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Stratford's thrusting new stage

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Will Gompertz | 13:00 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010

If Shakespeare were alive today and writing his line "all the world's a stage", he might add: "and most of the auditorium, too". Especially if he had just visited the £112m overhaul of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

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The old cinema-style auditorium, with its "proscenium arch" framing the action in front of an audience all of whom face the actors, has gone. Where once there were seats there is now a broad-shouldered stage barrelling through the auditorium like a rock star's red carpet, displacing some 400 of the theatre's 1,400 seats. Those that remain are much closer to the action: the new design halves the distance of the furthest seat, from around 30 metres to just 15.

The RST's old proscenium arch

The RST's old proscenium arch

The Royal Shakespeare Company is clearly proud of this new intimacy and there is a slightly laboured visual gag: a row of seats from the old theatre hangs on a wall well away from the auditorium, high above a discreet table-for-two in the stylish new restaurant on Level Three. The wall is in fact the outer wall of the old theatre, the seats installed at the distance they would have been from the stage.

Some are saying, though, that this dramatic closeness comes at a price that is not just financial. Concerns have been raised by Sir Peter Hall and Professor Stanley Wells, both of whom are Shakespearean experts and have served Stratford in the past: Hall as its visionary artistic director in the 1950s and '60s and Wells as a long-standing scholarly board member and vice-chairman.

Their misgivings are with the RSC's commitment to the "thrust" stage, which the company has also installed next door in the smaller Swan Theatre. Sir Peter recently told the Guardian: "You come on down that vast diving board of a stage and address the person you're speaking to with your back to half the audience. So the moves tend to be based on whose turn it is to have a bit of text."

Stanley Wells shares these performative reservations; he also expressed concern about the inflexibility of the stages. He says that Shakespeare wrote knowing that his plays would be performed in a variety of locations and styles: theatres with "open" stages, town halls, private houses and at Court. Now, he feels, that while Shakespeare's plays are open to multiple interpretations, Stratford has only one way to present them.

Four types of stage

Others have welcomed the introduction of the increasingly popular thrust design. Judi Dench says it will work wonderfully for "actors and audiences alike", a sentiment echoed by Ben Kingsley when the BBC talked to him last week. They welcome the invitation to actors to step over the threshold of the traditional proscenium arch and into the main house, creating a more intimate, immediate and dramatic experience for all.

Elsewhere the renovation is competent if unspectacular, although there are some nice touches. The teak flooring of the old stage - boards that have been trodden by some of the greatest actors of modern times - will now be walked upon by everyman. And by every woman and child as they stroll across the threshold of the new foyer where much of it is now laid. Also in the foyer is the art deco box office from Elizabeth Scott's 1932 theatre, which has been turned into a "flying" unit. If the foyer is busy and therefore a bit crammed, the bulky but beautiful ticket booth can be raised out of the way like a piece of stage scenery.

The foyer in the 1930s

The foyer in the 1930s

There is also the introduction of a tower: a nod to the water tower that was destroyed when the original theatre burned to the ground in 1926. But in a very 21st-Century approach, the new tower contains not water but a visitor attraction. From the top, you are treated to a wonderful panoramic view of Stratford and Warwickshire; the rest provides some useful exhibition space.

But the focus of this redevelopment, which has been completed on time and to budget, is the performing space: the new auditoriums and thrust stages of the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan.

In an age where the public appetite is for memorable live experiences, the thrust stage gives companies the opportunity to present their work to audiences with a more immersive, three-dimensional treatment. After all, it would be embarrassing if a trip to watch the Avatar movie felt more exciting and "experiential" than live theatre presented by one of the world's most revered companies.

The newly-refurbished and redesigned theatre will open to the public tomorrow.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Will fails to mention that the RSC have had great success with the thrust stage in their temporary Courtyard theatre. Having sat on all sides of the Courtyard I can say that being so close to the action on stage more than makes up for any idea of being behind. Can't wait for the performances to start

  • Comment number 2.

    Please do some proof-reading on this!
    The "... theatre will open to the pubic tomorrow".

    Will many people will want to see that?

  • Comment number 3.

    I saw many shows on the old proscenium stage at Stratford and have also seen many on thrust stages, even in the round, inc. a brilliant Lear and equally fine Winters Tale at the temporary theatre just down the road. I much prefer the new configuration because, without elaborate front-only illusory sets and 2D actors, the plays revert for their effect to the essence of Shakespeare - the spoken words, the words, the words, acted by people whose physical presence can be felt. I would avoid seats that were too far round the sides of the horseshoe - but then the old theatre had loads of even worse seats crammed into it.

  • Comment number 4.

    I agree with aidanpl. I've been to several performances at the Courtyard Theatre, including Hamlet and King Lear. The thrust stage is excellent for bringing the audience into the action.

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree as well. I have frequently been to the Courtyard Theatre and think the thrust stage is a great improvement on the previous style. It really does bring the audience into the action, being so close, and it has never once struck me that I was sat behind where some of the actors were performing. It means it comes across as a play, rather than a 2D performance.
    I can't wait to see the new theatre and the upcoming performances!

  • Comment number 6.

    I live in Stratford and am very impressed by what has been done. The previous director, who wanted it all knocked down, was still moaning about the failure to do so this morning. Had he had his way, in 50 year's time we would have had the theatrical equivalent of that time-expired apology for a cathedral that is now to be found in Coventry. What has been done gives a wonderful sense of continuity AND development.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm afraid I can't be quite so enthusiastic. Sitting in the Courtyard at the side can be an extremely frustrating experience; even from the front the awkwardness of sight-lines can be a problem - at the recent Winter's Tale, sitting in a premium seat at the front, I was unable to see the 'statue' of Hermione at all during the climactic scene as two actors were plonked at the front of the stage with their backs to the audience.
    I also share the apprehension that we now have two stages that are to all intents and purposes identical except for size. The Swan works - but it would surely have been better if the new theatre had tried a variation on the box-like thrust stage. We might, perhaps, have had something more like the segment of a hexagon that seems to have been the stage in the original Rose theatre - most of the advantages of the thrust, except that no member of the audience need be confronted by backs.

    We shall wait and see.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm glad that the RSC have opted for more frequent use of a forestage. Though they wouldn't be the first in recent year. The Theatre Royals Richmond and Bury St. Edmunds, the two only working Georgian theatres in the country (and the only working Regency period theatre in the case of Bury St. Edmunds) make use of the forestage configuration. In my opinion it's the only way to see a play, and certainly the only way to see Shakespeare. Used well by a good director and experienced actors it creates a fantastic inclusive envrionment and great intimacy between audience and actor. It makes the audience complicit in the action of the drama which is the whole point of live theatre. If you want to be a disengaged observer go see a film.

    That said it is true a fixed thrust stage will stop the RSC from experimenting with other ways of telling a story. I believe the TR Bury St Edmunds has an adaptable auditorium so they can have the forestage out for their Georgian, Shakespeare and traditional panto productions but can be altered to apron or proscenium formats for any touring companies.

  • Comment number 9.

    Interested to read Greg's point about Richmond and Bury St. Edmunds having the "only two" working Georgian theatres in the country. What about the Kenton Theatre in Henley on Thames and the Theatre Royal in Bath, which both opened in 1805? Definitely Georgian in both cases!

  • Comment number 10.

    Having worked in a 'backstage' capacity in the 'old' theatre for over 4 years in the 1970s I have followed the changes with great interest.

    Through that period we had a number of main stage designs which attempted to project the performance forward into the audience space and 'deny' the existence of the proscenium arch. The most notable experiment was the 1976 season when Trevor Nunn and John Napier set an asymmetric gallery around the stage barely one-third of the way back from the proscenium - and sold seats in that upstage gallery to the public. The front couple of rows of seats were removed and the next few re-set to follow the shape of a considerable forestage.

    The new design cannot fully emulate the theatres of the Elizabethan period as the proscenium arch is still there, even if it is now just exposed 'distressed' brickwork. Terry Hands and Adbdel Farrah left it bare in both 1975 and 1977, using a steep raked platform to 'tilt' the performance through the obstruction. This worked well in the frugal settings of the Histories, but less well when comedies and tragedies had to work within such a vast playing space.

    It is perhaps a pity that the structural engineers could not have found a way of opening up the arch to completely 'clear' the sightlines. Although the massive weight of the fly tower above is a very real challenge it is now unlikely that it will, in this redesign, be asked to support the loads which were imposed by scenery in the old configuration. It would seem that the truly huge stage area beyond the arch is now 'dead space' as the sightlines to it are so poor.

    One final point - the RST programme is much changed since the 60s, 70s and 80s. In those times the RSC left on tour before or just after Christmas and the theatre reverted to operating like a commercial touring theatre for up to 10 weeks, presenting the Royal Ballet, touring drama/musicals, variety shows and amateur productions - all of which needed the proscenium setting.

  • Comment number 11.

    My experience in the Courtyard and Swan Theatres very much echoes the positive comments of others.

    Having seen 9 productions at the Courtyard over the last 4 years, the odd moment where the my line of sight has been blocked by the staging have been compensated by being able to view everything else at close quarters providing new perspectives with the added intimacy.

    In many ways it is working within given constraints that allows creativity to flourish and I have no doubt that this will be the case here and that the amazing team at the RSC will continue to do brilliant work that makes my heart beat faster.

    I applaud the investment in the RSC vision that this new theatre space represents and am very much looking forward to my next visit.

  • Comment number 12.

    Sorry Tim, you're absolutely right. Bath and Kenton are absolutely Georgian buildings (and are the third and fourth oldest theatre buildings in the country respectively, with Bury St. Edmunds coming in fifth, Richmond second and Bristol Old Vic first), however the original Georgian auditorium design has been lost to the more impersonal Victorian design and both are yet to restore the original design. Bury St. Edmunds is definitely the only remaining Regency Era theatre working in the country however.

  • Comment number 13.

    What most people don't realise is that the RSC are more than aware that if someone or something is obstructed from view then there will be greater emphasis and detail to concentrate on on the people and things than you can see. Also, the ability to read and enjoy an actor's performance does not rest solely on being able to see their face and the front of their body. Shakespeare's plays are full of asides, characters 'hidden' from each other despite being onstage and, as in Greek theatre, some actions that take place offstage in a traditional proscenium arch, which can now be performed for audiences while the scene proper is going on. So really there is so much potential and fluidity to thrust staging that can make plays so much more memorable and awesome than complaining that it doesn't emulate the frigid, TV-like flatness and detachment of a traditional proscenium arch.

  • Comment number 14.

    Why is the thrust stage suddenly getting so much attention now? The Courtyard has had one for four years, the Swan for many more prior to that. It has worked incredibly well for recent RSC productions including the much-praised Histories cycle, and there is little reason to think that it won't continue to do so. Surely other aspects of the redevelopment, largely intended to turn the RST from an imposing old theatre into an attractive public space, are worthy of some additional word count?

  • Comment number 15.

    As someone who has seen all of the histories cycle and at least another 5/6 plays in the Courtyard, I am really looking forward to seeing the company in their "new" building...

    I once went to the main hall to see a Troilus & Cressida production before the building went down. I was at the back of the balcony and the actors almost never came to the front half of the stage - I was getting close to 50m away from the actors... it was not so much a experience as something happening in the distance

    I understand that the final theatre will be an upgrade on the Courtyard as the RSC have found that not everything has worked in the temporary venue ..

    I simply cannot wait until 2011's productions ....


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