Royal Shakespeare Theatre

MOLA team
04.08.2008

The Museum of London Archaeology Historic Buildings and Photographic Teams have recently undertaken a survey of the Grade II* listed Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

The first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built on the banks of the River Avon between 1877 and 1879, and incorporated a library and art gallery dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the theatre was badly damaged by fire in 1926, and an international competition was held to find a design for its replacement. The competition was won by Elisabeth Scott, who became the first female architect to design an important public building in Britain.

A Modernist style

The second Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built to the north of the remains of the first theatre between 1928 and 1932. It was the first significant British public building to be entirely Modernist in style.

The theatre’s constituent elements, namely the auditorium, fly-tower, and blocks containing offices, dressing rooms, cafes and bars, were clearly expressed externally, with flat roofs at different heights. External decoration was restrained, with orange-red and grey facing-bricks in subtle patterns, and stone dressings. High-quality internal decoration was equally Modernist, as was landscaping to the north and west of the building, including riverside steps and walkways.

Internally, the wedge-shaped auditorium originally seated about a thousand people. The proscenium arch in the theatre was fronted by a forestage with fixed side-entrances and an orchestra pit. Lifts in the front half of the stage raised scenery from below, and rolling stages carried scenery from the wings. The 25-metre-tall fly-tower above the stage also stored scenery, and scene docks, workshops and the wardrobe lay backstage.

The curved northern façade and main entrance, reflecting the auditorium plan, had a polygonal tower to the east. The tower contained a fountain, a marble staircase to the dress circle and entrances to a bar and restaurant overlooking the River Avon.

Moving with the times

Subsequent changes were made to the building. The burnt-out 1879 auditorium was refurbished as a conference hall, and was later converted in 1986 to ‘The Swan’ theatre, with an Elizabethan-style ‘thrust’ stage.  Bars and restaurants were added to the eastern side of the building, along with additional dressing rooms and a new stage door.

The original theatre plan had been influenced by contemporary cinema design. Alterations to the auditorium and stage were a response to their perceived theatrical inadequacies, as well as changes in theatre technology and performance. The proscenium arch was removed, and circulation between the front-of-house and backstage areas was improved.

The main theatre closed in April 2007 and is being remodelled in order to provide a new thousand-seat thrust-stage auditorium, like that at the smaller Swan Theatre next door. The exterior of the listed building will be retained, along with the ornately decorated entrance foyers, bars and the marble fountain and staircase. The new auditorium will bring actors and the audience closer together, and allow directors to present Shakespeare’s plays in an environment closer to that of the Elizabethan theatre.

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