Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Royal Shakespeare Theatre Reopens in Stratford

I have become an occasional blogger for PROSPECT MAGAZINE. My first contribution is now live. It is a slightly edited version of the following:

My old friend Professor Stanley Wells was on the 10 o’clock News last night, raining on the RSC’s parade as they showed off their new theatre to the world’s press. Full disclosure: I am on the Board of the RSC. But what’s the argument about here?

Shakespeare wrote for a bare platform stage thrust into the auditorium, with the audience gathered around it. The “open yard” playhouses of his world were torn down when the Puritans closed down the theatres in the 1640s. When the theatrical profession resumed with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, new indoor playhouses were built and the proscenium arch was introduced, creating a picture-frame stage. All through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, theatre was effectively experienced in a two room environment: the world of the play was separated from the auditorium by the proscenium. The division was heightened when Wagner introduced the innovation of a darkened auditorium.

When Elizabeth Scott designed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the 1930s, she had a track record of creating cinemas. And the old RST auditorium did indeed resemble a cinema. The cinema took the two room idea to an extreme: the movie would be exactly the same whether the auditorium was full, half full or empty. That’s not something that can ever be said of a play performance in the theatre. The old RST was in thrall to the new art of film. But times have changed.

The need not to imitate the cinema seemed to me the overriding demand for a redesign of the theatre. That is to say, the movies, television and related digital/virtual media now create realistic alternative worlds so fully and powerfully that live theatre cannot compete with them. Soon, it will be routine for us to enter those alternative virtual worlds in three dimensions. What then is left for theatre to do?

There is no better answer than to say: return the Shakespearean theatre to its origins. Go live, create a shared experience in which audience and play-world are together in one room, looking at each other, interacting. Not sitting in the darkness as passive spectators of an alternative world. What is more, a thrust stage is amenable to what the great Peter Brook called rough theatre. By doing away with the elaborate, “realistic” stage sets of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, theatre we can focus on the simple transformative magic of playing. Falstaff: “This chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown.”

Where I have some reservations with regard to both the reconstructed Globe on Bankside and the new RST is with regard to the depth of the thrust. The further the platform extends into the auditorium, the more problems you have with sightlines and the more it becomes necessary for actors to keep moving: as Peter Hall has said with regard to the RST’s smaller auditorium, The Swan, built on the same principles, it’s a great theatre on which to make a striking entrance downstage (who can forget Antony Sher bestriding that small space as Marlowe’s colossal Tamburlaine?), but once you’re there you have to find a way to go back. Shakespeare learnt his trade not at the Globe, but at Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre, which, as archaeological excavations in the 1990s revealed, had a wide, shallow stage. Imagine a lozenge. Sightlines are better in a space of that kind, and there are intriguing possibilities for lateral staging, for example involving paired tableaux that create a kind of split screen effect. Shakespeare’s Rose plays have many strong examples of one group of characters entering at one door, a rival group entering at the door on the other side of the stage.

One of the key differences in design between the new RST and the temporary Courtyard Theatre, further up Stratford’s Waterside, which has been the RSC’s (highly successful) temporary home during the redevelopment, and its prototype for the new theatre, is that the new auditorium has the capacity to be adapted to a wider and shallower stage. It can be a modern Rose as well as a modern Globe. And, as a matter of fact, the thrust can be taken out altogether, just in case one day theatre reinvents itself again in proscenium form. Somehow, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen.


  1. Dear Professor Bate,
    I am a fan of all of your works and delighted to discover your blog. Would like to recommend a trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia (of all places) for a consideration of the "wide, shallow" you mention. Confession: I work for them as Director of Education. Thank you for this consideration that is precisely inline with our mission of finding the staging conditions Shakespeare considered in his construction of his plays.

  2. Not to be picky but... Elisabeth Scott.

    I agree on the shallower stage in theatrical terms but see you are very certain about Shakespeare's Rose connection. What convinces you?

  3. Not to be picky but... Elisabeth Scott.

    I agree on the shallower stage in theatrical terms but see you are very certain about Shakespeare's Rose connection. What convinces you?

  4. Apologies for the double post. Technical hitch!

  5. Theatre design (and theatre design criticism) exists in a socio-historical context. We know about that context in the early modern period and the role of the thrust stage with its fluid boundary between the audience and the actors and its communal experience. We know about the hardening of the actor-audience boundary as theatre became commodified and audiences became passive and reified throughout the rise capitalism in the late 17th - 19th century. But what is the context today that provides fertile ground for Stanley Wells to mount his recent strong support (2 blogs on the SBT blogspace and interviews on the news) for the proscenium arch? We might also consider his recent support for the new and improved image of Shakespeare in the recently discovered portrait. What lines are being drawn in the current socio-historical period and what are the consequences of taking one side or the other?