As they like it? RSC hopes redesign will win over critics

After three years and £112m, Stratford has changed its stage – and the relationship between actor and audience
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It has seen Laurence Olivier play Coriolanus and Antony Sher take a turn as Richard III. But today it will be the Royal Shakespeare Company's main stage, and not the people upon it, which is thrust into the spotlight.

Today, the RSC opens its doors on a £112.8m, three-and-a-half year renovation programme that includes the unveiling of its new 1,040-capacity Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in Stratford-upon-Avon, which its creators hope combines the "epic with the intimate" by dramatically reducing the distance between actors and the audience.

The company's 430-seat Swan Theatre also reopens to the public today, which like the RST has been closed since 2007. The first Shakespeare play to be performed at the RST will be King Lear in February.

The RSC's artistic director Michael Boyd described it as an "emotional moment". He was one of the first publicly to stride across the new "thrust" stage – one surrounded by the audience on three sides – to demonstrate the room's enhanced acoustics by whispering the answers to questions.

"Today we are opening the doors of our new home with an invitation for all to come in and explore it," he said. "Our transformed auditorium offers the promise of a changed relationship between actor and audience as its stage steps out from the old proscenium arch and brings the furthest seats twice as close to the action."

The theatre replaces the notoriously badly designed old building, the work of Elisabeth Scott, which opened in 1932. Ever since it first flung open its doors, directors had to fight to overcome the difficulty of an auditorium designed like a cinema, where the furthest seat was 27 metres from the stage.

One actor described reciting lines on it "like acting from Calais to the white cliffs of Dover". During the refurbishment, performances shifted to the nearby 1,000-seat temporary Courtyard Theatre.

"This gives us the opportunity not to be frustrated by the old space but to celebrate it," said the RSC's executive director Vikki Heywood.

The complex's new features include a rooftop restaurant with views over the River Avon. There is a "colonnade" or external space linking the RST and the Swan for the first time, and a 36-metre tower allowing visitors to see key locations in Shakespeare's local life and death, such as the Church of the Holy Trinity, where the playwright is buried.

The building also has a 7-metre basement, allowing actors to rise from beneath the stage. There are 15 new dressing rooms, all with balconies facing out across the river. The complex includes a "flying box office" – a front window which is mounted on tracks and can move up the wall during intervals, providing more space for the public to circulate.

The RSC hopes the new auditorium will host performances similar to those that graced the original space, where the boards were ripped up and reused in the new theatre's foyer area. They have been trodden by numerous Shakespearian actors, including Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson.

"It was certainly a daunting experience," said Rab Bennetts, the scheme's architect, of taking on the project. "The very first meeting we had after we were appointed by Michael Boyd, he asked us to address the company. And we ended up talking to 300 people. When I eventually came and sat on the stage in the main theatre, as it then was, I realised I was sitting on a trapdoor. I knew if we didn't get it right they'd probably let me fall right through it."

The designer said he hoped the new building would provide a "better, more intense experience than the old theatre". "I expect people will bond immediately," he added. "Everybody is going to feel part of the same room. The audience can be seen completely at all times, because the lighting levels are higher. That experience of being seen is also exceptional."

The RSC said it was aiming to fill 30 per cent of its new seats with students but was still awaiting potential improvements to the irritatingly slow rail link between London and Stratford-upon-Avon. The company used the opportunity to announce its new season, which will include Boyd directing Macbeth and the RSC's associate director Rupert Goold taking on The Merchant of Venice.

"We have reopened our new home on time and on budget," added Heywood. "A result of a project which I believe has delivered a shared vision for a playhouse which brings actors and audiences closer together... It has been a long journey from late night cups of coffee over a cardboard model to opening our doors to the public. But we have shared that journey with many thousands of people."

Audiences can be certain of one thing: they should now at least be able to hear what the actors are saying, even if the meaning of Shakespeare's words remains as imponderable as ever.

Stratford memories

'I was struck by the beauty of the place and the odd ugliness of the buildings like an oil tanker on the water' Antony Sher, actor

'The old theatre wasterrifying. There was none of the intimacy which you have now so it was very intimidating for a young actor' Clive Wood, actor

'I remember the toiletsituation. When you were on the stage it was very difficult to go and have a wee' Ray Fearon, actor

'The last theatre inspired huge affection. I came here as a young teenager and told my Mum, "That's what I want to do when I grow up."' Greg Doran, RSC director

'We used to crowd into the downstage right wings and every night we would love watching Paul Schofield do Timon of Athens' Janet Suzman, actor