Theatre: Razing the building in order to raise the roof

Why knock down the Stratford main house? Adrian Noble, Artistic Director of the RSC, makes the case for artistic renewal
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The Independent Culture
FOLLOWING A fire that destroyed the original 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, the present Royal Shakespeare Theatre was built in 1932, designed by Elisabeth Scott. It was rumoured, Peter Brook tells us in his memoirs, that she impressed the selection committee with her watercolours. Originally seating just over 1,000 people, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been cudgelled, reshaped and revamped until it now has a capacity of 1,450. The foyers and lavatories (like all amenities of the period, designed for women with astonishing bladder control) are, however, still geared to the much smaller capacity. With the opening of our beautiful Swan Theatre, built in the burnt-out shell of the original theatre, the nightly audience arriving at the same footprint of land has practically doubled from that originally intended.

The essential problem of the auditorium is that, as designed, the actors are put into one room and the audience in another, with an invisible wall dividing them. Shakespearian drama demands a radically different relationship. Furthermore, since the Second World War there has been a healthy, quite unstoppable urge for actor and audience to get close to one another. There is an added, almost unique difficulty in Stratford if you sit in the balcony, which houses almost one-third of the audience and is where most of our young patrons sit. The balcony was placed not only above, but behind the dress circle, disadvantaging the audience by distance and the actor by vastly increasing the volume of air he must command with his voice. Remember that Shakespeare talked of "hearing" plays, not "seeing" them. The experience up in the balcony has been described as looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The fact that thousands of us have had extraordinary theatrical experiences sitting in the gods is testament more to the actors' genius than to any architectural merit.

Successive artistic directors have tried to break down this invisible wall by progressively extending the stage into the auditorium: Peter Hall in 1960; Trevor Nunn in '70 and again in '76; Terry Hands in '75 and again in '82; myself in '88 and '92. Each of us has tried to bring the actor closer to the audience, to place him or her into the cradle of the audience's imagination.

The question facing us today is how to build a Shakespeare theatre for the 21st century. To do this, I believe we must first look to the past.

Shakespeare deals with the world within, as well as the outside world - he creates an imaginative as well as a literal universe. This is why scenery is such a difficult and sensitive issue in Shakespearian production. The stage picture must not limit the imagination of the audience. Shakespeare's words create a world; space is created through the actor's imagination and body. The text also creates its own unique sense of time.

For me, Shakespeare is the quintessential Renaissance artist, the supreme humanist. After the flat two-dimensional medieval period, the world turned round, and Man, not God, became the centre of the universe. This is directly reflected in Shakespeare's drama and in the theatre architecture in which it was performed: a character on a platform, the earth; with the sky, heaven, above him; with the underworld, hell, below him; surrounded by all humanity, all social classes, all the world - the Globe.

The lessons to be learnt from Shakespeare's own theatre are obvious. First, the actor and audience share a space. Second, the volume of the space is not too big. It works within our human limitations of physical size and vocal capacity.

Third, the audience is stacked vertically, with some above the actor's sight line and others below.

Fourth, the buildings were made of wood - good for acoustics.

By the time Shakespeare died, theatre architecture was changing rapidly, reflecting massive social and political change. Perspective theatre, imported from the Continent, had arrived. Audience and actor were separated into different rooms, and pictures were presented. There was one perfect seat, the King's, and the remainder of the auditorium was arranged to reflect a class-based social order. Amazingly, we have been building theatres in the same mould ever since.

In my view, a theatre should not just be a place where plays are put on, but a focus point for a community. For us in Stratford this means a local, national and international community who love Shakespeare and want to be close to that nexus of stage, grave and birthplace. A theatre should be an inspiring place in its own right, a home for all the performing arts - musicians, painters and sculptors - and we are particularly blessed in that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre sits in the cradle of the arm of the river Avon as it winds past weeping willows to Holy Trinity Church.

The secondary activities - eating, drinking and buying souvenirs - that have grown up around great buildings since the Middle Ages make a major contribution to a theatre's finances and I'm certain they will become even more crucial in future, reflecting the world's increasing commercialisation. This juxtaposition of the temporal and the spiritual strikes me as being especially appropriate to the theatre, and if it helps to spread subsidy further, then I'm all for it.