Jay Merrick: Home of Shakespeare deserves architecture with a sense of drama

Share
Related Topics

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre's transformation by Rab Bennetts has turned a famously stolid architectural mongrel into a re-branded 21st-century visitor experience that is, by turns, engrossing, neutral and strange.

Those equipped with decent binoculars, and standing on high ground in Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire can ogle its pièce de résistance, a tapering 36m-high brick exclamation mark of a tower whose design is puzzling, if not starkly questionable.

The architect, a charming fellow who fizzes around like a sherbert fountain, has skilfully delivered a series of big, functionally successful interventions. First and foremost, his practice Bennetts Associates, working with engineers Buro Happold and Charcoalblue theatre consultants, have created a superb and technically advanced drum-form auditorium with a deep thrust stage, and 1,040 seats in three tiers – none more than 15m from the front edge of the forestage.

Through the years, thousands have "suffered" from Shakespeare after sitting in the gods of the old fan-shaped auditorium, 27m from the proscenium.

When Anthony Quayle, an early director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, asked the legendary Tyrone Guthrie to perform there, Guthrie replied: "I'll come if you bulldoze the proscenium stage into the river."

Bennetts has also opened up the building's river frontage gracefully and effectively with a riverside promenade that runs past the knobbly 1932 Art Deco facade designed by Elisabeth Scott, and skirts the flank of the Swan Theatre. The prom then segues into a path that leads to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptised and buried.

The key decision – to thrust, or not to thrust – only came at a late stage in the design development. Another late decision concerned spending £2m to dig a 7m deep thrust basement into the Avon's flood-plain – an unquestionably tricky, if not risky piece of engineering. But artistic director Michael Boyd now has the "tension and compression, and the full human presence" he craves.

The new architecture of the building has brought great advances to its functional, educational and pleasurable possibilities. And interesting portions of the original fabric have been saved from demolition, or very visibly re-used elsewhere; the floor of the original stage, for example, and the original Art Deco ticket office, which now rises hilariously on steel columns like a Wurlitzer organ to let people pass more easily into the canyon-like space between the foyer and the curving brick shoulder of the auditorium.

Nevertheless, the architectural props and make-up that clothe these changes are not always comfortably deployed. The glazed elements of the Southern Lane facade, and the three-storey glass box that links the new tower with the 1932 building, seem almost corporate; and inside the colonnade that connects the foyer and the Victorian segment, there is a sense of miss-matched parts.

As for the tower, it is a superb example of structural brick-laying, but its overwrought architectural details undermine its monumental heft, which has been fatally unzipped by the finnicky slit-glazing that skitters up its corners. Is this a modernist or a "contextual" tower? Alas, it is neither.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?