To see or not to see? Audience gets poor view of the Bard

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The Royal Shakespeare Company has made the astonishing admission that one third of its main house audience in Stratford-upon-Avon is getting a "remote and unsatisfactory" experience of Shakespeare.

An unpublished study by the company of the facilities at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre says: "In the balcony, for example, where almost one third of the audience sits, poor acoustics and sightlines make the experience of seeing and hearing Shakespeare remote and unsatisfactory."

The RSC undertook the study to pave the way for a lottery application to redevelop its theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon. It will be one of the most significant provincial lottery applications yet, and will involve the Royal Shakespeare Theatre closing for several months when rebuilding work begins.

But for the moment, and at the start of the tourist season, the company has admitted that one in three ticket buyers will have an unsatisfactory experience. More than 500 people sit in the balcony, paying up to pounds 14 for seats where acoustics and sightlines are poor.

RSC spokesman Ian Rowley said yesterday that thousands of young people every year still became hooked on Shakespeare from visiting the RSC at Stratford. But he also said there was a huge file of complaints from members of the audience about the balcony, and a separate file one and a half inches thick with complaints about the ladies' loos, or lack of them. "The queues ... are legendary," he said.

On the question of the balcony, he said the seating was of a bench variety and the whole structure was illogically designed, "far too distant from the stage for the presentation of drama." He added: "You go up dark, dingy steps from a separate entrance to get there ... this is the space where school parties and young people have their first experience of Shakespeare."

Adrian Noble, artistic director of the RSC, said: "It is a very undemocratic space. Going to the balcony is like living through a cultural apartheid."

It is not the RSC's only problem in Stratford. The study, carried out by the company and outside consultants, also concluded that dressing rooms are cramped, stage machinery is outdated and the deteriorating condition of working areas means they are perilously close to breaking health and safety regulations.

A lottery application will be submitted this summer for a redevelopment, which will include adapting the auditorium of the theatre, new public spaces, restaurants, larger foyers and more lavatories, as well as a new stage and backstage facilities.