When the new £112 million Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon opens its doors to the public for the first time this week, there will be a familiar presence in Row A. The ashes of one of its most famous founder members – actor Sir Ian Richardson – have been buried in the foundations, just in front of the new stage, in row A, at the bottom of the central aisle.
Sir Ian's son Miles, 47, who appeared with his father on the old Stratford stage, now demolished to make way for the new theatre, said proudly: "In perpetuity, my father will be on the front row for every future performance – just where he liked to be, centre stage. And, if you are sitting in Row A, you will not be alone."
Sir Ian found small-screen fame as scheming politician Francis Urquhart in the 1990 TV drama House of Cards, written by Michael Dobbs, who was made a peer last week. His character was famous for the mischievous catchphrase: "You may say that. I couldn't possibly comment." He also starred as spy Bill Haydon in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but had earlier spent 15 continuous years on stage in Stratford as a full-time member of the RSC. He died at the age of 72 in February 2007.
Nearly two years ago, while work on the new theatre was underway, Miles Richardson was making a tour with his mother, Maroussia, who, like her late husband, was a founder member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961. He said: "The building was at the foundation stage, the cement mixers were churning, and on an impulse I turned to my mother and said, why don't we put Dad's ashes in one of those? His ashes had been on the mantlepiece of Mum's home while we tried to work out what to do with them.
"We had thought of Scotland, where he was born, but he didn't go back there much in latter years. We also thought of the grounds of the house near Exeter in Devon where my mother and father spent the last 10 years of his life, but, again, it didn't seem quite right. We wanted it to be somewhere where we went often, and could think of him."
After inspecting the new building, Mr Richardson and his mother, now 70, spoke to RSC executive director Vikki Heywood and the theatre's on-site constructors who asked them to come back the following week. When they did so, they found a space had been prepared in the foundations.
"Every theatre should have its ghost," Mr Richardson said. "There are a number in Shakespeare's plays. The old Stratford theatre had one reputed to be of a former stage manager who came to a sticky end. There was definitely a spooky feeling round by the old props store. The builders say they will have cleared away the old spirits when they transformed the theatre but, instead, it will have my father. It will definitely be a benign presence."
Ms Heywood said: "As we look ahead to opening the newly transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I am touched that such a wonderful actor, who is also such an integral part of the RSC's history, has become part of the fabric of our new building."
The new RST and the revamped and adjoining Swan Theatre will open on time and on budget, on Wednesday. The RST features a 1,000-seat auditorium and a thrust stage which the audience wraps round on three sides. Facilities include exhibition areas, a new Rooftop Restaurant, Riverside Cafe and terrace, and a new 36-metre tower with viewing platform from which visitors will be able to see all the Shakespeare landmarks in the town.
Many of the Art Deco features of the original 1932 building have been retained. In a carefully choreographed "soft opening", there will be exhibitions, readings and recitals in the new theatres into the New Year. The first production opens in February when Greg Hicks stars in King Lear.