copyright © 2007
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
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
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
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.