New Shakespeare stage puts audience "in the thick of it"

The thrust stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has undergone a transformation as part of a £112.8m scheme and reopened "on time and on budget". The BBC was one of the first to take a look at the changes.

A seat plays a recording of Dame Judi Dench when you sit on it at ground level in the foyer.

At the highest level a new 36m (118ft) tower offers people views of four counties and key Shakespearean landmarks.

These are some of the changes to the Royal Shakespeare and Swan theatres.

About 18,000 people from 60 countries have contributed financially and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) said it would raise the remaining £3.5m by its 50th birthday celebrations in April 2011.

But the site, complete with restored 1930s features, has now been unveiled, with members of the public testing the new facilities ahead of the current RSC ensemble performing King Lear and Romeo and Juliet next February and March.

Recalls Shakespearean times

RSC executive director Vikki Heywood said: "It's really important that there's a contemporary home for the contemporary interpretation of his work.

"Theatre is about being immersed in the experience of the performance that you are in, so that's the kind of theatre that we want to create."

The Swan Theatre The Swan Theatre is connected to the refurbished Royal Shakespeare Theatre by a foyer

Central to that philosophy is the thrust stage in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where the audience is seated around three sides of the stage.

Simon Erridge, director of architects Bennetts Associates, said several hundred seats in the previous theatre were "really poor quality" and "miles away from the stage".

Now the capacity has been cut from 1,400 to 1,040 seats over three levels and, whereas the furthest seat from the actor was previously about 30m, it is now about 15m.

Mr Erridge said: "The action is absolutely in the middle of the room so you can see the whites of the actors' eyes.

"You can feel like you're absolutely in the thick of it when you are in the audience and there's no hiding place in the room.

"It's an auditorium and a style which really is inspired by the theatres of Shakespeare's time so it's developed from the Elizabethan Jacobean courtyards where people gathered around the stage."

Buildings within

The Royal Shakespeare and Swan theatres are now joined by the same foyer as part of improved public areas.

There are new exhibition spaces, a new square, and places to eat.

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre fire in 1926 An emergency appeal was started to rebuild the fire struck theatre

But as members of the media were guided outside the site near picnic tables by the river, officials were keen to stress bricks from the deconstructed building had been salvaged and put back into the site.

Bricks of different shapes and colours adorned the site, where special carved bricks show various Shakespearean characters.

Experts scoured the world for some bricks but some ended up coming from the nearby Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.

A foyer space, where people enter the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, includes floorboards from the old stage so members of the public can walk where stars such as Sir Laurence Olivier once stood.

People in this area can see a curved wall made of brick surrounding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre so it has the appearance of being a building within a building.

Donors have been able to sponsor a brick or have a seat named after them.

Black Country writing

The main public funders were the Arts Council, contributing £53m, and regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, the RSC said.

The RSC has a long history of fundraising from private sources.

When the original Stratford theatre was left severely fire damaged in 1926 it was rebuilt following an international emergency appeal.

The new tower replaces one that burned down in 1926 and from here people can look out over where Shakespeare was born, went to school and was buried.

Previously dressing rooms had "very small windows", officials said, but now two floors of the rooms have scenic tranquil views of the river and greenery outside.

Mr Erridge said: "This theatre has a lot more scenic capability than the previous version.

"We've actually got enough room to hide an object about 7m high (22ft) below the stage and also to lift it out of sight above the stage."

He said the Swan Theatre had been changed "a little" to make it more comfortable and have better scenic capability and better ventilation, among other things.

Tours, exhibitions and activities are planned after it opens to the public on Wednesday.

Local groups will try out the RSC stages with specially-created pieces and hundreds of Black Country writers are collaborating with the RSC's artistic team to create 10 new plays.

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