177. From white box to empty shell – rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

royal-shakespeare-theatre-river-stratford-upon-avon-england-2008-by-roadsofstone.jpgThere’s a brick building at the end of the street where I grew up. I run past it every time I’m in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Today, it’s just an empty shell.

After more than seventy years, a new Royal Shakespeare Theatre is being built inside the framework of the old one.

It’s a constraining decision, architecturally – which limits the capacity and design of the new theatre, whilst still destroying the marvellous art deco foyer within. Just think – for £110 mm we could have had a Sydney Opera House instead of a revamped old blockhouse with only 1,000 seats – a third fewer than before.

royal-shakespeare-theatre-rebuild-stratford-upon-avon-england-2008-by-roadsofstone.jpgLooking across the river now, I can see empty space where the heart of the building should be.

And in a way, that’s just how it was in 1970 when I saw my first Shakespeare play here – Peter Brook’s famous ‘White Box’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, famously staged inside a chasm of blank white walls.

a-midsummer-nights-dream-stratford-1970.jpg By sheer chance, or fantastic foresight, my parents had brought me to one of the most important and innovative Shakespeare productions of the entire 20th century.

Yes, Olivier had played here, and Peggy Ashcroft, too, but this was different – and more than just different, it was revolutionary. No more stuffy, complicated Shakespeare – Brook’s production was minimalist theatre, stripped down to its barest elements.

peter-brook-midsummer-nights-dream-white-box-1970-c-shakespeare-centre-library.jpgThere was no scenery, and no props to speak of – Sally Jacobs’ design used simple plain white canvas and a trapeze to conjure the mysteries of the night.

It was new, and it was risky – but the critics loved it.

The Observer called it “awash with genius… a staggering, astonishing achievement,” whilst the New York Times acclaimed Brook’s Dream as the most genuinely and deeply original production of Shakespeare in decades. And I thought that Shakespeare was always like this.

peter-brook-midsummer-nights-dream-white-box-and-trapeze-1970.jpgIn those years, perhaps it was. Living in a small provincial market town of just 21,000 people, we really were outrageously lucky – privileged beyond belief, in fact, to see the world’s best theatre just minutes from our door.

I was 14 when I met Ben Kingsley. He had played in that White Box production – although I didn’t know it then – but now he was warm from another stage – as Hamlet, starring alongside Mike Gwilym.

That was at The Other Place, Stratford’s new and experimental, warehouse venue, just around the corner. I went to King Lear there, and A Winter’s Tale, too – a trio of bleak plays which suited the dark simplicity of that space.


On the main stage of the RST, I saw Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson as the King and Bolingbroke in Richard II, with knights on hobby horses and the “sceptr’d isle” speech dreamt on the swing of another trapeze.

Then came Charles Dance in Henry V, Helen Mirren in Macbeth. Patricia Hayes in Twelfth Night.

Peter Brook’s White Box had changed everything about the Royal Shakespeare Company, and about the theatre, too. As time passed, the adaptations grew more audacious, more irreverent, and ever more relevant.

The opening of the first 1978 performance of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Zoë Wanamaker and Jonathan Pryce, was scandalously disturbed by a drunk bursting into the theatre, stumbling down the expensive aisles towards the front and launching into a drunken renditon of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.

To the horror of all those in the posh seats, he vaulted onto the stage … and took on the part of Petruchio.

Shakespeare had torn off the garb of predictability, for ever. There were gangsters and a motorbike in the Shrew that year. Yet beneath the cloak of modern adaptation, the plays had suddenly become more interesting, more accessible – proving the durability of ancient themes in modern times.

trevor-nunn-comedy-of-errors-stratford-1976.jpgThe RSC pushed the limits of the material, too. There was amazement when Trevor Nunn turned Shakespeare into rock opera in a fast and loose musical adaptation of A Comedy of Errors, with Judi Dench as Olivia. At the age of 15, I loved it.

The audiences and critics did too, even if Cliff Barnes in the NYT still couldn’t quite admit it fifteen years later, in his review of the 2001 revival.

The success of that show looks so much less startling now. Nunn’s career has gone on to embrace the London and Broadway productions of Cats, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard, whilst his Les Misérables is still running in London after 22 years.

Yet amongst so much that was modern, theatre history found its place as well.

rsc-stratford-stage-design-1976-romeo-and-juliet.jpgWhen Shakespeare wrote his plays, the audience was always seated around the stage. Theatres were circular then, as you can see in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, or at any performance in the reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank today.

In 1975, the RSC began to experiment with theatre-in-the-round at The Other Place, adapting its warehouse space to fit the concept. The Hamlet I saw there was staged that way, forging a much closer link between audience and actors.

It wasn’t clear how to carry that idea within the main theatre; since although a thrust stage reaching into the auditorium will be a feature of this year’s new design, in Elisabeth Scott’s original the seating was firmly fixed, all out in front.

francesca-annis-ian-mckellen-romeo-and-juliet-stratford-1976.jpgFor the 1976 season, additional seating was built in a mock-up of the Globe, set right behind the stage. That’s where I sat to watch Romeo and Juliet.

I was studying the play at school, and trying to understand it, and now I was on the balcony myself, just a fevered arm’s length from Juliet as she called to Ian McKellen’s Romeo.

romeo-and-juliet-stratford-1976-mckellen-com.jpgMy eyes were glued to Francesca Annis and her thin white dress all night, close enough to see another new twist in that production – Juliet’s clenched hands starting slowly to uncurl, just as Romeo took poison to meet untimely death.

In holding out the desperately unlikely hope of a happy ending, that defied everything we knew about the play. And yet the ploy worked brilliantly, all the same.

Trevor Nunn left Stratford in 1978. I moved away the following summer, after another play or two. But I’ve never left Stratford entirely behind. Much of my family lives here to this day, and the town and this theatre are in me still.

royal-shakespeare-theatre-shell-stratford-upon-avon-england-2008-by-roadsofstone.jpgAs I run beside the Avon this morning, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is just an empty shell of walls.

All these years on, the white box is gone for ever now, replaced at last by open sky. And perhaps it’s true – not that much has changed at all.

177. From white box to empty shell - rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon : : 177. From white box to empty shell - rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon : : 177. From white box to empty shell - rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon : : 177. From white box to empty shell - rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon : : 177. From white box to empty shell - rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon : : 177. From white box to empty shell - rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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12 responses to “177. From white box to empty shell – rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

  1. What a wonderfully poignant post — and how lucky you were to be exposed to such a high caliber of talent and innovation at a young age.

    I do believe that even when we are too young to truly discern, intellectually, the great from the merely good or acceptable, regardless of the artistic discipline, we somehow know, in the gut, without the filters of opinions by critics or even parents. And that exposure stays with us and informs us forevermore.

    I’d always wondered what it would be like to be exposed to Shakespeare as a young person while living there, “there” being anywhere in the UK. Now I know, with a bonus.

    The project does seem ghastly – woe to the surely-marvelous Art Deco foyer. But you’ve got your memories.

    And the older I get the more I appreciate the line written by a then-young Paul Simon: Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.

    Thanks for a bit of enchantment.

  2. Thanks, Ella. So many of the actors in the RSC at that time have gone on to great sucess.

    Either they matured into great actors through their work with the company, or they were enormously talented before they came.

    And perhaps it’s more likely still that both of those statements apply.

  3. Roads
    As usual, you take us to enchanted places and this one, your rich cultured childhood. How marvelous… I am especially greatful. Through your post, you brought me as close as I will ever get to Shakespeare and his original set…

  4. Thank you, Shadowlands.

    I can’t pretend that I understood it all then. Just sitting there for hours listening to 16th Century English wasn’t easy at that age.

    But a great deal depends on how a play is interpreted, and the RSC always made it work, brilliantly.

    Of course, I’ve been to some pretty boring Shakespeare productions in my time. Those amateur ‘every line is sacred, cut not a single word,’ versions of the histories certainly come to mind.

    I saw ‘A Winter’s Tale’ at a clifftop theatre in Cornwall (SW England) once. The waves were crashing against the rocks far beneath us. The wind was howling and a couple of times it started to spot with rain. Against all that weather, I hardly heard a word. The play went on for four and a half hours, and by the end we were frozen half to death.

    I’ve had better evenings than that one, but it was certainly memorable.

    The RSC never ever did Shakespeare like that. In my research for this post, I’ve become aware of just what a ground-breaking and golden time it was for the company during those years with Trevor Nunn as Artistic Director.

    How lucky I was to be able to witness so much of that magic, and, as Ella says, at such a young age.

    The company struggled somewhat after Nunn left, and some would say is only now beginning to find its feet again. In these days of tight arts funding, the RSC is eternally strapped for cash.

    My concern for the new theatre hinges around the design. Despite my memories of the place, the building is unremittingly ugly from the outside, from almost every angle.

    The limitations of the design are even more concerning in how they dictate a reduced capacity.

    If the RSC was struggling financially whilst playing to audiences of 1500, how on Earth are they ever going to survive with the much reduced revenues provided by an auditorium limited to just 1,000?

    If retaining an unattractive building meant breaking the business, as I fear it might, then the decision should have been very easy, and very different.

    I’d gladly have been the first one driving the bulldozer to demolish the old brick blockhouse in exchange for a gleaming new Daniel Libeskind or Richard Rogers creation, shining beside the sparkling Avon.

    As the best producer of Shakespeare in the world, the RSC should have deserved no less.

    Many thanks again.

  5. Oh dear Roads,

    Your description of Stratford and the RSC has stirred up some memories. Not of going to the RSC performances (shame) but of the handful of occasions that I have been there.
    Particularly poignant was the masthead picture of the Clopton Bridge close to the picture of the RSC theatre…

    That automatically took me back 30 years this autumn to a warm day at the very end of October. We were honeymooning in the Cotswolds and my wife wanted to revisit Clifford Chambers as some years earlier she had stayed there at a friends house.

    After walking around the village my wife recalled that she used to walk to Stratford so that is what we did. Leaving the car by the village we walked across the fields. From the map I have the impression that they have since built a new road to cross that footpath.

    As we walked the sun came out and it became quite warm. So we had to carry our coats/jackets/pullovers/whatever. Anyway of course as we got closer to Stratford there was the RSC Theatre on the far side of the river and the Clopton Bridge ahead. The recesses of my memory seem to recall a couple of ice cream cones completing the picture! So the combination of those two scenes brings back memories of young love and hopes and dreams. Some dreams left unfulfilled.

    We walked around Stratford, had lunch and saw some of the sights and shops before returning to find the car. The weather was still quite warm although the sun was going down and it got much cooler and darker as we got closer to the car. The sun setting as we returned to Clifford Chambers.

    We occasionally went back to Stratford and I think the last time was about seven years ago fitting in another quick visit to Clifford Chambers.

    We also visited (sightseeing again!) the Minack but was never around for a cliff top performance beside the sea.

    Your picture of the crocus in bloom in Epsom Park is a reminder of spring’s early arrival this year and the few lonely crocii in our garden – planted by my wife!

    It is much more pleasant to be going to/from work in the daylight now instead of walking to the station in the dark or half light.

    Epsom is not far away and again the mention of Epsom Racecourse evokes memories of driving along Ashley Road and Langley Vale Road en route to Headley and places beyond.


  6. Dewdrop
    What a marvellous comment, and I’m glad they brought you memories of happy times.

    How interesting to learn that you know all these haunts as well.

    The footpath to Clifford Chambers makes a lovely 4 mile walk. The new road which you describe was built over the old railway bridge on the now defunct Cheltenham line, and is called Seven Meadows Road.

    The route you took comes into Stratford along the old Tramway and crosses the river on the Tramway Bridge with fine views of Clopton Bridge and the RST on the other. I run along this section whenever I am in Stratford, although sadly the riverbank and Theate look a real mess there at the moment.

    Ashley Road in Epsom is a regular lunchtime route of mine. By chance, I discovered a narrow footpath next to the cemetery there just a few weeks ago, and beside it I came across the grave of Ray Harford, the Blackburn and QPR football manager who died in 2003. Excellent epitaph too: ‘Lifetime goals achieved.’

    As it happens, I quaffed a pint at The Cock in Headley on Thursday evening, and I ran up onto the gallops from Langley Vale and over Epsom race course only on Friday. Tough run, with lots of hills that had mysteriously grown higher since the previous evening… funny, that.

    Many thanks again.

  7. whippersnapper

    What an enchanting read about growing up with the RSC as a neighbour! I hope that readers will remain open minded however about the current investment in the building. The theatres on that site have survived, even flourished through over a century of alterations and additions. As for seating, better a full house enjoying a more intimate thrust stage than limping audience figures watching Shakespeare through a cinema-style proscenium arch. For somebody who knows the theatre, seeing the reconstruction must be like watching open heart surgery performed on a loved-one. Lets wait until its over before we judge how well the surgery has gone. (ps. I think that Scott’s Art Deco foyer is to be restored)

  8. Thanks, whippersnapper. I’d certainly share your excitement about the future and your commitment to keeping the RSC in Stratford.

    I’m happy to retain an open mind about the new theatre, and let’s hope it works. My affection for the old building centred only around the productions played out within it.

    My concerns about the redevelopment plan for the theatre primarily centred around the retention of the old building, which frankly is ugly and undeserving of special preservation, while destroying its only decent feature – the art deco foyer. If, as you say, this might after all be retained or restored, then so much the better.

    I wish the theatre well, and hope for much improved and more thoughtful planning decisions in the future. Many thanks again.

  9. Thanks for the unexpected recall of a memory from the fall of 1981. wow…

  10. […] The secret of great sets? Less is more. A great example is Peter Brook’s renowned “white box” Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1971, designed by Sally Jacobs; the stark minimalism of his staging […]

  11. Pingback: Director’s Approach, Shakespeare Assignment – 19/6/11 « allystheatrejournal

  12. Pingback: Minimalism in theatre – Peter Brooke | Scenic Picturae

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