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Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres by Bennetts Associates

Shackled with a Grade II*-listed building, Bennetts was under pressure from an audience clamouring for a worthy response, says Felix Mara

The DJ John Peel once said: ‘Taking LSD is like going to Stratford-upon-Avon - you only have to do it once’. And when Bennetts Associates embarked on the project to transform the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in 2005, Stratford-upon-Avon had declined into a world-famous backwater.

Eschewed by day-tripping Brummies and estranged from the cult surrounding its most famous son, Stratford had become alienated from the goings-on at the impermeable RST and adjacent Swan Theatre. ‘It was stuck in a rut,’ says Bennetts director Simon Erridge.

The architect faced a Gordian knot of problems. The theatres, coupled like a two-backed beast and without internal connections, also lacked decent front-of-house facilities. Elisabeth Scott had designed the RST, which opened in 1932, for summer festivals - audiences were to adjourn to Bancroft Gardens for refreshments on the banks of the Avon. She was also required to design a vast cinema-like auditorium, with a stage that was nearly 30 metres away from the cheap seats, behind a doomed-to-become-unfashionable proscenium.

Acoustically, its fan-shaped geometry was an under-performer, and Michael Reardon’s smaller Swan Theatre, which opened in 1986 in the shell of Dodgshun and Unsworth’s 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, trumped it with a thrust stage which was closer to the arrangement in Shakespeare’s time, bringing actors closer to their audiences.

Beyond difficulties with the RST’s reception and operation, Bennetts had to keep a level head, under pressure from a client which demanded the best stage for performing Shakespeare in the world, as well as an international audience clamouring for an architectural response worthy of the occasion.

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And Bennetts was shackled with a Grade II *-listed building; despite its formal and operational flaws, Scott’s awkward Art Deco Moderne-cum-Amsterdam School was deemed an exemplarModernist public building. True, there is some fine period detail, and the gently convex north facade has a smiling, optimistic 1930s disposition. But the listing constrained Bennetts.

If the existing structure was to be substantially retained, they could only achieve an integrated design by engaging with it. A heroic tabula rasa approach in a contemporary idiom would be difficult to pull off, though perhaps not impossible. In 1998, Erick van Egeraat proposed just that, although his truly awful drawing inspired little confidence.

Bennetts made a virtue of near-necessity, cherishing and adapting the existing theatres with humour and an eye for resonant features, such as the hallowed floorboards of the original stage and Art Deco bar, hijacked as a vertically sliding foyer doorway. This approach, along with the RST’s massive construction, is eminently sustainable. You don’t demolish such a quantity of brickwork in this day and age without considering the environmental cost.

Despite the consensus that a thrust stage is the optimum arrangement, time has ways of unravelling such certainties - so it might be rash to build a ‘state of the art’ theatre from scratch. Better perhaps to approach the RST as an adaptable work in progress than as something ossified, exquisitely packaged and the embodiment of the ‘dead theatre’ that Peter Brook attacked in his 1968 treatise The Empty Space.

Bennetts wrestled with the existing fabric, inserting a more compact RST auditorium and, in the residual volume, sequences of spaces - foyers, a restaurant, bars and much-improved changing rooms - enabling ad hoc accretions to be stripped away.

The boldest space, a new glazed colonnade, addresses Weston Square, links both theatres and draws the public through the complex. At its north end an outlandishly tall tower with load-bearing external brickwork rises unapologetically to a vantage point 32 metres above grade.

As the lift car rises through the tower’s shaft, its light illuminates the tower’s beacon-like viewing gallery at the top. You might see this as the monument the RST needed, but the true monument dwells in its inner workings. ‘You can hear a whisper on stage from the back of the auditorium,’ says Erridge.

Every seat is now within 15 metres of the RST stage, and theatre consultant Charcoalblue has developed seats that fold away to provide wheelchair spaces. Fire engineer Buro Happold simply designed out the safety curtain.

It’s a tough old boot of a building. The cruciform columns supporting the RST auditorium balconies are mill-finished steel - actors even struck them with axes during a performance of Macbeth. And Bennetts’ choice of materials, colours and textures is rich without being ostentatious. This is an architecture of immense maturity - full of warmth, humanity and life, which will compel people to return. ‘It’s very much liked and admired,’ says Erridge. ‘Even by Stratfordians.’

Felix Mara is technical editor of the AJ

Q+A Simon Erridge Director, Bennetts Associates

Describe your initial design concept
We knew that substantial parts of the building had to be retained, so our scheme proposed major interventions in order to accommodate a new auditorium and expanded public spaces.

The auditorium form was critical, and the Royal Shakespeare Company was already working on a template which brought actors and audience closer together. A key idea we proposed was to mirror this closer relationship inside the building with a much stronger external relationship between the building and the town.

Did the final scheme alter much from this concept?
There were some changes. In public areas the new roofline was made more prominent; the auditorium became more compact and adopted a faceted geometry; and the design of the load-bearing brick tower was refined several times.

What was your approach to the existing building?
The building’s Grade II*-listing is as much down to its historical significance as its architectural merit. In fact, it was never much admired. Referred to locally as the ‘Jam Factory’, it turned its back on the town, and the vast auditorium was considered the hardest in the country in which to make an audience laugh or cry.

Our preference from the beginning was to embrace much of the existing building and its eccentricities as part of the design, treating it as a found space and being inventive with the constraints it presented.

What were the challenges?
Making major interventions in a historic building is always difficult, but in this case the combination of a highly technical brief, sensitive riverside location and multi-headed client made the challenge all the greater. The single biggest technical difficulty was the construction of the new 7m-deep stage basement within the existing building, only a few metres from the river Avon.

Where does this building sit in the evolution of the practice?
When we won the competition in 2005, it was the most significant commission the practice had ever been given. Hampstead Theatre was our first performance building, but the rst was an enormous step up in scale and complexity, which built firmly on our previous experience.

Theatres are some of the most complex building types and have the most demanding clients, but we’re absolutely not a specialist practice. We hope there will be more theatres, but the lessons learned from the rst will feed back in to all our projects.

What would winning the Stirling Prize mean to the practice?
Getting onto the shortlist for the third time is a fantastic achievement, but we’re not getting carried away.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The small holes on the tower seem unnecessary, so is the picture window on top. Good work, but lacks of unity and a bit of spirit.

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