At the annual Shakespeare birthday luncheon in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1925, George Bernard Shaw said of the theatre “The Memorial is an admirable building, adapted for every conceivable purpose except that of a theatre”. One blustery day the following March, as if afflicted by some Celtic malediction, the theatre caught fire. Shaw sent the chairman a telegram. It read “Congratulations, it will be a tremendous advantage to have a proper modern building. There are a number of other theatres I should like to see burned down…”
In 1932, the new Art Deco theatre emerged phoenix-like from those ashes. It was designed by architect Elisabeth Scott, the first woman to be awarded a contract to build an important public building in the UK. It wasn’t universally liked, earning nicknames like the Jam Factory, or the Soviet Bloc-on-Avon. There were acoustic problems too. One actor noted that acting on that stage was “like standing on the cliffs of Dover and addressing Calais”.
However when, some seventy years later, it was announced that plans were afoot to scrap the theatre and start again, there was an almighty outcry. The familiar old building stood in the landscape of so many people’s memories, often associated with their very first precious experience of seeing a Shakespeare play.
“A pair of Shakespearean theatres linked together with a weave of empathetic new architecture, creating a convincing and effective whole.”Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian
It certainly is in mine. My mum drove us down from Preston in our beige mini, in August 1973 to see Eileen Atkins as Rosalind in As You Like It. I floated out of the theatre at the end and apparently turned to mum on our way back up the M6, and said “That’s what I want to do when I grow up”. I still have the poster for that production on my wall.
The seats we sat in for that magical performance were on the back row of the gods. Now that very row of seats is perched high up on what is called the relic wall running down the middle of our Rooftop Restaurant. Ten years ago, we finally managed to transform the old theatre into the world class space it is today, with its thrust stage, wrap around auditorium, and crisp acoustic, and we halved the distance from that back row to the stage, so now everyone feels close to the action, and can hear those evocative words.
There is a wonderful account from Shakespeare’s time of an actor charming the attention of the house. “Sit in a full theatre, and you will think you see so many lines drawn form the circumference of so many ears whiles the actor is the centre”. The theatre as a circle of ears: a perfect description of the new RST.
Today, from the top of our theatre tower, which echoes the original Campanile tower of the 1879 Memorial Theatre, you can survey the three distinct stages of the theatre’s development.
Looking south down the river Avon, towards Holy Trinity Church, you see the red brick and half timbering, the pinnacles and turrets of the 1879 Memorial Theatre, looking like some Victorian Gothic revival teapot, with architecture which reminds you of St Pancras Station. Below and to the east is the fly tower of the 1932 “jam factory”, a structure so prominent in the area in its time, it was used as a navigational guide by the Luftwaffe as they flew up the Avon in 1941 on their way to bomb Coventry. This section perhaps more resembles the Hoover Building on the A40 which I always pass on my way up to Stratford.
The theatre today, this happy fusion of new and old, was closed for months. The Covid crisis has kept our doors shut for over a year. That has never happened in the 140 or so years since it was built with the exception of a couple of summers at the end of the Great War. The pandemic has challenged all of us. But we look forward to welcoming everyone back, and to performing Shakespeare again, in the town he was born, in the air that he breathed.