Terry Grimley enjoys a preview of the RSC's new theatre...
The Royal Shakespeare Company has unveiled its new temporary 1,030-seat theatre, The Courtyard, in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Designed by leading architect Ian Ritchie and completed in 11 months, The Courtyard will house performances during the Complete Works Festival including King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen. It will then become the RSC's main theatre in Stratford for the four years it will take to rebuild the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
The temporary structure, housed inside a giant steel box next to The Other Place in Southern Lane, has cost £6 million, which is part of the overall £100 million budget for the redevelopment of the Stratford theatres.
"It's the Ark into which all the animals of the RSC will go during the period of transition," artistic director Michael Boyd said. "It's enabling us to bring in the Berliner Ensemble, Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall and to revive the histories.
"The other function it's serving is its relatonship with the even bigger project of rebuilding the RST. It's our first concrete statement in terms of, in crude terms, putting more people closer to the stage. We have reduced the distance from the stage to the furthest seat from 27 metres down to 15 metres."
The theatre has a deep thrust stage with seating on three sides and on three levels, resembling a larger version of the Swan Theatre with more than twice as many seats. The rebuilt RST will have the same configuration and the dimensions have been replicated in The Courtyard. It was later discovered that, by sheer coincidence, the footprint of the theatre corresponds exactly to that of Shakespeare's Rose Theatre.
"Of course in Shakespeare's day you could probably have got 40,000 people in here because there was no concern for human life," Michael Boyd said.
Ian Richie commented that while the geometry was the same as for the new RST, in other respects they were completely different theatres.
"The box is made of folded plates of a type of steel called Corten, which was developed about 60 years ago to build bridges which were difficult to paint. Weathering produces a layer of rust which acts as protection.
"The inside is clad with standard sheets of plywood and the structure of the auditorium is completely separate from the box, so the outside walls are only carrying the weight of the grid and snow on the roof. That was a very cool move because it gave everyone time to make models and check out what was good."
The entire structure can be dismantled and, in theory at least, reerected elsewhere, either in London or anywhere else that fancies a 1,000-seat thrust-stage performance space.
However, the RSC has taken advantage of its current location by converting the auditorium of The Other Place to create foyer spaces on two levels.
When the reconstruction period is finally over it can readily be converted back to a studio theatre to resume its role of showcasing new plays in Stratford.
With its unusual but attractive mix of low-budget plywood finishes and red-plush seats - though no decison has been made, Michael Boyd admits to a "deep prejudice" in favour of traditional red for the new RST - The Courtyard seems likely to win the affections of Startford theatregoers. However, the alleged fears of some local residents that it will prove less temporary than advertised are surely unfounded, given that it will exactly duplicate what will eventually be on offer at the RST.
"We couldn't afford this to be offputtingly shack-like, but equally we couldn't afford to spend so much that we ended up without enough money to build the RST," said Michael Boyd.
* The Courtyard Theatre opens to the public on July 7 with a revival of Michael Boyd's production of the Henry VI plays. The RSC, with support from ITV, is offering 100 free tickets for each performance for theatregoers under 30, as well as discounts for local residents. For details call the box office on 0870 609 1110 or visit www.rsc.org.uk