Making space for theatre

Stuck between the rock of the Barbican and the hard place of the Pit, the playwright David Edgar demands new playhouses
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The angry young playwrights of the mid to late Fifties were not particularly exercised by architecture. The two great sites of the 1955- 56 dramatic revolution were both smallish 19th-century theatres, of conventional if homely appearance, with monarchist titles. True, Stratford's Theatre Royal was in proletarian East London, and Sloane Square's Royal Court had a tradition of theatrical radicalism. But neither George Devine, Joan Littlewood, nor the playwrights they nurtured were concerned - at that time at least - with revolutionising the nature of the playhouses in which their work was presented. The playwriterly challenge to the conventional playhouse was left for the next generation.

The two defining characteristics of the fringe theatre of the late Sixties and early Seventies were its distrust of the Establishment in all its forms and its hostility to theatre buildings. The street itself probably proved the most ephemeral of the new theatre locations. Site-specific theatre on the other hand proved surprisingly resilient. But the generic fringe theatre space was either a room above a pub or a cellar below; small, low-ceilinged rooms, their architectural, electrical and plumbing peculiarities obscured (but, happily, never entirely hidden) by ubiquitous black emulsion.

The capacity of such spaces to embrace elements of their own architectural character was most dramatically illustrated for me by a lunchtime play I wrote for Open Space in 1975. The play was called The National Theatre, set in a strip club, and led to considerable confusion among its passing trade, some of whom thought it was a strip show, while others thought it was the National Theatre. It's a moot point which sector of the audience was more disappointed.

Sensing the energy of the upsurge of work that had emerged since the late Sixties, producing theatres in the early Seventies responded architecturally as well as programmatically. The decade between 1965 and 1975 saw the greatest sustained period of British theatre building this century. As the fringe exploded into life all around them, managers of these new playhouses sought ways to tap into the growing market for small-scale, alternative theatre, either by adding purpose-built studios to their plans, or by converting what were intended to be rehearsal rooms or scene stores into flexible studio spaces.

To a certain extent, this development represented a surrender by those who sought new audiences. This was by no means the deleterious effect of the studio movement. In May 1973, it was noted that theatres with studios did less new work in their main houses than theatres without (and not many more overall). Studios quickly became ghettos for new work, which was particularly frustrating for those of us who had moved out of the fringe in order to be able to write large-cast plays on big themes.

My own experience was reasonably typical. Increasingly disillusioned with the potential of small-scale touring theatre, I found myself more or less commuting between the London fringe (notably in my case the Bush and the Soho Poly) and my local studio theatre in Birmingham. Wanting to write a large-scale play about the rise of British Fascism in the 1970s, I sought and gained a commission from Richard Eyre, then running a policy at the studio-less Nottingham Playhouse which looked exciting enough at the time and now seems positively Arcadian (mainstage new plays included Brenton and Hare's Brassneck and Trevor Griffith's Comedians). The draft I produced was certainly large-scale, but Richard didn't feel, in the usual phrase, that it was right for him. I then won a residency at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, for whom I agreed to rework the Fascism play, which none the less became the only play in the Birmingham Rep's history to be specifically and individually pulled from the programme by the board.

I then sent the play round all the other large theatres in the country, all of whom rejected it. It was, however, read by Ron Daniels, who had just himself moved from a fringe career into the RSC. He sought to persuade me that the ideal location for a play about urban racism, with a cast of 20 and covering 30 years of history, was a small tin hut in rural Warwickshire.

The Other Place was a kind of large shed on the edge of an RSC car park, was indeed made of corrugated metal, and had been used as a wardrobe store before Michel St Denis acquisitioned it for internal developmental work with the company in the late Sixties. Later, the RSC handed it over to its young star director Buzz Goodbody, who presented a justly feted programme of intimate readings of classical and contemporary plays.

My play Destiny was the first individually written new play to be presented there, in a season which also included Trevor Nunn's legendary Macbeth. It is possible to be romantic about some aspects of the old Other Place: it was freezing in winter and baking in summer, the rain did interfere with certain performances and the superficially democratic first-come- first-served ticketing was in effect discrimination in favour of Stratfordians without children.

What the theatre did have was an immediacy that resulted partly from its geometry but also from the closeness of the world outside (one exit opened into a short corridor to the car park, another directly into the night). Paradoxically, this sense of the imminence of the surroundings served to concentrate attention inside. The transparency of its architecture (open scaffolding, undisguised entrances, open stairways) made it both an empty and a rough theatre space. Anything could be imagined, but the best things were raw and direct. It was never a place to be diverted or indulged, but it was certainly a place to be moved and to be scared.

As a result, my warning of incipient British Fascism was more directly chilling and perhaps less politically grand than I had expected. For reasons partly of bravery and partly of scheduling pragmatism, the play transferred not to the RSC's small London theatre (the Warehouse), but to its then large space, the Aldwych theatre in the Strand, where it shared a short season (and a basic set) with Donald Sinden's underestimated Lear. I think it was less scary (except perhaps for the night when it was picketed by the National Party, who physically assaulted some members of the audience). But it certainly did feel that what was happening on the stage had both a historical sweep and scope and a purchase on the heart of the times.

I was to work in the Aldwych once more when the theatre was transformed by John Napier into a magical approximation of a found environment, for Trevor Nunn and John Caird's production of my adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Napier decided to take advantage of the Aldwych's great architectural drawback - its over-forward dress circle - to build a rickety walkway over the heads of the stalls audience, umbilically connecting the auditorium with the junkyard set on the stage.

Shortly after Nickleby, the RSC moved into the purpose-built mausoleum of the Barbican. It was perhaps symbolically significant that what was then, and I think remains, Britain's greatest theatre company should choose the early Eighties to move into a building that represented the limitations of post-Fifties British theatre architecture in the starkest terms.

Through the Eighties, as non-purpose-built spaces withered and closed (along with the touring groups that sustained them), British theatre architecture was increasingly dominated by post-War buildings that - through over-optimism on the one hand and lack of imagination on the other - were either too big or too small. The good citizens of Birmingham decided to finance the removal of their repertory company from a 450-seat to a 900-seat theatre for the best and most culturally democratic of reasons. But it may be that a 600-seater - or even a flexible theatre seating between 400 and 600 - would have been preferable.

In late 1994 I was faced with the consequences of this imbalance in the starkest sense. When the RSC accepted my play Pentecost for production at Stratford, we debated long and hard about whether it should go in the Swan or the (now new) Other Place. The decision to go for the Other Place partly reflects the limitations of the Swan. (A brilliant space for rumbustious comedy, the theatre seems to embrace you as you enter it. This was not a sensation we wished Pentecost to provide.) But it was also a response to the extraordinary effectiveness of the rebuilding of the smaller theatre. The new Other Place preserved the geometry of the old, while adding the sybaritic indulgences of proper dressing rooms, effective climatic controls, and a bar. Happily, the chill has not fallen victim to the central heating: the theatre remains a space in which you can feel - as the play on occasions requires you - that it's you and it against the world outside.

Faced with the decision of where to take the play on its 1995 London outing, we found ourselves trapped between the rock of the Barbican (too big, too far) and the hard place of the Pit (too small, too low). It's to the great credit of the RSC that it took the bold decision to hire another theatre - which combines a reasonable audience size with the intimacy and involvement of a small theatre.

The Young Vic, like the Cottesloe and the smallest handful of other theatres in Britain, is a tiered flexible space with an audience of around 400. Under David Thacker's direction, it proved a more or less perfect space for Ibsen and Arthur Miller: it has also effectively accommodated Sean O'Casey, chamber Shakespeare (Trevor Nunn's Othello and Timon of Athens) and indeed contemporary plays. To say that this type of playhouse is the only type of playhouse that can work in the 1990s is as restrictive as the opinion that all playhouses should be three-tiered raked auditoria facing endstages. But if every major city in Britain built a flexible 400-seater - and London built half a dozen more - the future of classical, contemporary and new play production would look brighter than it does now.

n 'Pentecost' is at the Young Vic, London SE1 (Box-office: 0171-928 6363)

n This is an edited version of an essay in 'Making Space for Theatre: British Architecture and Theatre Since 1958' by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (Mulryne & Shewring, pounds 17.95). The book accompanies a British Council exhibition, on show at the National Theatre, London SE1 to 23 June