The Memorial, a red brick Gothic cathedral, designed by Dodgshun and Unsworth of Westminster, was unkindly described by Bernard Shaw as “an admirable building, adaptable to every purpose except that of a theatre.” But from 1919, under the direction of William Bridges-Adams and after a slow start, its resident New Shakespeare Company became one of the most prestigious in Britain.
The theatre received a Royal Charter of Incorporation in 1925, which gave it a certain status. But this was short-lived because on the afternoon of 6 March 1926, when a new season was about to commence rehearsals, smoke was seen, then fire broke out and the mass of half-timbering chosen to ornament the interior provided good dry tinder. By the following morning the theatre was a blackened shell. The company transferred its Shakespeare festivals to a converted local cinema, but fund-raising began for the rebuilding of the theatre, with generous donations arriving from philanthropists in America.
In January 1928, following an open competition, the 29 year old Elisabeth Scott was appointed architect for the new theatre. So the theatre became the first important work erected in this country from the designs of a woman architect. Her modernist plans for an art deco structure came under fire from many directions, but the new building was opened triumphantly on Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April 1932. Later it was to come under the direction of Sir Barry Jackson in 1945, Anthony Quayle from 1948 to 1956 and Glen Byam Shaw 1957-1959, with an impressive roll call of actors. Indeed Scott's building, with some minor adjustments to the stage, remained in constant use until 2007 when it was finally closed for a major refit of the interior.
In 1959, while still the Director-designate of the Memorial Theatre, Peter Hall announced that the formation of a permanent company would be a primary objective. As David Addenbrooke records in his study of The Hall Years, Hall believed that Shakespeare, more than any other dramatist, needed a 'style', a tradition and unity of direction and acting. On 14 January 1960, Hall's first policy statement as Director also proposed the acquisition of a second theatre, in London, to be used as a city outlet for selected Stratford productions. The RSC was formally established on 20 March 1961 with the Royal announcement that the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre would henceforth be known as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the company as the Royal Shakespeare Company.
John Barton had been appointed Associate Director in January 1960, and was followed in 1962 by Michel Saint-Denis, Peter Brook and Clifford Williams who joined the company as resident directors. John Bury was appointed Head of Design in 1964. The repertoire was also widened to take in modern work and classics other than Shakespeare.
In 1962 strong opposition to the establishment of a London base for the RSC came from the National Theatre which — led by Viscount Chandos and Laurence Olivier — wished to be the sole subsidized company operating in London. But following a deal with Prince Littler, managing director of Associated Theatre Properties, the RSC successfully established the Aldwych Theatre as its London base for productions transferred from Stratford to London, its stage redesigned to match the RST's apron stage.
Twenty years later, in the summer of 1982, the company took up London residence in both the Barbican Theatre and The Pit studio space, part of the Barbican Arts Centre under the auspices of the City of London. But while the RSC had been closely involved in the design of these two venues, in 2002 it left the Barbican after a series of allegedly poor seasons, also because the then artistic director, Adrian Noble, wanted to develop the company's touring performances. His decision has left the company without a regular London home.
Innovation and growth
The RSC had first tackled its need for a small auditorium in 1971. At the insistence of Trevor Nunn (who had taken over as artistic director in 1968), the company hired The Place off the Euston Road in London and constructed its own theatre space for an audience of 330, seated on raked wooden benches. Two seasons of plays were staged in 1972 and 1973, none suitable for the Aldwych. But in December 1973 Buzz Goodbody, a promising young director, drew up a plan for what would become The Other Place studio theatre in Stratford, designed by Michael Reardon to seat 140 people, which opened to a first and highly successful season in 1974. The name chosen for the new studio space was favoured within the company because it implied an alternative theatre, but also because it was a quotation from Hamlet.
In August 1976, Nunn staged Macbeth with a minimalist set at The Other Place. playing for 2 hours 15 minutes without an interval. The small, nearly round stage focused attention on the psychological dynamics of the characters. Both Ian McKellen in the title role and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth received exceptionally favourable reviews. The production transferred to London, opening at the Donmar Warehouse in September 1977 before its further transfer to the larger Young Vic venue for a two-month season. It was also recorded for transmission by Thames Television. In 2004, members of the RSC voted Dench's performance the greatest by an actress in the history of the company.
Summing up this triumphant period, The Guardian critic Michael Billington later wrote: In 1977 "the RSC struck gold. This was, in fact, the perihelion of Trevor Nunn's ten-year reign as the company's sole Artistic Director and Chief Executive (in 1978 he began to share power with Terry Hands). In London, the company opened a new studio space at the Donmar Warehouse with plays by Barker, Taylor, Bond and Brecht. Its Aldwych repertory combined the usual Stratford transfers with Nichol's Privates on Parade, Ibsen's Pillars of the Community and Brecht's The Days of the Commune. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Terry Hands and actor Alan Howard had a marathon year working on Henry V, a virtually uncut, Henry VI, part 1, Henry VI, part 2 and Henry VI, part 3 and Coriolanus. And the action at The Other Place included Jonson, Ford, Musset, Gems and Rudkin. No other company in the world could match that output for quantity and quality..
Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands were joint artistic directors of the RSC when the company opened The Swan, its then third theatre in Stratford. The Swan Theatre, also designed by Michael Reardon, has a deep thrust-stage and a galleried, intimate 430-seat auditorium. The space was to be dedicated to playing the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the works of European writers and the occasional work of Shakespeare. The theatre was launched on 8 May 1986 with a production of The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (not published until 1634 and thought to be Shakespeare's last work for the stage). It was directed by Barry Kyle
Nunn (who had been appointed to follow Hall's tenure at the National Theatre in 1986) ceded his RSC executive directorship to his co-artistic director Terry Hands, who was then to take the brunt of media hostility during a difficult few years for the company. It was Hands also who took the difficult decision to suspend the RSC's residency at The Barbican Theatre and The Pit during the winter season of 1990-91 thus vacating the capital for the first time in 30 years. But this was seen as an essential act for the RSC in securing an increase in subsidy from the Arts Council.
Shortly after that decision Adrian Noble returned to the RSC to take over from Hands as artistic director and chief executive, inheriting a company with serious funding problems. His decision to sever all RSC connexions with the Barbican Centre, funded by the Corporation of the City of London, was widely condemned, and towards the end of his tenure things began to go terribly wrong: mainly caused by his pursuit and support of the so-called Project Fleet, a radical scheme aimed at rescuing the RSC from its financial crisis by replacing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a crowd-pleasing ‘Shakespeare Village’ and streamlining the company's performance structure and ensemble principle.
A 21st Century renaissance
None of these plans were to come to fruition and Noble left the job, an unhappy man, in March 2003. Michael Boyd then assumed control of the RSC, now burdened with a deficit of £2.8m, with a remit to turn its fortunes around. By a combination of artistic excellence and quiet husbandry, including a year-long Complete Works of Shakespeare Festival (begun in April 2006 and which involved other companies as well as the RSC) plus a financiallly successful London season at the Novello Theatre in 2006, Boyd slowly rebuilt the company's fortunes and reputation.
In 2007 he launched the long-awaited Stratford theatre redevelopments, including construction of the temporary Courtyard Theatre while work was in progress, designed to house his RSC Histories cycle before its transfer to the Roundhouse in London in 2008. Talking of these achievements with typical modesty he told the Evening Standard in December 2007 ('The Man Who Remade the RSC'): “There was a bit of gardening to do, but we are now beginning to show signs of walking the walk.”
The RSC is the sole British member theatre of the Union of the Theatres of Europe. The RSC also acquired the rights to the Shakespeare schools festival, which tries to get young actors into Shakespeare as early as possible.
The company's London presence has included tenancies of the Aldwych Theatre, The Place in Duke's Road, Euston, the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, the Barbican Theatre and The Pit in the City of London; and seasons at The Mermaid Theatre. the Almeida Theatre (1988 and 1989), the Roundhouse in Camden, the Young Vic, the Playhouse Theatre, the Novello Theatre and the Gielgud Theatre.
In Stratford the RSC currently performs in the Courtyard Theatre, opened in July 2006, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects and designers Charcoal Blue. As a working prototype for the new auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre it has a thrust stage and stacked tiered seating on three sides for 1,000 people.
The Courtyard will be the Company's main performance space whilst the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is closed for transformation. But when the development is complete in 2010 the Courtyard will be dismantled and The Other Place will then re-open as the RSC's studio theatre.
As part of this project the 432-seat Swan Theatre has also closed temporarily and will eventually share foyer space with the re-vamped RST.