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RSC Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, by Ian Ritchie Architects

To coincide with Bennetts Associates’ renovation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, the AJ reprints a 2006 building study of Ian Ritchie’s temporary Courtyard Theatre

This month, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre reopens its doors to the public, having been comprehensively refurbished by Bennetts Associates. A full building study will be published in AJ16.12.10.

Since Elizabeth Scott’s 1930s Art Deco Royal Shakespeare Theatre was closed for renovation on March 2007, the RSC has been housed in temporary quarters. Here the AJ looks again at Ian Ritchie Architects’ much-admired temporary RSC Courtyard Theatre.

To see the original magazine pages in full size as pdfs, click the attached files in the right-hand column.

[FIRST PUBLISHED AJ 07.09.06]

A Smelter Plant Dropped In A Chocolate Box Setting

By Alan Dunlop. Photography by Anthony Coleman

It is apt that the play chosen to open the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC’s) Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is that epic trilogy of rebellion and war, Henry VI. It and Ian Ritchie’s new building seem absolutely compatible. Ritchie’s exterior presents as a fortress. Inside, the centrepiece of the set is a tower welded from Cor-ten steel. Both the building and the play leave the impression of determined and resolute power.

One of the play’s heroes, Lord Talbot, is said by Thomas Nashe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, to have been intended as a reproach to the ‘degenerate effeminate times’ of late 16th-century England, and the new Courtyard Theatre is certainly a reproach to the po-faced conservationist attitudes to building in historic centres in the early 21st century.

Due to the fact that it will be dismantled in 2010, the Courtyard Theatre may not be one of Ritchie’s most enduring projects but, like Henry VI, it may be that the new building proves to be surprisingly popular.

Built within the car park of the existing workshop theatre, the RSC’s official line on the Courtyard is that it is temporary, it fits well into the town, and it is entirely fit for purpose. Its rusting red Cor-ten walls certainly match the red brick of Stratford’s contextual built fabric, and there is both strength and integrity in the plain lines and sheer bulk of the building, even when softened and partially obscured by the summer curtain of mature trees that lines the river.

From the banks of the Avon and the parkland it is a reluctant player and something that you have to look for. It certainly has less impact than the original Royal Shakespeare Theatre which stands, brooding, like an industrial mill.

Despite this however, Ritchie’s building is an uneasy fit. It is juxtaposed like a smelter plant dropped into a chocolate box setting. It is novel, provocative and powerful - and therefore perhaps an entirely fitting base for an ambitious and radical theatre company.

The building is 14m high and looks as though it is constructed from basic sheet piling. In truth, this is Ritchie’s own bit of theatre. It was his original intention to use 10mm-thick Cor-ten A raw-sheet excavation piling and have it locked together to act as a sheer wall and take all the roof loads.

A clever, inventive solution, if it worked. However, it proved difficult to test and develop this idea on programme, so the building envelope is in fact a specially produced Cor-ten A sheet, made in Holland by ZNS Van Dam to look like sheet piling.

Columns are braced and hidden inside the profiled metal and connected to roof trusses which support the roof and carry the lighting grid and access bridges. The columns are slim as the sheet cladding adds lateral stiffness. Though not as interesting as the original idea, it allowed the building to be completed on time, to budget and more accurately. Externally, it has retained a simple and strong sculptural quality and, despite the incongruity of its form and finish, it is contextual.

The context does not come from mimicking a structure built centuries ago - like The Other Place, the existing workshop theatre designed in the early 1980s by Michael Reardon - but from the creation of a building which is absolutely responsive to the needs of the company.

The theatre layout works well, wrapping intimately around the stage, the audience enveloped by the action - from the stage itself, from behind the seating areas and aerially. The Courtyard Theatre footprint echoes that of the Rose Theatre in London and the Swan Theatre across the road. It is a ‘thrust’ stage theatre, so the audience is completely immersed.

The entire theatre, says RSC theatre designer Tom Piper, will be dismantled in 2010 and stored. It has an experimental, ‘workshop’ feel to it, and Ritchie’s external aesthetic of rusting steel is echoed indoors in balustrades of industrial metal, and complemented by internal walls and seat-backs of raw plywood and a general feel of transience in the decor.

The developmental history of the new Courtyard Theatre is notable, for it has come about as a result of the inadequacies of its larger neighbour, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre - the existing home of the RSC - designed by Elizabeth Scott. ‘The Royal’ is a Grade II-listed Art Deco structure and has, since its completion in 1932, been found wanting by audiences and actors alike.

Although able to hold 1,400 people, its stage is regarded as lacking sufficient proximity to the audience to promote any sense of intimacy. Sight-lines are poor and both audience and players complain of a lack of sensitivity and feedback.

The front of house is cramped and the support spaces and back-of-stage areas are shared with The Swan - a theatre converted from a Victorian building in 1978 by Michael Reardon and Tim Furby to recreate the atmosphere of an Elizabethan playhouse - and are awkward and difficult to use.

Certainly, the difference between the centre stage experience in the Courtyard and The Royal is remarkable. The Courtyard seating surrounds the stage, embracing and supporting the actors. The audience can see the actors’ faces, read every nuance and hear every aside remark. The 1932 Royal building has a fan-shaped auditorium more characteristic of a cinema, its proscenium arch layout keeping the public at a distance and making it difficult for the actors to engage directly with their audience.

Since the early 1990s the company has been planning to transform the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in order to improve the auditorium and bring the actors and audience closer together. Bennetts Associates has been appointed to rework the original theatre, improve visitor facilities, create a new public square and entrance, and enhance the river walkways to make the building adapt better to its setting. Most significantly though, the theatre will be turned from a proscenium arch layout into a thrust theatre, modelled on the Courtyard.

The transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will be a £100 million project, with half of the funding coming from Arts Council England; £20 million from a grant awarded by Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency; and the rest from private donations and other sponsors. The work is scheduled to start in 2007 and will take three years to complete.

Shakespeare is very big business. The bard is calculated to bring £55 million into Warwickshire each year in tourism and tourist-related revenue. Fundamental to the whole Shakespeare experience is a visit to the home of the internationally respected Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and the chance to see one of their productions.

The RSC itself contributes £32 million to the region each year. Any loss of continuity would inevitably disappoint tourists and Shakespeare purists alike, and so the planned refurbishment of the theatre gave the region and Stratford Council a real problem of what to do during its closure. Ritchie’s temporary Courtyard Theatre was the solution.

Ritchie’s building accommodates an audience of 1,050 in comfort, although admittedly there is little luxury. His team, the RSC designers and their theatre consultants, Charcoalblue have created, in a very short space of time and for relatively little money, a genuinely provocative envelope to an extraordinary working theatre. Its temporary nature, much stressed by all involved, does however militate against an authentic debate on how we should build contemporary works in historic centres.

This statement building suggests that such architecture could be visionary and bold and that there is merit in taking an unapologetic approach. Looking at the circumstances pragmatically, it is unlikely that the building would have gained planning permission had it been intended as a permanent structure. Even though it will definitely be taken down in 2010 no matter how popular it becomes, says the RSC, there is still opposition to it from conservationists in the town.

It is interesting to speculate what Ritchie’s attitude would have been to a permanent theatre on the site. Would the building have been softened at the edges, to salve the ire of conservationists? I hope not. Other new buildings adjoining the site are, in the main, a disappointing pastiche.

All in all, Ritchie’s building works well, its form and structure the essence of simplicity. The choice of material is quixotic and has few, if any, concessions to refinement. Interfaces, like the junction between the older workshop building and the new, are handled without any fuss.

It is disappointing that you have to enter the Courtyard Theatre through the original entrance for The Other Place, and the red-and-black decor of the foyer is clichéd and somewhat tawdry. Once inside however, it is clear that the building has integrity and rigour. It is a metal tent for wandering players; Shakespeare would have doubtless approved.

  • Established in 1981, Ian Ritchie Architects is based in London but works throughout Europe. The practice has been shortlisted for theStirling Prize three times, for the Crystal Palace Concert Platform in London, the Plymouth Theatre Royal Production Centre, and theDublin Spire.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Good piece, great building, well done

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  • Smelter Plant in a Chocolate Box Setting, brilliant, Building takes no prisoners, tough and bold but curiously contextual how did that happen?

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  • What is happening to this theatre, has it been dismantled and stored. That would be a great pity?

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  • Yes indeed, it would be a great pity.......... but that was the plan.

    Striking building, perhaps if Ian reads this he could let us know?

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