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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
The 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.
When 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.
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.
My 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.
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.
23. The uncertain glory of an April day: Shakespeare Marathon 2003
3. Running in Shakespeare Country
149. In at the deep end – Stratford 220 Sprint Triathlon
35. Stratford saplings and The Seeds of Doom
21. Seventy hours from Stratford