Stratford-upon-Avon, famous for its ties to William Shakespeare and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, holds an incredible amount of beautiful architecture whether that be Tudor, Victorian gothic, Elizabethan or 21st century. Through this, it bears a vast history. This charming place fascinates its visitors through its architecture, particularly that of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which sits on the River Avon.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been through many updates and extensions since it was first introduced as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1879, meaning it has an elegant mix of old and new. The main reason for this is because in 1926, most of the theatre sadly burnt down. This was exacerbated by the fact that the water tower was empty at the time.
In 1932, female architect Elisabeth Scott won the competition to design the new theatre (which would become the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). Her work made such a valuable impact that the most recent renovations aimed to retain her work as much possible. One example of this retainment is the fashionably exposed wall from the old building in the newer theatre foyer.
The most recent redevelopments were done from 2007 to 2010, by architects Bennetts Associates. So, after much discussion, variety, thoughts and ideas, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stands today, providing a much-loved unison of old and new.
On this side of the renowned theatre, you can actually see the original detailing from the old building, which once was the Museum wing (finished in 1881). This wing was linked to the main theatre via a galleried bridge, which is why it didn’t burn down along with the rest of it.
The detailed, chequered brick and stone topping on the band of the wall reflects the diaper brickwork that is characteristic to the area, working as a personal connection between the theatre and Stratford – perhaps a deliberate architectural choice.
Dark grey revolving doors
In contrast to the historic detailing, on the south elevation, under the original galleried bridge brickwork, there is a modern glazed screen with revolving doors leading into the shop, which captures the essence of the mixed architecture of the building. The arch and brickwork above the doors were part of the galleried bridge that helped the museum survive the fire. Just below the first storey window, you can see where the brick has been repointed to keep as much of the original building as intact as possible.
Another fantastic thing about these doors is the colour. Deliberate or not, the dark grey opening mimics the darkness of the tunnel or empty space that would normally go under an arch, which is especially clever due to the fact that it was previously the galleried bridge. The colour is clearly in modern style, yet it works so well with the brickwork above.
Victorian staircase roof covering
While there are various newer features like the revolving doors, some original features have been maintained, for example the staircase that dates back to the Victorian era.
Nowadays, architects may celebrate staircases by placing them in glass structures however in the Victorian era, the use of these materials wouldn’t have been possible. Instead, they built the roof covering with lead, and it has turned out to be very impressive – it’s so decorative and also very functional.
Scott’s designs and Art Deco
After the tragic 1926 fire, Scott introduced a new style to the building – Art Deco. The latest version of the theatre has retained several of the best Art Deco features, such as the staircase and corridors either side of the auditorium. Such attributes are geometric and streamlined and therefore very pleasing to the eye, adding an extra level of satisfaction for audiences.
Furthermore, Scott put in place a proscenium arch stage, giving everyone in the audience a good view while mimicking the idea of a cinema. However, more recent developers wanted to recreate “a one-room space for performing Shakespeare, rather than one lot of people in one room looking at another lot of people acting in another room” (Michael Boyd), so they introduced a thrust stage instead to mimic the closeness of the actors and audience that was present in the Shakespearean era.
On the outside of the building, seen from the river, the new work of Bennett Associates shows as visually recessive grey metal additions on the skyline, complimenting the beautiful Art Deco red brick detailing of Scott’s design. We nearly didn’t get the delight of this as Scott originally proposed white concrete on the exterior facade, but she later changed it to red brick instead, by justification that brick would be warmer, more economical and ‘more in harmony with the general aspect of the town’, which makes sense due to the numerous other interesting, quirky buildings made of brick.
Bennetts Associates latest work manages to retain the best of the Victorian and Art Deco features whilst creating a modern usable space, which honours all architects and the work of Shakespeare.
Written by Eliza Mulready-Carroll