The Royal Shakespeare Company has splashed out on some top-of-the range seating for its soon-to-be re-opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Given the RSC's penchant for day-long history cycles and near-four-hour Arthurian epics, this suggests (a) that they are a thoughtful bunch and (b) that there are plenty more marathon theatre productions planned.
The contract was awarded to an Italian company called Poltrona Frau which has Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo as clients. Clearly the thinking here is that any punter for whom the iambic pentameter induces a head-jerking, mouth-dribbling, oh-this feels-warm-and-perfect narcolepsy can avert any faux pas by pretending that he or she is driving a prancing horse around the Monza racetrack.
The RSC kindly invited me over to the theatre this morning for a seat preview. I spend a lot of time in theatre seats and was therefore unusually excited by the prospect; I have written here before about the experience-shattering effect of poor theatre seats.
In a 2007 seat survey by industry paper The Stage, subsidised theatre came out top - so my expectations were of the sort of ultra-comfy, leather-clad seats you find at the Royal Court or the luxuriant velour of the National Theatre. On that front, I was disappointed.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre seats look as if they have been removed from a conference centre. They are not wrapped in leather, nor do they have any armchair pretensions. And sitting in them transported me not to a racetrack, but to a bus stop.
But, as project director Peter Wilson explained to me on the Today programme, the racetrack experience was never the intention. The primary function of the seats is to engage the audience as one in the action. It's part of the theatre's new "thrust stage" design, where actors and audience are part of the same environment, rather than having one lot sunk deep in first-class comfort while those on stage exude energy and intensity.
And according to that survey, the most important elements in a theatre seat are leg-room, padding, arm rests, height of back rest and fabric. On that basis, the RST seats aren't too bad. The one I sat in had decent leg-room, reasonable padding, very good back support, arm-rests (a bit thin) and unexceptional but perfectly adequate fabric. There were others, however, that had less leg room and no arm-rests - but the seat element had yet to be attached, so I was unable to give them a test drive.
The biggest advance in the new theatre, though, is not the seats themselves but their positioning. Although there are a few with a restricted view, they all are within fifteen metres of the action, which is roughly half the distance as that of the furthest seat in the old theatre. And if the cost of that is no lazyboy armchairs, that's a price I think is well worth paying.