The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Building of the month

December 2001 - Shakespeare Royal Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare Royal Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, chosen by Annie Hollobone, Honorary Secretary of the Society

The Grade II* listed Shakespeare Royal Theatre was designed by Elisabeth Scott, a cousin of Sir Giles, as a winning competition entry in 1928. The firm of Scott, Chesterton & Shepherd worked on the building which was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1932. The new design replaced the previous Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879, destroyed by fire in 1926.

At the time of its design the theatre represented a radical statement in England, even more remarkable in view of the site which came complete with perhaps more than its fair share of inherent traditions. Original admirers included Maxwell Fry and FRS Yorke who wrote about the building in The Architectural Review, and young modernists from the Design and Industries Association in Birmingham showed it proudly to Gropius during his brief residency in England.

The original building consisted of a curved front leading into a central foyer complete with that essential modern item – a large spiral stair. The foyer was constructed with plain brick walls whilst the stair balustrade was faced with green marble. The auditorium was constructed with tapering sides leading onto the stage house that rose high and square at its foot. External sculpture was provided by Eric Kennington, utilising cut brick as the medium for his expressionist, allegorical forms. Stratford now possessed a state-of-the-art theatre and over the next 30 years watched the RSC go from strength to strength in it’s new home, prior to taking up additional space in London from the 1960’s.

The RSC now owns 14 acres of land in Stratford and has recently embarked on a feasibility study designed to find a new home. Despite consultations with English Heritage, The Twentieth Century Society (the case was last discussed by the C20 casework committee on 12.11.01), and other interested parties the company is now considering a number of options, including the demolition of part of the current listed theatre, redevelopment, or re-location to one of twelve possible sites in the vicinity. The company has been allocated over £755k in lottery money from the Arts Council Lottery Fund towards the £3.2m required for the feasibility study.

Described as ‘a mighty art deco construction’ by Jonathan Glancey (Guardian Monday 22/10/01) the theatre which was originally designed to seat 1,000, has been extended to accommodate larger numbers. Under the current stewardship of Adrian Noble, artistic director of the RSC , the intention is to create a new ‘theatre village’ to be designed by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat, and the company itself is in the process of rebranding by New York literary agent Andrew Wylie. It is likely that the plan to make a real Shakespearean day-out of visiting Stratford will appeal particularly to potential US audiences, many of whom may provide the private patronage that will ultimately bring the plan to realisation.

The expectations of traditionally minded audiences may well conflict with those of inventive theatrical companies obliged to operate in an increasingly competitive environment. It could be argued that Stratford is ripe for adaptation rather than demolition. Theatre Projects Management who are working with the RSC, advised on the planning of the Royal Exchange in Manchester which involved the extraordinary marriage of an ultra-modern space-pod inside a Victorian civic building, whilst the conversion of Tate Modern has demonstrated the power of an old building to attract new audiences if dealt with in a visionary manner.

Further to this debate is the issue of its listed status. Less than a year after demolition of the Grade II* Brynmawr Rubber Factory in Gwent (see C20

Newsletter Spring/May 2001), the effectiveness of listed protection is likely to be further compromised by a decision to demolish this pioneering building.

Click here to read the Twentieth Century Society Press Release

Further Information

Backstage tours of the theatre are available (subject to disruption due to alteration work). For up to date information please contact the theatre directly on 01789 40 3405.

RSC Online Press Office –

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