One recent afternoon, I took the opportunity to visit the newly reconstructed Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as to watch a performance of King Lear. Since my last visit in the mid-1990s, the Cotswolds town where William Shakespeare was born and is buried has come more than ever to have the feel of a theme park, with local hotels and restaurants offering “Hamlet” brunches and “Cleopatra” lunch specials — or so it can seem at times.
The new theatre complex has been built so as to attract even those who have no interest in seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, at work. There are new restaurants and riverside cafés, exhibition and gallery spaces and a 36-metre-high tower — “That Tower”, as some locals call it — which allows for fine views over the surrounding countryside and delighted my young son. The red-brick and glass interiors are attractive, though some friends who live close to the town and know the theatre well are unhappy about the way the old and new structures have been remodelled to create a hybrid of architectural styles. I listened to their objections but could not agree.
The Elisabeth Scott-designed Royal Shakespeare Theatre was opened in 1932, replacing the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879. To watch a play in that space was not unlike going to the cinema to watch a film: the audience was lined up in neat rows, impassively facing the action on the main stage. The reconstructed theatre isn’t at all like that.
A thrust stage extends deep and directly into the audience. The intention, even in a theatre with more than 1,000 seats, is to create a sense of greater intimacy, of confrontation and interaction between the watched and the watchers.
I had an excellent seat in the stalls and relished the experience of closely observing the strain and concentration on the faces of the players. Lear is such a visceral play, and this latest production was thick with blood and water and perspiration. I left the auditorium at the end of a long evening, exhausted yet thrilled by the spectacle and the grandeur of the setting.