatre on the banks of the Avon to the building seen today has been one of evolution rather than reconstruction. At each major point of change (the catastrophic 1926 fire leading to Elisabeth Scott’s rebuilding, Michael Reardon’s 1986 Swan Theatre for Trevor Nunn, and the latest transformation project), significant parts of the site were left untouched, often for reasons of practicality or financial necessity rather than sentiment. The current building therefore owes its richness and complexity to these many layers of history, much of which has been retained and enhanced in the latest project.
Conceived at the height of cinema’s golden age, Elisabeth Scott’s 1932 auditorium was a vast fan-shaped room which placed the actors behind the picture-frame of a proscenium arch. The high and distant balconies and the bare side-walls created a void across which audience and actors have struggled to communicate for generations despite the RSC’s many attempts at modification. In addition to its unpopular auditorium, Scott’s building missed the opportunity to connect with the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. At an urban level, its entrances and fine brick façades were placed to the north and east, addressing the river and Bancroft Gardens whilst a utilitarian ‘jam factory’ façade with a grid of small punched windows faced the town. Where Scott excelled however, was in the detail of the building’s public spaces which were carried out with a high level of craftsmanship using a rich palette of materials.
It was clear from the beginning of the transformation project that major changes would be required to the existing building to create the modern, accessible theatre the RSC required. Firstly, the auditorium was completely re-thought in order to create a space properly suited to the performance of Shakespeare. This meant radical rebuilding at the heart of the old theatre. Secondly, the team looked for ways of improving the theatre’s physical relationship with the town, a masterplan was devised which identified important pedestrian routes between the town, Bancroft Gardens, River Avon and Holy Trinity Church. These routes were then reinforced in the design of the theatre by the creation of a continuous riverside walk, new Weston Square, the Tower, the Colonnade and placing new entrances to create a much more permeable building.
The Tower was a deliberate reference to the tower which had existed on the site as part of the original 1879 theatre, its function was to allow visitors to take in views across the town, but also to act as a water tower for the fire brigade. Whilst it excelled in the former, it failed in the latter and was engulfed in the fire which destroyed much of the original theatre in 1926. The new tower and the square at its base mark new entrances to the building and create important links between the theatre and the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. From its top, today’s visitors will again take in views of Shakespeare’s birthplace, his schoolroom, the site of his later house, and Holy Trinity Church in which he was married and is buried.
Amid all this change, the essence of Elisabeth Scott’s design remains clearly visible, with its immense loadbearing brick flytower and formal entrance façade. The stripping back of later extensions on the riverside has revealed the original brick elevation which had been obscured for 70 years, and the characteristic fan-shaped geometry of the 1932 building is still evident in the ‘kinked’ elevations to each side of the building, embracing the riverside terrace to the east and Weston Square to the west. Inside the building, the fine interiors of the foyer spaces and grand staircase have been sensitively restored. And finally, in the heart of the building, the intimate new auditorium fits comfortably within the scarred outer walls of Scott’s now demolished auditorium, leaving a triple-height void on three sides providing much-needed orientation space and a potent physical reminder of the sheer scale of the old theatre, where despite its shortcomings, so many great performances took place.
In a thrust stage theatre, the auditorium itself provides the setting and the backdrop for the entire production. Actors can use the full breadth, depth and height of the space, and the audience surround the stage on three sides. There is no hiding place.
The bold 1040+ seat thrust-stage auditorium of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre has its distant origins in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres of Shakespeare’s day, but also in the much more recent Swan theatre, which opened in 1986.
The new auditorium itself was developed in a collaboration with theatre consultants Charcoalblue and the RSC themselves. It evolved over many versions, both in model and mock-up form. Perhaps the most significant step was the construction of the 1000-seat Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon as a transition-space to house the company during the main theatre’s rebuild. The Courtyard Theatre was effectively a full-size prototype for the new RST and lessons learned were critical to developing the concept. Thrust-stage auditoria bring with them significant acoustic and sightline challenges due to the multi-directional nature of the performance.
In the end, the new RST has a very disinctive character which is quite different from The Courtyard Theatre. With slightly smaller overall dimensions and a faceted geometry, it feels more compact and intimate and this should result in improved acoustics. The RST also has far greater technical capability than The Courtyard Theatre, with full flying and a deep basement serving the thrust stage. The new RST will see the distance from the furthest seat to the stage reduced to 15m, almost half the distance than in the 1932 auditorium.
Choice of materials
Red brick is a traditional construction material in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon and was the predominant material used throughout the building, both in the original theatre of 1879, the first rebuild of 1932, and in the Swan Theatre works. The consistent use of a single walling material throughout gave the whole building a distinctive character which belied the piecemeal nature of its construction. For this reason, a locally sourced brick was used once again in the Tower and auditorium walls for the transformation project to maintain continuity between the new forms and the old and to continue to provide a unifying influence to the whole composition. The load-bearing brickwork of the tower in particular was a source of great pride to the bricklaying teams working on site who had to re-learn old skills to create its battered, tapering faces and sharp corners.
Externally, the brick is complimented by zinc walling and roofing which pick up on the colour and texture of the Swan Theatre roof. The steeply-pitched Swan roof is now partnered by the zinc-clad volume of the new auditorium and main foyer roof which provides a strong visual link between the two auditoria.
Internally, materials in the foyers are influenced by Elisabeth Scott’s pallette of dark timber and local stone from Leicestershire and Oxfordshire. In the auditorium, finishes are pared back to the bare metal structure and sawn oak to provide a simple and robust compliment to the production designs which will come to inhabit the space.