Post Arts Editor Lorne Jackson visits the reborn Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.
Most theatre goers have been through it at one time or another – the bargain seat that turns out to be no bargain at all.
Many things can be wrong with this charmless chair. It might be several rows back from the stage, meaning you feel as though you don’t share the same postcode as the actors.
Perhaps there’s an inconvenient pillar in the row directly in front of you... or an inconvenient pillock. A pillock sporting a strange growth on the top of his head that is so bountiful, brash and bushy, it’s more of a triumph of horticulture than a bona fide hairstyle.
Seating arrangements can be even more dubious than any of the above.
As I discovered during a visit to the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
On arriving at the RSC’s Stratford base this week, I spotted the most inconvenient row of theatre seats I’ve ever come across.
What is wrong with them?
For a start, they aren’t even located in either of the RSC’s two theatres – they are in the third floor restaurant.
Secondly, the seats aren’t attached to anything as convenient as a floorboard.
Instead, they’re pinned half way up the wall.
Very disconcerting. Especially as the RSC has just finalised an £112.8 million renovation that took three and a half years. And this is all they got for their dosh?
Of course not.
It turns out that the surreal seats are a visual joke. A joke that makes a serious point.
The seats attached to the restaurant wall were taken from the original main theatre. And they are in the exact location where they used to be in that theatre, which was much larger than the renovated version, and reached as far back as the new restaurant.
The distance from the stage to the furthest seat has been almost halved in the new main theatre, falling from 27 metres to 15 metres.
In the original version, those unfortunate enough to be sitting in the back rows were almost completely out of touch with the action. They may as well have been sitting half way up a wall in a restaurant, for all the Shakespearian drama they got to enjoy.
Making the works of the Bard more accessible was the central thrust behind all the innovations and renovations in the building.
And it’s not just that the main theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, has been shrunk down in order to make it more inclusive.
The stage itself has been revamped. Gone is the old proscenium arch, replaced by a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides.
This helps bring the actor closer to the viewer, and is said to be an improvement on the former version, which was modelled on the ideal for a cinema, not a theatre.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Sir Peter Hall, the company’s artistic director at its founding in 1961, told Radio 4’s Front Row on Monday that he did not favour a deep thrust stage, which he said was like “a diving board”. However, Michael Boyd, the RSC’s Artistic Director is delighted with it.
“We can do epic in this space,” he argues. “But we can also do intimate, which was much harder before. Now we can do all the possibilities of heaven, and all the deepest fears capable of rising up from the depths of hell.”
He adds: “There is real intimacy and engagement and a much greater democracy with this space. When an actor stands on the RST’s stage, he really feels in touch with every member of the audience. And that just wasn’t the case before.”
Nick Asbury – who was part of the ensemble for the complete Shakespeare history plays recently staged by the RSC – was one of a group of actors who gave a test run performance at the theatre last week.
“I came offstage and the first thing I said to Michael Boyd was ‘it works’,” grins Asbury. “I came in booming my words. I found I had to drop it down. You can, finally, be subtle. Not something I’ve ever been accused of before!”
He added: “The funny thing about this theatre is that even thought it’s new, it also feels instantly familiar. It’s the old stage, yet it isn’t. Walking on that stage felt like visiting an old friend. A wonderful old friend who has had a face lift and psycho-analysis, so is smiling again.
“You just know when something is right. Because the stage is so close to the audience, they will be able to smell the sweat from the actors – and that’s good.
“As more of the arts get taken over by the virtual word, it’s encouraging to be able to come to the theatre and dive right into everything that is muddy and bloody. What we have here isn’t just another room with pretty scenery. This stage puts the actors right into the belly of the audience.”
Shakespeare hasn’t just been brought closer to his audience. He has also been brought closer to his home town.
A tower has been built on the side of the building, giving the theatre greater prominence in Stratford, and making it easier to find.
From the top of the eight-storey construction, there are panoramic views over Stratford-upon-Avon, taking in Shakespeare’s birthplace and Holy Trinity Church, where he is buried.
On a clear day the four counties of Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire are all in view.
Other innovations to the RSC’s home include a revamp of the dressing rooms, which have now been democratised. There are no longer any star dressing rooms, though all are fit for stars.
The RSC’s smaller theatre, The Swan, has largely kept its original lay out, though the furnishings have been spruced up.
Being a Grade II listed building, much of architect Elisabeth Scott’s 1932 theatre has been kept, usually with a clever twist, such as the original box office, which can travel up and down the wall, giving more space when needed.
Theatre is all about the communication of ideas. The creators of the RSC’s bright and bustling new home understand that very well. In the past – when the former theatre was still standing – that communication was strained and shaky, like two tin cups attached by a piece of string.
Now the communication is clear, sharp, subtle and intimate, making William Shakespeare part of our present.
With a re-imagined and resplendent home for the RSC, the Elizabethan Bard has truly joined the iPhone generation.