Sunday20 August 2017

Royal Shakespeare Theatre by Bennetts Associates

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Bennetts Associates’ long-awaited remodelling of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stratford-on-Avon home finally gives the company the theatre it deserves

’What theatre can provide – in a way that no other artistic medium can – is a full sense of human presence,” argues an impassioned Michael Boyd, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director. “If it is going to succeed in the future, it really needs to celebrate the fact that audience and performers share an experience in the same space at the same time.”

It is a rallying cry with profound implications not just for actors and directors, but for architects too. This week marks the reopening of the RSC’s base in Stratford-on-Avon following a three-and-a-half-year remodelling. This is a project of dizzying intricacy – the product of highly taxing technical and conservation constraints – and not everything about it succeeds, but Boyd’s vision of the future of theatre shines through it vividly.

Designed by Bennetts Associates, it is just the latest in a line of remodellings that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has undergone since its foundation in 1873. The original building presented a ripe fantasy of Ye Olde England, complete with neo-Tudor half-timbering. Its focus was a 32m- high water tower which loomed, Big Ben-like, over the town.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre west elevation

Source: Bennetts Associates

Royal Shakespeare Theatre west elevation

Victorian theatres were particularly susceptible to fire and the tower was intended as a safeguard against that danger. In 1926, however, the tower, and a significant part of the building that it was meant to protect, burnt to the ground. A competition was quickly held to find a design for a new theatre. Elisabeth Scott, one of the very few woman architects working in Britain at the time, won it with a design for a 1,400-seat auditorium which backed directly against the retained ruins of the Victorian building. Its stark brick exterior betrays the influence both of art deco and the more progressive Dutch architecture of the period, while the auditorium itself was more evidently indebted to Scott’s experience as a designer of cinemas. She distributed the very sizable audience in a fan-like arrangement and set the stage behind a proscenium in the manner of a Victorian playhouse. Intimate, it was not. When Tyrone Guthrie was invited to perform there in the 1950s, he responded that he would come only if it was bulldozed into the Avon.

In 1986, the architect Michael Reardon established a second house within the still-standing shell of the Victorian building. This was the Swan, a venue that offered about a third of the capacity of the main auditorium but proved altogether more popular with actors and audiences alike. Key to this was the fact that Reardon chose not to reinstate the Victorian proscenium but instead employed a projecting “thrust” stage of a kind close to that on which Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. This configuration presented major challenges – set designers had to find ways to populate the stage so as to avoid obstructing the audience’s view of the action, while actors had to move so as not to keep their backs to any part of the audience for too long. And yet, the theatrical charge that could be generated by bringing audience and performers into the same space more than compensated for those limitations.

The original presented a ripe fantasy of Ye Olde England, complete with neo-Tudor half-timbering

Ever since, the RSC has harboured a desire to exchange the Scott auditorium for a venue of equivalent capacity but of a layout much closer to that of the Swan. In 1999, it held a competition for a completely new theatre to be built on the site of the Scott building. It was won by Erick van Egeraat but his proposal was ultimately scuppered by English Heritage’s refusal to countenance the demolition of the grade II* listed structure. Six years ago, a second competition was therefore conducted, this time based on the assumption that the facades and lobby areas of Scott’s building would be retained. This time Bennetts won.

The new auditorium that the practice, working with theatre designers Charcoalblue, has created within the shell of Scott’s building really is a triumph. It is yet to stage its first production but shows every sign of living up to Michael Boyd’s billing of it as “the best place for performing Shakespeare in the world”. It has 400 seats fewer than before but the RSC claims that represents no great commercial loss – the gods in the old auditorium had such awful sightlines that they struggled to sell them. A large part of the problem was that the distance from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium was a daunting 30m – a gulf that prompted one disgruntled thespian to describe performing there as “like standing on the cliffs of Dover, addressing Calais”. In the new theatre, that distance has been halved; the actors can now make eye contact with virtually every individual in the audience.


Royal Shakespeare Theatre north elevation

Source: Bennetts Associates

Bennetts Associates’ new Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s north elevation.

The architects enjoyed one fantastic luxury during the design process. The Ian Ritchie-designed Courtyard Theatre – a temporary building that the RSC constructed in order to allow it to continue performing during building works – served as a full-scale prototype. The arrangements of the two spaces are very similar but important lessons were learnt from the Courtyard that informed the design of the new space, particularly in relation to acoustic performance. For example, the fact that actors on a thrust stage are frequently required to talk with their backs to some members of the audience demands that reverberation times are kept to a minimum. A gap between the seating and the walls of the Courtyard proved unhelpful in this respect, prompting the introduction of a wall of oak planks directly behind the back row of seats in the new auditorium.

The much more significant difference between the two venues, however, is in their back-of-house provision. The Courtyard scarcely has any space above or below its stage. The new theatre not only has a 7m-high fly tower but – and this proved a particular technical challenge given the proximity of the Avon – a 7m-deep basement to boot. The Forest of Arden can now be summoned at the press of a button.

Beyond the auditorium, the results are more mixed. Scott oriented her building towards the river, with the effect that its urban frontage was effectively reduced to a loading bay. Bennetts has transformed that through the creation of a much expanded lobby ranged along the length of this frontage. The road that tracks it has been pedestrianised and widened into a small square caught between the Victorian library and a new tower that occupies the site’s most prominent corner.

The tower has transformed a large part of the town centre into Stalag-on-Avon

It is a good plan. The tower accommodates lift access – the old theatre didn’t have any – and stands sentry-like beside the new entrance, signalling its presence. None of that, however, remotely justifies the tower’s extraordinary visual dominance. It has been extruded well beyond the point of functionality to a height that matches that of the vanished water tower – a structure that actually stood 20m away and was much more fully embedded within the original building’s picturesque composition. The architect talks of it as a technical tour de force – the tallest load-bearing brick tower created in Britain for more than a century – and as a form wedded to the Italy of Shakespeare’s imagination. And yet this is not a campanile but a startlingly domineering structure designed for the purposes of observation. Visitors can take a lift to the top and, on a good day, see four counties. It is a nice view, but the cost of providing it has been the transformation of a large part of the town centre into Stalag-on-Avon.

Part of what makes it so unconvincing is the fact that this most demonstrative of gestures is unsupported by Bennetts’ other additions to the building. The language of the lobby and the new rooftop restaurant could hardly be less emphatic, with full-height glazing and grey-painted steelwork offered in place of any more considered architectural idea.

The detailing feels weirdly redolent of a building like Lifschutz Davidson’s Oxo tower development – quasi-industrial and very self-consciously “assembled”. Was there really not an opportunity to make an intervention that engaged with the interiors and facades of the Victorian and 1930s fabric?

The architect has also taken a lot of pleasure in leaving the violence of its actions open to view. The new auditorium sits like a Russian doll within the shell of the old one with bridges extending between the two. The outer wall has been left unplastered, revealing the scar-tissue of ripped out staircases and RSJs, in a manner that has characterised many of Haworth Tompkins’ theatre spaces from the past decade.

In this context, however, the gesture feels more troublesome. The Scott building is hardly a “found space” that the RSC has just colonised but a sophisticated architectural entity whose qualities have warranted its protection. Consigning it to the status of archaeology doesn’t do it much of a service. The most painful instance of this approach is in the rooftop restaurant. The former back wall of the Scott auditorium here extends down the middle of the space as a freestanding partition. A couple of seats have been left hanging at high level as a pathetic nod to the wall’s former status. It is a gimmick where an architectural idea was needed.

These frustrations aside, the RSC at last has a venue that might actually aid its work rather than impede it. “We live in a world where we don’t go to church anymore, ” says Michael Boyd. “And we entertain ourselves in too lonely a way.” The new theatre has been conceived as a counter to that bleak scenario – a celebration of the communal experience. The first production specifically designed for it will be Macbeth, opening in April. I’ll see you there.

Project team

Architect Bennetts Associates, Client Royal Shakespeare Company, Engineer Buro Happold, Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald, Project manager Drivers Jonas Deloitte, Theatre consultant Charcoalblue, Acoustic consultant Acoustic Dimensions, Construction management Mace


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