Britain: To be or not to be acting in Stratford

Take centre stage, and imagine yourself as Portia, Malvolio, Lear... Catherine Stebbings goes behind the scenes at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

All the world may be a stage, but there is one set of boards in Stratford that every stage-struck player dreams of treading. And though the Royal Shakespeare Theatre may be at the top of any thespian's CV, mere groundlings can strut and fret on the most famous stage in the world, before joining the audience for the real thing.

Daily tours backstage reveal the mechanics, skills and organisation needed to produce the fabulous illusions we see from our seats. Actors check their rehearsal timetables in a grubby little lobby, stage managers and electricians make final adjustments. Huge architectural structures stand patiently alongside minor props in the wings. You are invited to take centre stage, to imagine yourself as Portia, Titania or Lear. The tour ends in the intimate little Swan Theatre next door, where once again you can imagine performing.

There have been performances of Shakespeare's plays on the banks of the river since 1769, when the first Shakespeare festival was held to celebrate David Garrick's jubilee. Today's Royal Shakespeare Theatre was opened in 1932, and since then the Royal Shakespeare Company has included most of the century's greatest actors - Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Kenneth Branagh, Juliet Stevenson and many more.

A theatre ticket may be the only way to spend the evening in south Warwickshire, but Stratford-on-Avon offers plenty for the visitor on a day out before a performance: Shakespeare's birthplace, Anne Hathaway's cottage, Mary Arden's house ...

The visitors

Three friends from Kingham Hill school, Lucy Kelly, 12, Claire Barden, 14, and Ellie Noble, 13, went on a theatre tour and saw Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST).

Lucy: I love acting, so to stand on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was really exciting. I would love to perform there one day.

The tour did make me realise how hard it is to be an actor, and how many people are involved in a production. Everything was so organised. All the scenery was carefully positioned, and the small props, such as money, letters and handcuffs were laid out neatly on a table for the performance. I was amazed at how steep the raking of the stage was; it must be tiring to act on such a slope.

The tour took us into the wings and on to the stage of the RST, and then into the Swan Theatre, which I had never seen before. It was really lovely, and very intimate. The tour was a good length, interesting and informative.

It was good to see one of Shakespeare's plays in his home town, but I found the performance of Twelfth Night a bit confusing in some parts because I find the language difficult. I need to prepare better next time.

Claire: I really enjoyed the day. The tour was very good and I learnt a lot about the theatre itself. The lady told us a bit about the company, how the actors audition and then have a two-year contract in which they act at the RST and in London, and go on tour. I was surprised to find so much space behind the stage; I thought it would be much smaller. It was nice to see some of the scenery close up. The hedge was really clever; it was made out of green hair-twisters. The tour was not too long; it was interesting and nicely informal. We could even take photos if we wanted.

Although I had prepared myself for the play, I did find some of it hard to follow. However, in doing the tour I felt much more in tune than I had been before, with the theatre in general and the work involved in the whole production.

Ellie: Stratford is a really historic town. I loved all the timbered houses with their low doors and little windows. We visited all the places connected with Shakespeare, such as the house where he was born, his school, his wife's house and the church where he was married and buried. His grave was disappointingly small. Anyway, I got an idea of the place where he had lived. Although there are lots of tourist shops in Stratford, there is a wide variety of other shops which are good for teenagers and older people, so that was fun.

The theatre had a really nice setting beside the river, with lots of swans and ducks. I have never seen the back of a theatre, so the tour was very interesting. I had always wondered how they changed scenes and lighting, so it was good to find out. The lady who took us round was really friendly, but did assume that we knew some terminology. I guess some school groups, like the drama school students who we went with, would have been told a little bit beforehand, whereas we just went along as tourists.

The deal

Stratford is tricky to reach by train: there are frequent services from Moor Street in Birmingham, but only one train every two or three hours on the main line from London Paddington and Oxford. By car, the M40 makes Stratford easy to reach from almost anywhere. Limited car parking outside the RSC, large car park opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre a short walk away.

The Royal Shakespeare Company perform in their three theatres in Stratford - the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan Theatre and the Other Place. Current performances include Shakespeare's The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona; Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson; Roberto Zucco by Bernard-Marie Koltes; and Goodnight Children Everywhere by Richard Nelson. Tickets cost from pounds 5 to pounds 38 (01789 205301).

Backstage tours take place daily 1.30pm and 5.30pm. They last about 45 minutes. Admission for adults costs pounds 4, for students and OAPs pounds 3, Sunday family ticket pounds 12. It is advisable to book in advance (01789 412602).

Food: In the theatre complex, snacks are available at the River Terrace Cafe bar and full meals are served at the Box Tree Restaurant. There are excellent bistros and restaurants on Sheep Street, opposite the theatres.

Other attractions: Shakespeare's birthplace, open daily 9am-5pm, adults pounds 4.50; children pounds 2. Nash House and New Place, open daily, 9.30am-5pm, adults pounds 3, children pounds l.50. Hall's Croft, open daily 9.30am-5.30pm, adults pounds 3.50, children pounds l.50. Anne Hathaway's cottage, open daily, 9am-5pm, adults pounds 3.50, children pounds l.50. Mary Arden's house, open daily 9.30am-5pm, adults pounds 4, children pounds 2. Opening times are 30 minutes later on Sundays, and change between October and March for all these sights. Five sights inclusive ticket: adults pounds 10. children pounds 5, OAPs pounds 9, family pounds 26.60.

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