Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Annex 1

Letter dated 12 November 2001, to Mr Donald James from Mr Chris Foy, Managing Director, Royal Shakespeare Company

  Your letter of 28 October 2002 has been passed on to me for reply by the office of HRH The Prince of Wales, and I thank you for your comments about the RSC's plans for the redevelopment of its Stratford home as a theatre village for the 21st century.

  For the past five years and culminating in our Feasibility Study, we have been steadily working towards the announcement of our Redevelopment proposals. Our recommendation is to create a new waterfront "theatre village", and build a new landmark Shakespeare playhouse on the riverside site of the current Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The rebuilt flagship RST will be the most significant new theatre building of the new century, with the ambition to be one of the best playhouses for Shakespeare in the world. We intend the "theatre village" with its three theatres and RSC Academy, to be a catalyst for superb performance, for the future development of artists, and for the widest range of lively interactions with theatre and the RSC all day long.

  The decision to replace the existing 1932 building is a highly complex matter and not a decision we have made lightly—it has emerged from thorough investigation and wide consultation over the past six years of preliminary planning and the last nine months of Feasibility Study. The RSC has taken advice from a team of specialists comprising, among others, some of the world's finest directors, actors, architects, theatre designers, architectural conservationists, engineers, town planners and acousticians. The RSC has rigorously explored numerous possible options—some 29 scenarios and 15 possible site locations in all—for the Redevelopment, including the possibilities for imaginative adaptation of the existing Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The final proposals represent the best possible combination of ideas, given the multiplicity of factors and practical constraints that have to be balanced.

  During the past nine months we have also been asking our audiences, local people, artists and critics what they think of the site. As part of the Feasibility Study, the RSC commissioned a programme of public consultation, which included surveys and discussions with our audiences, local residents, tourists and business people. This process confirmed that it is widely recognised that the current building simply doesn't work as a theatre. Most of the audience members, local residents and representatives of conservation organisations we have taken backstage to look at the cramped facilities have been surprised and appalled by the working conditions and inadequacy of the facilities. The Stratford Society, for example, has described conditions as "an obstacle course" and "beyond belief".

  A number of priorities emerged from all the groups we consulted. Whether they were teachers, local business people or core members of the RSC audience, the thing that united everyone was that the RSC needed a building that worked as a theatre and mixed use (ie not just for theatregoers, but day-long activity for everyone), a diverse range of performance spaces, and an integration with the town, especially in traffic and other transport issues. But the consultation does not stop here. We will carry on throughout the process of the Redevelopment talking to people and integrating their views.

  Since it was built in 1932, the existing Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been regarded as fundamentally flawed: a two-room theatre which separates the actors and audience, rather than the one-room space for which Shakespeare wrote. The eminent theatre historian John Earl has conducted an independent review which describes the 1932 RST auditorium as: "to all appearances, a cinema, but less visually exciting, less alive, than any contemporary picture house by almost any contemporary hack designer." Leading theatre consultant Iain Mackintosh, meanwhile, has memorably described it as: "a turkey which put back the cause of Shakespeare at Stratford for a generation". The current proscenium stage and auditorium have been much altered in numerous attempts to bring the audience and actors closer together, but fundamental problems have never been satisfactorily resolved. For example, much of the "innovative" theatre technology that first-time theatre architect Elisabeth Scott introduced was seldom used past the first season. It remains in the bowels of the theatre—inoperable but listed—obstructing the work of contemporary directors and designers.

  The UK's Twentieth Century Society, quite understandably keen to preserve the building given their raison d'etre, concluded after a recent night in the balcony that an evening in this theatre is an uncomfortable experience with poor sight-lines. Of course some theatre critics report their memories of great performances in the RST—yet they are mostly memories from the best seats in the house. Unfortunately, the experience for many of the young people who come to Stratford for the first time, or for those who cannot afford the most expensive seats, is altogether different. It is the kind of experience that could easily put someone off theatre for life.

  There is one thing I would particularly like to stress in these plans. The RSC will continue to perform plays in Stratford throughout the Redevelopment period. We cannot afford to stop performing—and neither can the local economy afford it—so this is an imperative part of the strategy. We will continue performing Shakespeare and we will continue performing new and other plays. We can already see our way to maintaining at least 1,082 seats in performance in two theatres throughout the transition—but we are continuing to explore whether we can achieve even more.

  There are many changes going on at the moment at the RSC, but together they make up a very carefully considered and vital programme of modernisation. We are passionate to ensure that the RSC has a successful and artistically vibrant future. That is precisely the reason why the RSC is embarking on such ambitious change to its activity and theatre spaces. The RSC must continue to be a leader and a pioneer in the artistic community.

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Prepared 26 March 2002