Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Third Report




3. The Royal Shakespeare Company traces its roots back to the work of Charles Edward Flower[2] who funded the establishment of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1879. This was perhaps the world's first 'arts centre' including a theatre, gallery, library and music room all on the one site. Before this, the earliest recorded Shakespeare performance in Stratford was of Othello in the Town Hall in 1764 followed by visits of a travelling company in the 1760s to the 1780s, performing at inns in the town. In 1926 the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was largely destroyed by fire. The shell of the building was used for some years afterwards as a conference venue, scenery store and rehearsal room whilst performances took place in the Stratford Cinema.[3]

4. The current theatre, renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in 1961 when the Royal Shakespeare Company was founded, was opened in 1932 as a 1050­seat theatre. The art deco design, inside and out, was the result of an international architectural competition, won by Elizabeth Scott, the first woman to design an important public building in Britain.[4] Development from design to finished product was the work of a partnership of Scott, Chesterton and Shepherd.[5] The building incorporates the surviving shell of the original theatre which was converted and refurbished to house the current Swan Theatre in 1986.

5. In 1974 "The Other Place", a flexible­seating studio theatre located a short walk from the main building, had been created from a prefabricated former store and rehearsal room. This was developed in 1989 to produce the current venue and rehearsal rooms.[6]

Existing provision and operations

6. The RSC's current performance facilities in Stratford are, then, three theatres: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre serving up to 1,400 people, the 432­seat Swan Theatre, and The Other Place which has flexible seating for an average of about 140. The Company owns, in total, a 14-acre estate in Stratford which, as well as the theatres, includes riverside gardens, the Arden Hotel, the Union Club (with office space and meeting rooms), a nursery, workshops and storage facilities, accommodation for actors and staff and a portfolio of residential properties for 62 long lease holders.[7] The Company has also a permanent home in London at the Barbican, which it is shortly to give up, and tours extensively — mostly in England.[8] The RSC also works extensively with schools in Stratford and elsewhere.[9] Overall, the RSC puts on about 2000 performances a year to audiences of over 1 million people.[10]

7. The RSC's presence in Stratford clearly makes a significant contribution to the attraction of 3 million visitors to the town each year. The company, one of the largest local employers, supports over 2,000 jobs in the West Midlands with an estimated economic contribution of about £32 million per year to the local area.[11]

8. The Company is one of four national performing arts organisations funded directly from the Arts Council of England (ACE). In 2001­02 the RSC received £12 million from ACE, plus income from the British Council and local government in the City of London, Newcastle­upon­Tyne, Stratford and elsewhere in the UK. Annually the RSC returns about 82 per cent of its public funding in taxation. Also important to the RSC's funding mix is income generated from partnerships and schemes involving individuals, businesses, universities, trusts and foundations. The RSC raises about £6 million each year from such programmes.[12]

9. The RSC generates about 60 per cent of its annual income from ticket sales and commercial activities. Each year the company seeks to maximise box office income by developing existing audiences and finding new ones. By working with sponsors and generating income from commercial licensing, retail and catering opportunities the RSC earns cash and in­kind support of over £3.5 million each year.[13]

10. This Report focuses on the changes proposed to the fabric of the RSC's Stratford base. In addition to its ideas for bricks and mortar by the Avon, the Company has also changed its company structure (linked to withdrawal from the Barbican).[14] These changes, although part of the RSC's long term strategy and of interest in themselves, are not the subject of this Report.


11. The RSC has been considering redevelopment since 1995. The steps taken so far have been: a planning study in 1996, the earmarking of funds by the Arts Council in 1999, the RSC Feasibility Study in 2001, and a study of the future of the 1932 building required under Planning Policy & Guidance (PPG) Note 15 (which is on­going). In summary the Company's proposals are:

  • construction of a new studio theatre, on a much larger scale, abutting The Other Place (with the existing facilities to serve audience, storage and rehearsal needs);

  • creation of teaching and support facilities for a new RSC Academy at the existing Union Club site;

  • commercial development of the Arden Hotel owned by the Company; and

12. This wider development is currently being considered by an advisory taskforce made up of interested parties including the relevant landowners, the local community and representatives of the Town, District and County Councils. Amongst the proposals under consideration by this group, the RSC is particularly interested in:

  • construction of a footbridge across the Avon linking the RSC directly to car parking capacity on the other side of the river;

  • creation of a level riverside walk (including past the new theatre); and

  • pedestrianisation of Waterside (the road running past the main building on the town­side).[16]

The case for and against change

13. The need for change is three­fold. First, the RSC has identified a number of difficulties with the facilities at its disposal. These problems centre around the 1932 Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as it stands today, in the context of modern staging requirements and the demands of actors, backstage crew, and audiences.[17] Critics of the RSC's plans point to the fact that, as the Company itself concedes, the theatre can be 'made to work' and has done so with variable success for 70 years.[18] The key debate arises out of the RSC's determination to avoid a "compromise" and its interim conclusion that total demolition of the 1932 building (leaving The Swan intact) and reconstruction are the way forward.[19] Opponents of this approach suggest more energy and creativity could be devoted to adaptation of the existing building whilst maintaining key features; however they have not produced detailed costings in support of their views.[20] By 2004 the theatre will no longer comply with statutory requirements, for instance the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act, and therefore some changes will be necessary.

14. Secondly, linked to efforts to resolve the theatre's problems, are proposals by the Company aimed at revitalising their home in Stratford and the opportunities available to visitors. This entails creating new day­long access for visitors and the local community (to enjoy new amenities as well as experience the various activities that culminate in a performance).[21] Such access simply does not exist at present and we would strongly support proposals to change this. This change would interact with the formal RSC Academy nearby. From this has developed the concept of the "theatre village" described by the RSC's Redevelopment Director, Mr Jonathan Pope, as being about other "ways of showing kids into Shakespeare ¼ about how the lights work, how the smoke effects are done, how that moving piece of scenery is engineered". Apart from the links to proposals for the main theatre, and isolated references to "dumbing down" and "Shakespeareland", these proposals have not received much opposition from commentators or in evidence submitted to us.

15. Thirdly, there are related wider proposals coming from the local authorities, and other landowners in the area, for: the renewal of their own assets; definition of a development plan for the whole waterfront area, of which the RSC building is a substantial part; and the tackling of the town's chronic traffic problems. The RSC's proposals for its theatre appear to be a key that could unlock much wider redevelopment in Stratford­upon­Avon.[22]


  16. The RSC's ability to communicate effectively with the current and past members of its own company, local residents, other stakeholders and the wider community will be crucial to the success of its strategy.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre


  17. Construction of the theatre in 1932 seems immediately to have produced a division of opinion between architectural commentators who praised its progressive design and other commentators who voiced various criticisms of its appearance (for example likening it to a jam factory and a crematorium).[23] This is not unusual in cases of innovative architectural design. The fact is that, whatever insults have been levelled at it, the theatre is identified as a "particularly important building of more than special interest" which puts it in the top 6 per cent of English Heritage's list of significant buildings. In evidence to us, the front façade, the riverside elevation, the foyer area (including the main staircase) and the whole of the surviving Victorian rump that is now the Swan Theatre, have been highlighted as of particular importance.[24] We observe that, with the notable exception of the Swan Theatre, many of these attributes have been compromised by piecemeal development over the years.

18. The relationship of the theatre to the river and the view that is thereby created was also referred to in evidence to us. Howard and Pat Watson, local residents, identified the existing building as a "brilliant example, now sadly rare, of the Art Deco 'Ocean Liner' style, so designed to appear to be resting on the waters of the River Avon". Others have also highlighted the building/river setting, asserting that it was one of few such views in the country that was genuinely recognisable the world over.[25] Others have described this view as resonant of a Soviet Barracks­upon­Avon.[26]


  19. The RSC's case for redevelopment does not however refer to the building's external appearance but to its suitability as a theatre. The Company argue that:

  • the theatre is a fixed proscenium format (creating two distinct 'rooms' which resist efforts to create an effective relationship between audience and performers) and which therefore does not appeal to actors;

  • the balcony audience is physically segregated by having to use a separate entrance to gain access; and

The Committee visited the theatre and took the view that all these points were valid and should be remedied.

20. In evidence the RSC quotes others who recognise that, architectural merits aside, the auditorium is flawed. The Theatres Trust, for example, wrote in June 2001 that the auditorium "has been widely recognised as a disaster ever since it opened" and repeated this in its submission to us.[28] The most resonant comment perhaps has been that of Baliol Holloway, actor­manager at Stratford 1911­43, who said playing in the RST was like acting "from Dover to Calais."[29] This was supported in oral evidence by Ms Sinead Cusack, an RSC Associate Artist, who said "there are the poor devils at the back ... who can barely hear and barely see what is going on."[30] The RSC asserts that the theatre "was conceived as the most forward­looking of its day, proceeded into construction with its design brief based on staging ideas from the previous two centuries, hopelessly muddled with the influence of cinema design. The decision has caused critical problems for artistic directors and actors ever since, with the result that the last 69 years have seen continuous attempts to rectify the fundamental deficiencies of the space as a theatre."[31]

21. Recently there have been a number of comments in the press arguing the case for the value of the existing theatre, perhaps as a result of our inquiry, including the views of the actors Michael Pennington and Judi Dench. They have not, however, submitted evidence to us.


  22. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre and The Swan share a difficulty, namely the same, extremely confined, space backstage. In the wings the RST has more generous provision but The Swan is left with what looks like two large closets. There is also the additional difficulty of the obsolete machinery forming the under­stage lift and original 1932 rolling stage. English Heritage identifies these listed items as of "industrial archaeological interest" but recognises the possibility of "careful recording and possible relocation to a museum".[32] However, to the RSC, and its backstage staff, the machinery represents no more than a potentially hazardous pre­emption of potentially useful space. Further limitations to operations are imposed by relatively limited access to the backstage of both theatres from outside the buildings.[33] When the Committee visited the RSC in February, we were particularly struck by the cramped working conditions, the small backstage door and the lack of space between the two theatres. Whilst exceptional productions can be, and often are, produced with a minimum of stage machinery, audiences have a right to expect one of Britain's premier theatres to have the full range of modern stage technology.


  23. The decision to shoehorn two theatres, back to back, into a confined space certainly has created problems backstage between the RST and The Swan. This must have been foreseen and considered at the time plans were laid. The benefit of many more performances in two very different venues presumably weighed heavily.

24. The auditorium of the RST, with its 'two rooms' and proscenium arch is insufficiently versatile, being incapable of accommodating a thrust stage (with the audience wrapped around it) without a substantial loss of seats. But, while the latter was Shakespeare's own performance environment, it has only re-emerged into fashion relatively recently. Mr Donald James, a Stratford architect and adviser to the Hands Off Our Theatre (HOOT) Campaign, argues that the auditorium problems in the RST are "self­inflicted" as there has been an increase in capacity of about 44 per cent from the original 1000 seats to current provision for nearly 1450 people. This, Mr James claims, is the cause of problems with the sightlines and acoustics rather than flaws in the original work of Elizabeth Scott.[34] We have quoted the RSC's criticism of the original design brief as "hopelessly muddled with the influence of cinema design" and we note the view of Mr Gavin Stamp, Chairman of the 20th Century Society, that Scott "responded to the brief, written by William Bridges­Adams, then director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was for a conventional proscenium theatre auditorium" and "did as she was told".[35]

25. It is generally recognised, including by the RSC, that successive alterations to the theatre over the years, both to tackle perceived problems and add facilities (such as a cafeteria and air­conditioning in the auditorium), have nibbled away at the architectural integrity of the building and, perversely, its fitness for its purpose.[36] In addition it is undeniable that there has been, since 1932, a return to the performance of Shakespeare on a thrust stage. Laying the blame for the problems of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford is not our priority. Our task is to assess the proposed remedies which involve the earmarking of £50 million of public money and the potential demolition of a Grade II* Listed Building.

Other RSC plans

26. None of the RSC's associated plans involve anything like the controversy to which the proposed demolition of the main building gives rise. The financial implications of the Company's overall strategy are significant and we consider this issue below.

Wider development

27. As we have already said the overall plan of the RSC is regarded as a potential catalyst for the redevelopment of the wider waterfront area, the public realm in which the RSC's main building sits. Warwickshire County Council and Stratford District Council both recognise the cultural and economic importance of the RSC to the area and indeed beyond that to the country. This opinion was echoed by the evidence of the Clerk to the Stratford Town Council.[37] The Councils have been working in partnership with the RSC for the past four years. They have conducted a joint study of the development opportunities in the waterfront area, in the light of the RSC's proposals, to review highway and public realm issues. This is known as the Stratford Theatre Area Feasibility Study (STAFS) which itself benefited from the District Council's 1998 'River Environs Study'.[38]

28. Warwickshire County Council wrote that "the results of the RSC feasibility study ¼ did not present any surprises and indeed our own study reflected nearly all the elements of their 'wish list', for example the full or partial pedestrianisation of Waterside and a new pedestrian bridge across the river to improve access to the theatres."[39] The District Council was clear that RSC planning applications needed properly to be considered as did all representations connected to them. The Council highlighted that, while not opposed in principle to redevelopment, it has set out a range of challenging and specific requirements that will need to be met if the RSC proposals are to be supported.[40] However, the Council's evidence concludes that the RSC proposals, and the associated vision for the public realm, represent an "exceptional opportunity" for the town and that the Council's own vision for Stratford depends on a successful future for the RSC theatres.[41]

29. Unease at the potential for the RSC's proposals to inspire wider redevelopment in the town was voiced to us by Mr James, adviser to the HOOT Campaign. He wrote that this linkage made the RSC's plans even more contentious because of the unsuitability of development in an area of such high environmental quality. Mr James was concerned that any refusal by Ministers to call in an application to demolish the Royal Shakespeare Theatre would leave the decision with the District Council. He suggested that, in these circumstances, the clear impetus for related developments in Stratford could sway any decision on the fate of the 1932 building.[42]

Finance and costs

30. For redeveloping its three theatres the RSC has £100 million worth of projected funding. In 1999 the Arts Council for England earmarked £50 million in its forward budget for capital investment to modernise the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (following £100,000 in 1996 towards a planning study of the options available). This allocation was made against the estimate that £50 million was the most that the RSC could raise in matching funds. Of the £50 million allocation, £750,000 has actually been applied for, and drawn down, towards the 2001 feasibility study. The RSC has the task of raising the required matching funding and reported to us that this task was feasible. Sources for £30 million had been identified and there was confidence over the rest of the funding.[43]

31. The £100 million is the total financial envelope for all the theatre schemes. The RSC's own feasibility study states that the RSC Board regards this as "a tight but achievable framework for the construction projects". The study goes on to say that the initial capital appraisal indicated that the RSC would have to be "extremely rigorous in deciding its priorities" and that the maximum allocation of funds to construction costs within this overall budget "could not be more that £60 million". The feasibility study breaks down this figure into: £44.6 million for a new main theatre; £2.6 million for The Swan; £7.9 million for The Other Place; and £2.6 million for unspecified other projects. The study report takes pains to point out the "high degree of risk" involved in estimating costs for a complex project of this kind.[44] We agree and are concerned as to whether the overall vision will be feasible within the available budget. The RSC should clarify its proposals and provide greater detail to demonstrate the financial viability of the project. We recognise that there are time constraints and that delays to the initiation of the project could add to its cost. However, this does not mitigate the need for detailed costings. The RSC Feasibility Study is currently being considered by the Arts Council, who expect to respond shortly.

32. In evidence Mr Pope, the RSC's Redevelopment Director, told us: "We have to live within the budget. The £100 million is the most we think we are going to assemble for this, therefore our plans have to be drawn to work within that."[45] He acknowledged that this might be a challenge and particularly identified the risk of delay as a problem. He told us "if there is a public inquiry in a year or two years then, frankly, I think the money will not stretch to doing what we need to do."[46]

33. We were interested in comparisons between the in-principle allocation to RSC's redevelopment and other allocations by the Arts Council. The Lottery award to the RSC in principle is £50 million. This grant is in the context of:

in 2000/01:

  • the Arts Council grants to drama of £29.9 million;
  • the Arts Council core grant to West Midlands Arts of £10 million;

(The RSC is funded directly by the Arts Council, receiving £9.9 million in 2000­01)

  • total Lottery income for the Arts Council of £204.9 million;
  • total income for the Arts Council of £443.5 million; and

between 1995 and 2001

  • a total First Capital Programme of £1,200 million, including £162 million for projects yet to be completed and the £75 million set aside for the RSC and the South Bank.[47] Since 1995 the top 10 awards from the Lottery Capital programme have been:

Grant awarded, £000s
1Royal Opera House, London
2Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council: Music Centre
3New Sadler's Wells Limited, London
4Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council: Baltic Flour Mills
5Salford City Council: The Lowry Centre
6Royal National Theatre Board, London
7Royal Exchange Theatre Co, Manchester
8Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust Ltd
9Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London
10C/Plex Limited, West Bromwich

We also asked about the Arts Council's experience of capital projects over­running. The Council told us that, of the 1,848 projects in its first capital programme, 56 have been awarded supplementary funding from the Lottery. The Council went on to sat that: "In financial terms, this means £99,407,869 of additional lottery funding for a programme whose overall budget stands at almost £1.2 billion. We note that this represents a success rate of 97 per cent for the Lottery component of the project budgets in question and an average extra spend of about £1.8 million across the 56 projects in question.[48]


34. The key debate is the case for and against the demolition of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre — the 1932 building by Elizabeth Scott. The RSC is adamant that it has considered the two main alternatives to this option, adaptation and relocation, exhaustively. The Company contends that there are no alternative suitable sites within Stratford for a new theatre; indeed the RSC refers to English Heritage advice that it stick to consideration of what can be done on the existing location.[49] English Heritage characterises the opinion of its Advisory Committee, in September 2001, as recognition of the present building's shortcomings and a strong suggestion that the RSC considers how the present building might be adapted.[50]

35. The RSC subsequently concluded, in the report of the feasibility study, that: "as a result of exhaustive exploration ¼ full demolition of the 1932 elements of the RST/Swan Theatre complex is an unavoidable prerequisite to creating the new principal playhouse urgently needed too sustain its work in Stratford."[51] This seems to have come as a shock to English Heritage. The organisation wrote that: "We were considerably surprised in the light of our previous discussions to read that the full demolition is considered unavoidable."[52] This Committee believes that the Company is qualified to make its case over whether the theatre is fit to operate or whether it needs substantial alteration or replacement. We also believe that the statutory machinery for testing the RSC's case, in the light of the building's listed status, is adequate and must be treated with the utmost respect by the Company.

36. The RSC is now conducting a PPG 15 study which is required in a case where significant alteration or demolition of a listed building is in prospect. It seems unlikely that such a study will answer all the questions that are raised by this issue nor that it will satisfy one side or the other in the debate. The ultimate test for this key question may have to be the reaction to what the RSC proposes to build instead (and whether it can be afforded) and by this we mean reaction from all interested parties, from the planning authorities, and, if necessary, from the Secretary of State.


37. The Committee supports the case for capital funds from Lottery money being allocated to developing the RSC in Stratford as a national and international resource for the arts and a great attraction for visitors to the UK.[53] The RSC has set out the problems with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and has made a case for its demolition, convincingly, however the Company has not yet completed the necessary studies nor set out detailed and specific plans for remedy. We believe that the RSC, as arguably the most important performing arts institution in the country, deserves and requires the optimum building and facilities for its indispensable activities. The devil, however, will be in the details and no final judgement is possible until these details are available.

2   A wealthy businessman and Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 19th century. Back

3   RSC Straford Redevelopment (Arts Lottery Project No. 99-747), Feasibility Report, 18th October 2001, 2.02. Hereafter the 'RSC Feasibility Study'. This study is available from the RSC and copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Back

4   Ev 179, paragraph 16 Back

5   Article by Mr Gavin Stamp, Chairman, 20th Century Society, Newsletter, January 2002 and see Ev 179 Back

6   RSC Feasibility Study, 2.02 Back

7   Ibid, 2.05 Back

8   Nonetheless the RSC are taking the Merchant of Venice to Forres in Scotland in May 2002. Back

9   QQ 3, 5 Back

10   Ev 1 Back

11   Ibid Back

12   Ibid and Back

13   Ibid Back

14   See QQ 8-12 Back

15   RSC Feasibility Study, 1.03 Back

16   Ev 5, 6 Back

17   Ev 2 Back

18   See Q 33 and, for example, Ev 79 (c) and Ev 98 Back

19   Q 22 Back

20   Ev 75, 79 Back

21   Q 22 Back

22   Ev 5, 6, 165 paragraph 41 Back

23   Ev 5 Back

24   Ev 178-180 Back

25   Ev 74, 75 Back

26   Ev 5 Back

27   Ev 2, 4 Back

28   Ev 173, 174 Back

29   Q 4 Back

30   Q 4 Back

31   RS Feasibility Study, 2.01 Back

32   Ev 181, paragraph 25 Back

33   Ev 2 Back

34   Ev 97 Back

35   20th Century Society Newsletter, January 2002 (but see RSC Feasibility Study, 2.01) Back

36   RSC Feasibility Study, 3.03 and Ev 181 Back

37   Ev 141, 160, 171 Back

38   Ibid Back

39   Ev 171 Back

40   Ev 164 Back

41   Ev 165 Back

42   Ev 98, paragraph 17 Back

43   QQ 14, 15, 23 Back

44   RSC Feasibility Study, 9.01 Back

45   Q 23 Back

46   Ibid Back

47   The Second Capital Programme was announced last year with the expectation that a maximum of £5 million would apply to applicant organisations. Back

48   Ev 204ff Back

49   Ev 2 and Q37 Back

50   Ev 181, para 30 Back

51   Ev 5 Back

52   Ev 182, paragraph 31 Back

53   Images courtesy of Peter Coombs, RSC; EEA (Theatre Village Plan); and Simmons Aero Films (aeriel view) Back

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