My dream come true

The Rose of Kingston will re-create an Elizabeth playhouse, and be run by Sir Peter Hall. It fulfils, he says, a lifetime ambition
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The Independent Culture

I shall not easily forget Thursday, 18 November 2004. It was the first opportunity I had to rehearse my production of As You Like It on the stage of a new theatre - Rose of Kingston. The company ran through part one in the morning and, flushed with excitement, delivered part two in the afternoon. The stage didn't just work - it was a wonder.

I shall not easily forget Thursday, 18 November 2004. It was the first opportunity I had to rehearse my production of As You Like It on the stage of a new theatre - Rose of Kingston. The company ran through part one in the morning and, flushed with excitement, delivered part two in the afternoon. The stage didn't just work - it was a wonder.

The actors found their voices and their feet with ease. I noticed immediately that Shakespeare's text, with all the demands it makes, was interacting perfectly with the shape of the stage.

All my life I have been telling actors that "eyeball to eyeball" acting, while perfect for naturalistic plays, simply does not work when there is a 25-line speech to be delivered. The audience feels left out. Although the speech may begin and end with the actor speaking directly to another character, its main part, with descriptive metaphors, puns and antitheses, and all the rest of the Shakespearean vocabulary, inevitably has to be aimed at the audience. They need to participate. Their imaginary forces must be allowed to work.

The shape of the Rose stage in Kingston makes this process easy, fluent and natural - but then, this could be expected, because it is based on the ground plan of the stage where Shakespeare first worked. It gave me the best day of rehearsal I remember in 50 years.

Rose of Kingston exists because a group of local people, backed by the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, have willed a theatre into existence. And they have come up with something entirely original - not a modern compromise, unsure whether it is a contemporary stage or an old fashioned proscenium convenient for pre-London tours. They have taken the ground plan of the Elizabethan Rose as their footprint, and built on to it an elegant modern auditorium with a roof and foyers. It is now partially finished - at least finished enough to perform in. So we will play As You Like It there for three weeks, and then take the production to New York.

We know a great deal about the Elizabethan Rose because Philip Henslowe, the theatrical impresario who built it [on the south bank of the Thames] in 1587 and enlarged it in 1592, kept a daily record of his financial affairs that still survives. From this we know that Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part 1 and Titus Andronicus were staged there, as well as most of Marlowe's plays.

But our most valuable information comes from the archeological excavations of the site in 1989. The foundations and therefore the dimensions of the galleries were revealed: the theatre was small and intimate. The promenade area was raked, allowing the standing audience a better view. But by far and away the most exciting discovery was that the timbers of the original Rose stages (from both 1587 and 1592) had been preserved in the London mud for four centuries. The shape of each stage was clearly visible - the first hard evidence about the interior of an Elizabethan theatre. And it called into question the previously held theories of what the Elizabethan stage looked like.

Until this evidence was uncovered, it had been assumed that all Elizabethan theatres had a thrust stage extending deeply into the audience, like a large diving-board. Advocates of this shape of stage, from Tyrone Guthrie onwards, have argued that the thrust increases communication between actor and audience. Experience suggests otherwise. Actors naturally move to the front of the thrust to talk to most of their audience - but in doing so they inevitably leave a significant proportion of the spectators behind them. The thrust is also inflexible. To make an entrance on the stage of the RSC's Swan is one of the most dynamic actions an actor can perform. But because of the narrowness of the auditorium there is nothing much he can then do except move back again.

The Elizabethan Rose stage was not a thrust, but a lozenge shape that was wide and narrow, tapering towards the front. The entire audience was in front of the stage, not clustered around the sides. In 1989, I stood on the excavated Rose stage and it was clear to me that an actor anywhere on it could communicate with the whole audience.

I was confirmed in that conviction on that first day at Kingston. By following the design of the Elizabethan Rose, this new stage allows every actor to command the entire house. He knows everyone can see him. This is not possible in any of the other reconstructions of Elizabethan theatres, either here or in America.

The original Rose may have seated 1,100 people in the galleries and squashed a further 500 standees into the yard. Rose of Kingston holds 1,000. The Elizabethans were smaller than we are, and they put up with more cramped conditions. In the promenade area at Kingston, people will sit on cushions rather than stand - thus everyone, like those first audiences, will have a clear view of the stage at low prices.

The new Rose is intimate yet epic; a place for private scenes or surging battles - just like the original theatre, which had to cope with plays such as Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great. It also fulfils the mandatory requirement for Shakespeare: it is large enough for the actor to use his voice fully, yet small enough to allow him to whisper. Above all, it is a place for the audience's imagination.

The re-created Rose offers another special advantage - as rehearsing As You Like It has made clear. Passages of text that often seem recalcitrant come alive and work easily on this stage, because the actor has such direct communication with his audience. It is as if the play has been waiting for a stage that enables it to express itself naturally.

The first experience of any theatre excites trepidation in actors. Does it welcome or does it repel? Is it going to be a struggle to communicate? The French dramatist Jean Giraudoux wrote a speech for a perceptive director of a Court theatre in one of his plays. This wise man points out that plays don't only need to succeed with audiences or critics: it is the building that decides their fate. It simply rejects the plays it doesn't like - the ones it feels are not suitable for the building.

The final excitement of working in this new building is that Rose of Kingston is not simply a space for Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama. Any play - modern, ancient Greek, Pinter - will be at home here.

'As You Like It' plays at Rose of Kingston, Kingston Upon Thames (020-8546 6983; www.kingstontheatre.org) to 18 December

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