This weekend I spent a couple of hours nosing round the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, recently reopened following a 4 year reconstruction project that cost an eye-watering £112 million to complete. For those of you not blessed with an education in the English theatre, Stratford is of course the birthplace of the bard himself, William Shakespeare, and a popular destination for visitors coming to find out more about his life and works. The highlight for many visitors, along with admiring the picturesque black and white timber houses and visiting the different houses and farms with connections to Shakespeare, will be to see a Shakespeare play at the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
One of the aims of the project was to create a theatre that would look outwards towards the town and welcome visitors in, by creating spaces that would provide more than just theatre performances. The success of this aim was borne out by the fact that I was able to spend a couple of enjoyable hours looking around at the different exhibitions, the shop and exploring the interesting spaces and hidden corners of the theatre building.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is bordered on one side by the river and the path runs along the building with outdoor bench seating allowing the ground floor cafe to spill out onto the tow-path, where you might have a coffee or a snack while watching the swans on the river. I approached from the opposite side however, through the remaining entrance of the Victorian Memorial theatre and on ascending the wooden stairs, found a room devoted to the Transformations Exhibition.
A time lapse film was playing on the screen on the wall showing the progress of the construction project over many days, months and years, both inside and outside the building. In this exhibition you can study the blueprint design plans, finger the velvet fabric for the new seating and muse over which shade of burgundy, wine or rust leather you might have chosen. There was even an array of the different bricks used. Those ingenious architects and designers had managed to create 7m deep basement below the stage to swallow up actors as if disappearing into hell, and a 7m flying space above to take them into heaven. I learned how the redevelopment has reshaped the main auditorium with seating in a horseshoe shape that brings audience much closer to the action on stage, in a same way that plays were performed ‘in the round’ in Shakespeare’s day.
Next I wandered through the glass sided concourse that runs along the side of the building and connects the Swan Theatre with to the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium, where you can pick up leaflets such as a family treasure trail around the building. I dallied in the shop long enough to buy my daughter a Manga Shakespeare version of Romeo and Juliet as she’s studying it at school this summer, in the hope that even a poet who’ll be 447 years old this year might speak to the teenager of today, through the comic book prose. I feel sure that if Shakespeare were born today he’d be on Facebook.
Soon it was time for a tour of the Tower that I’d booked earlier at a cost of £2.50, taking the lift to the 32 metre high viewing platform. The original tower was part of the Victorian Memorial theatre and served both as a water tower and a viewing platform but when the auditorium caught fire in 1926 the tower collapsed before it could serve its purpose in putting out the flames. As part of the reconstruction of the theatre, a new tower was conceived to echo the original, to provide a viewing point over the town and to draw people into the new building as part of the Stratford experience.
From the top there’s a 360 degree view over the town of Stratford, the river banks and pretty park areas opposite the theatre on the other side of the river. It was getting dark at the time of my tour, but I could just pick out the Courtyard Theatre not far away that was constructed as a temporary home for the Royal Shakespeare Company while the new theatre was being built as well as the old black and white half timber buildings that remain in the town from Shakespeare’s day. I took the lift back down again but afterwards wished I had taken the stairs as I missed out on the exhibition installed into alcoves in the walls of the stairway.
There are also hour-long tours of the new theatre building taking place every couple of hours, although I unfortunately arrived too late for the last one of the day – the cost is £6.50. Both the Tower and Theatre tour are bookable online which is advisable if you visit at weekends or other popular times in the summer season. If you miss the tour, you can either download a free MP3 audio tour of the building before you come or pay £3.50 to hire headphones to listen, from the shop.
My final stop for the afternoon was to a surreal exhibition by Squidsoup of a word sculpture with flowing patterns of words and sentences. Whatever you typed on the screen would become part of the word sculpture for the next 5 days. You are invited to ponder the question Why Shakespeare? In other words, why has Shakespeare remained so popular with audiences today? After long and careful consideration of this weighty question I wrote the the first words that came into my head on the screen; love, emotion, and speaks to the heart. I’m sure some would be tempted to go off topic and write some random and inappropriate words, although the latest things written were projected on a different screen for all to see, so you couldn’t be too naughty. What words would you have chosen about Shakespeare?
Afterwards I went up to the third floor to take a look at the new Rooftop Restaurant and Bar, which wraps around the sides of the building with views over towards the river and gardens. It serves meals from lunchtime, through the pre-performance dinners and into the evening. On the way down I spotted the Ghosts in the walls installation with images and words from past productions projected onto the brick walls above the cafe.
The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre opened it’s doors in autumn 2010 with some small scale events but the first major productions of the Shakespeare classics will begin in February 2011 with productions of King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. I’m looking forward to bringing my daughter back to see Romeo and Juliet in the hope that live theatre will do more for her exam results than flat words on a page. Even if you’re not coming for one of the theatre performances, I’d say a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is well worth an hour or so of your time, to soak up the atmosphere of the theatre and explore all it has to offer.
Visitor information about the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Royal Shakespeare Company website – for all the information you need on booking tickets and visiting the theatre.
Information on exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Self Guided MP3 tours of the theatre are available free to download or can be listened through headphones to rent in the shop for £3.50
Guided theatre tours last an hour and take place around every 2 hours – they han be booked online or at the box office – cost £6.50 or £3 concessions.
Tower tours are by timed ticket from the box office or bookable online and cost £2.50 or £1.25 for concessions. There’s also a separate free MP3 tour that covers the tower
More things to enjoy in the area
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey