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Things That Have Interested Me

Courting Success

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
3 February 2007

In a way, the old Other Place at Stratford, by which I mean the original Other Place, as converted out of corrugated iron sheds under the directorship of Buzz Goodbody in 1974, has a lot to answer for. Until then, the Royal Shakespeare Company had only ever had one venue in Stratford, the current main theatre, and one transfer house in London, the Aldwych Theatre. If directors and actors were dissatisfied with their theatre, the public seldom heard about it. Perhaps we were easily fooled, but I do not think it occurred to us, as members of the provincial audience in the 1960s, that we were at anything other than one of the major theatres in Britain, and indeed in the world. It seemed like a privilege.

What the company privately thought is quite another matter. But when the tiny Other Place had its early successes, with both modern and classical plays, there arose an articulate distaste not only for the RSC's main house, but also for large conventional theatres in general. Given the choice between a small, intimate, deliberately no-frills shack (not much more than a Scout hut or a village hall) and the Odeon-like Memorial Theatre, most serious directors took the first option. They had come from the fringe, and the fringe had all the kudos.

You could argue that this was a cop-out, particularly so for a large subsidised company (public subsidy is of the essence for this kind of theatre), if all your best efforts were directed at a tiny audience, and if you were, effectively, refusing to take the main house seriously. The small house worked best, and was certainly only justifiable, as part of the larger programme. It gave a home to new writing. It kept the actors fresh, offering a variety of work throughout the season. But it sometimes seemed as if the success of this new limb had led to the atrophy of the body itself.

Many years later, at the end of the Adrian Noble regime, a situation arose that seemed, from a distance, like an identity crisis. Whatever the facts of the matter, whatever the origins of the dispute, from outside it looked as if the RSC hated Stratford, hated its own audiences (provincial and international), hated its own main theatre, hated its London theatre ... and that's enough hating to be going on with. The view from the distance could not have been more damaging, and it seemed to me that the problem had spread from the boardroom down. The public expressions of bitterness against Noble were thoroughly unpleasant to behold, but there was indeed a big problem.

Under the new regime, as led by Michael Boyd, there came a new, scaled-down, perception of this problem. Stratford itself was not at fault (and would not have to be bombed to smithereens), but the main auditorium needed a radical rethink. The listed parts of Elizabeth Scott's 1932 building were reprieved, but the auditorium (which had, for all I know, been ruined when enlarged in 1951) was to be gutted. And in the meantime a temporary venue had to be made, so that the company, by now vulnerable in its very identity, could continue its large-scale work.

It is interesting that the two unquestionably great developments at Stratford in the last decades have both had a crucial element of private patronage. The Swan Theatre, made in the apsidal shell of the old Victorian building, designed in 1978 by Michael Reardon and Tim Furby, is one of the loveliest theatres in the country and has proved perfectly idiomatic for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, in the same way that the smaller opera houses are idiomatic for Mozart. There was always an immediate sense with this theatre, a feeling that, ah yes, that solves that problem: this, without having any pretensions to archaeological accuracy, is the kind of structure the company's core repertoire belongs in. And no doubt the success of the Swan further contributed to what was now widely perceived as the unpopularity of the main house.

The making of the new temporary Courtyard Theatre involved the loss of the Other Place car park and the adaptation of the old buildings, not of the original Other Place, but of the theatre that had replaced it. What is completely astonishing about this success story is the speed of its execution.

The architect, Ian Ritchie, had the relevant experience, having designed, but never got to build, a temporary opera house for Covent Garden during its period of closure. Ritchie was appointed on November 1 2004, in the knowledge that the plans would have to be presented for outline permission within six weeks. The board, now (it would seem) preferring to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, approved these plans on December 8, and the planning submission was made five days later. Stratford council, which has not always played a heroic role in the story of the RSC, was very supportive. Construction began in June 2005 and the new auditorium was "watertight" a year after the meeting at which the project had been decided on.

This speed would never have been possible without some private help. As it was, no new application had to be made for public funds, and the theatre was completed on time and under budget, opening last July. The exterior is like a container, being made of interlocking plates of rusting steel. The interior has a very similar feel to the Swan, but is more than twice its size, seating more than 1,000. It is the try-out design for the future main house, and - in exactly the same way as the Swan - it gives you a feeling that, yes, this makes sense. If this is what the new main house eventually looks like, that is going to be more than fine.

But the new Courtyard Theatre (designed to be dismantled once it has served its purpose, and capable, like the Crystal Palace, of being rebuilt elsewhere) resembles the London Eye in this respect: that nobody who has seen it supposes for a moment that it will be pulled down in the near future. I saw Richard III in it the other day and felt a strong sense that (quite apart from the virtues of the production itself) a problem which had bedevilled Stratford for three decades was now in sight of a solution. (A handy book about the RSC Courtyard Theatre is published by Categorical Books.)

Letters in Response

David Stoker, 'Authentic Auden,' The Guardian, 10 February 2007.

Eoin Dillon, 'Authentic Auden,' The Guardian, 10 February 2007.

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