Studios where Hitchcock once ruled are dusted down for a Shakespearean king

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The derelict film studios where Alfred Hitchcock shot some of his early movies will tonight be transformed into a theatre for Ralph Fiennes to star in Shakespeare's Richard II.

The Gainsborough studios in Shoreditch, east London, have been taken over by the Almeida theatre, which will present Fiennes as Richard II. From 1 June he will also take on the lead role in Coriolanus, with both plays running until August.

The choice of the Gainsborough Studios as a venue is one of the most unlikely and adventurous made by a theatre company.

Built 100 years ago, the Gainsborough Studios were established in 1919 in a former generating station on the Regent's Canal. Bought by the director Michael Balcon in 1924, the Studios provided a London home for Alfred Hitchcock, who made many of his early films there, including The Lodger and The Lady Vanishes.

The Gainsborough Studios were closed 50 years ago and has been largely empty since. Despite protests from film enthusiasts, the studios will soon be redeveloped into a mix of offices, residential properties and television studios.

But in the interim, the Almeida has raised money to install, in the derelict space, an improvised auditorium and the sets for the two plays.

"The thing is a folly," said Jonathan Kent, the director of the two plays. "I hope it's a glorious folly. Theatre exists only in that one moment, and then is gone. How much more so when not only the play but the theatre is gone."

Kent, the Almeida's co-director, was looking for a venue for the two plays, knowing that the Almeida in Islington was too small. He was walking along the canalside one Sunday with the production designer Paul Brown wondering where they could go when they looked up and saw the derelict studios.

As well as Fiennes, the company also features Linus Roache and Emilia Fox. Roache said: "Theatre does get complacent.

At the Gainsborough, people are not walking in thinking: 'I'll get my chocolates here, my tickets here, sit down in my red velvet seat and wait for the lights to go down'. It's unknown. You arrive and you don't quite know what's going to happen."

Almeida executive director Nick Starr points to a special resonance of the area. Shoreditch was home to the first public playhouse in London, built in 1576 by James Burbage, where in 1587, at the age of 23, William Shakespeare began his acting and writing career less than half a mile away from the present Gainsborough Studios.

"You can feel 'the ghosts in the machine'," says Mr Starr. "It's really interesting to know that this is where Hitchcock made The Lodger, but it's also a mile from where Shakespeare had his first theatre in London."

Fiennes said he and Kent see the venue as offering a surprise which will change people's assumptions about theatregoing. Fiennes said: "Jonathan and I both thought the juxtaposition of these plays could be heightened by being experienced in a space an audience wasn't familiar with."