Magazine article The Spectator

A Theatre Reborn

Magazine article The Spectator

A Theatre Reborn

Article excerpt

King Lear; Romeo and Juliet

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratfordupon-Avon, in rep until 2 April

The jam factory is no more. In one of the great theatrical transformations of our day, the RSC has unveiled its modernisation of Elizabeth Scott's unloved theatre of 1932;

unloved for its ungainly brick bulk on the Avon riverside but no less for the distance of its seating from the proscenium stage.

There was much to be said for the earlier proposal of simply razing the building to the ground and starting afresh. What has actually happened is a classic British compromise whereby the best of the old has been spliced together with what is hopefully the best of the new.

Stripped of ill-advised accretions, you can now appreciate why the ingeniously patterned brickwork and art-deco detailing helped to win the design competition for the 29-year-old cousin of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (other entries had included a castellated monastery and a cathedral with two domed towers - nothing new in ecclesiastical attempts to appropriate Shakespeare).

Into Elizabeth Scott's rectangular shell has been dropped the huge curving back wall of a smaller, thrust-stage auditorium. Just over a thousand seats crowd in around the stage on three levels. The distance between the stage and the furthest seat has virtually been halved (from 27m to 15m), but a price is paid in that those in the circle and upper circle appear to be almost vertiginously piled upon each other.

The argument for the new layout is that as Shakespeare's own stage was surrounded by the audience on three sides that is what we should give him today. This has worked brilliantly in Stratford's much-loved second theatre, the smaller Swan that was in 1986 created inside the remains of the Victorian theatre (destroyed by fire in 1926). Once it was decided to adopt the same layout for the new main auditorium, it was tried out in the temporary Courtyard Theatre which has served the RSC during the three and a half years needed for the rebuild. Lessons learned from the Courtyard have helped shape the less spacious RST.

The theatre has been fine-tuned with various events since last November, was officially opened by the Queen on 4 March, and finally to the press and a sold-out house on 10 March with two well-tried productions from spring 2010, a matinee of King Lear (Greg Hicks superb in an irritating staging by David Farr) followed by an evening performance of Rupert Goold's enthralling Romeo and Juliet, with Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale as rumbustious modern teens caught up in a nightmare of 16th-century Verona ablaze with inter-familial strife. …

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