RSC unveils 'world's best Shakespeare theatre'

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The Independent Culture

Almost from the moment the Royal Shakespeare Theatre opened in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1932, it was deemed inadequate for great performances.

But after years of fraught negotiations, the Royal Shakespeare Company has unveiled the blueprint for its transformation.

Michael Boyd, the company's artistic director, and Vikki Heywood, its executive director, yesterday confirmed plans that will see the existing proscenium arch theatre stripped out and replaced with a stage thrust out into the audience.

Plans for the scheme - which will cost £100m including the bill for substitute accommodation while the work is carried out - will be submitted to the local authority this summer.

An alternative temporary venue opens in Stratford next month. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) will close next April, its sister theatre, the Swan, will close a few months later and the aim is for the new development to be complete by 2010.

Ms Heywood said the finished product would be "the best modern playhouse for Shakespeare in the world". Mr Boyd said theatre had retreated behind the "picture frame" of the proscenium arch in the 19th century. But the new plans would be a return to theatre as it was presented in Shakespeare's day.

The design would halve the distance between actors and the furthest members of the audience to 15 metres. "Crudely it brings the audience closer to the actors [so] you can see right up their nostrils," he said.

Although this will cut the number of seats from nearly 1,400 to 1,000, the company insisted it was vital for the future as the existing cheap gallery seats were increasingly difficult to sell and deterred return visits because the sightlines were so poor.

The development will restore the art deco foyers of the Grade II* listed building, improve facilities including changing rooms for staff, and restore the riverside walkway by the side of the theatre. A new foyer, flanked by a new 33-metre-high tower, will link the RST and the Swan for the first time. The tower will also act as a marker for the many visitors who find it difficult to locate the theatre and will offer views across Stratford to key sites in Shakespeare's life.

The redesign is being carried out by Bennetts Associates architects although the temporary Courtyard Theatre, which prefigures the eventual plans, has been designed by Ian Ritchie.

The RSC has raised 85 per cent of the cost, including substantial grants from the Arts Council and the regional development agency. Dame Judi Dench is helping the fund-raising team.

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