In Shakespeare’s England, Stratford-upon-Avon:
Visiting Stratford-upon-Avon for a short break, my aim, above all, was to discover the theatrical delights of the Shakespeare’s birth town and to visit the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company. I was lucky enough to be staying at the luxurious Arden Hotel, which is ideally situated directly across the road from the theatre, so I had it all on my doorstep.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England on 23rd April 1564. He was an English playwright, actor and poet also known as the “Bard of Avon” and often called, England’s national poet. From 1594 onwards he was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of theatrical players. Little is known as to how Shakespeare’s professional life shaped his exquisite talent and artistry. But we know that in his 20 years (approximately between 1590 to 1613) as a playwright he wrote 37 plays and that he captured the hearts and minds of the world with his ability to encapsulate such an extraordinary range of human emotion and conflict into his stories. His plays revolved around four main themes: histories, tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies.
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Royal Shakespeare Company is probably one of the worlds most famous and respected theatre companies, through their extraordinary creative expertise, they have kept Shakespeare’s legacy alive, although the works of other Renaissance playwrights are regularly produced. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is also proud to be a showcase for contemporary writers.
Seeing a play at the RSC is such a fantastic experience, and should definitely be on your bucket list, however, the theatre also offers a host of activities and exhibitions, and on my short visit, I managed to fit in a few of them.
Behind The Scenes Tour
I can recommend taking the Behind the Scenes Tour if you want to get a real sense of this magnificent theatre and understand a little more about its history.
Our guide told us all about the RSC’s humble beginnings when in 1875 Charles Edward Flower a landowner and a Stratford brewer decided to build a memorial theatre in Shakespeare’s birthplace. He asked for donations but was turned down, so he decided to do it himself. He donated a two-acre site on the banks of the River Avon and The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built there. It opened in 1879 with a production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was luxuriously decorated and had a Victorian proscenium arch stage and played to packed audiences night after night. The company was granted a Royal Charter in 1925 but a year later the theatre was tragically burnt down.
A worldwide campaign was launched to build a new theatre, and on Shakespeare’s birthday 23rd April 1932, the Prince of Wales opened the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. It was designed by Elizabeth Scott, who at the time was only in her 20’s, this was a time when woman couldn’t even vote, so it is extraordinary to think that she had the opportunity to be responsible for designing such a groundbreaking theatre, and it is believed that she put a few noses out of joint with her male contemporaries. You can still see parts of the original Art Deco theatre, in particular, the beautiful foyer box office and the master and slave clocks, which were, used front of house and backstage during the period.
In 1958 Peter Hall became the Artistic Director, in 1960 he formed the modern Royal Shakespeare Company and The Memorial Theatre was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
1974 The Other Place opened, which created a smaller studio style theatre, used for more experimental work it was built in what was once a prefabricated former store/rehearsal room in Stratford.
During the 70’s when Trevor Nunn was artistic director he had the inspiration to have designed a new look thrust stage theatre, at the time this proved too costly so didn’t get made, only some years later were his original plans rediscovered and used.
In 1986 when Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands were joint artistic directors The Swan Theatre was opened, a stunning galleried, modern theatre based on the design of Elizabethan theatres with a deep thrust stage and a 430 – seat auditorium which created an intimate performance space with close proximity of the audience to the actors.
In 2007 the theatre was closed until November 2010 for an extensive refurbishment. The £112.8-million ‘Transformation’ project redeveloped its Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres. Its main theatre was modelled to make it more comfortable and where it once seated 1500 people and you could be as far as 27m from the stage it is now smaller and more intimate now the furthest you will sit is a much more reasonable 15m from the stage.
The new buildings attracted an incredible 18,000 visitors within the first week!
During the refurbishments, the RSC performances in Stratford-upon-Avon continued at the temporary Courtyard Theatre, as well of course at its other venues in London and Newcastle upon Tyne, plus regular tours across the UK and internationally.
The Play’s The Thing
If you’d like to find out a little more about what really happens behind the scenes at the RSC, The Play’s The Thing is an exhibition which takes you on a magical interactive journey through 100 years of theatre-making. Displayed is a tremendous selection of original costumes and props from the archives, including both a Batman and Robin costume, which will definitely keep the children happy.
There’s a rare copy of Shakespeare’s first folio and you can discover the gory details of theatre-making through the A-Z of Shakespeare’s secrets and stories.
The Magic Costume Mirror provided us with some great entertainment, as we were able to try on a host of virtual costumes from the collection, which proved to be very amusing and a great photo opportunity.
You can sit at the director’s desk, don some headphones and listen to past directors talk about their inspiration for directing some of the RSC’s most acclaimed shows.
Plus for aspiring actors there’s a brilliant opportunity to play Hamlet alongside actor Ewart James Walters, using some incredible state-of-the-art gaming technology.
Young or old this exhibition offers a wonderful behind the scenes insight into the theatre making at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Rooftop Restaurant and Bar
During you a visit, perhaps you’ll fancy a drink at the bar or a delicious lunch, or maybe afternoon tea, or a pre-theatre dinner, if so why not try out the fabulous Rooftop Restaurant and bar, which is located on the third floor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre?
It is in rather a unique location, not only does it offer the most magnificent views over Stratford, but also you are seated in amongst the original theatre walls prior to the RSC’ s major 4-year theatre refurbishments, which were completed in 2011. The Rooftop Restaurant has a rather cool, urban feel about, it was once the balcony level of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the poster wall, which runs down the centre of the restaurant was originally the back wall of auditorium, and you can see a few theatre seats hung on one wall which mark where you would have been sitting in the old theatre.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch seated at a window table which provided us with an impressive view over the town and river Avon.
The menu offers a great choice of modern homemade dishes, which are available as a pre-theatre menu at a very reasonable £22 for 2 courses or £26 for 3 courses.We started with a Leek and Stilton Tartlet with honey mustard dressing which had a delicious delicately flavoured, light and creamy filling and was complimented by the crisp bitter leaves.
It was a bitterly cold winters day so I chose the slow cooked blade of beef with thyme roasted celeriac & Jerusalem artichoke horseradish mash. It was a fabulous hearty, warming dish with perfectly tender slow-cooked beef and comforting smooth and silky mash, just what I needed!
My friend’s pumpkin, chickpea & coconut curry was a full flavoured aromatic curry, which was served with a toasted almond and sultana pilaf, which she described as reminiscent of curries of old but with a modern twist.
We accompanied our meal with a glass of house Merlot and finished off with a selection of delightful handmade petit fours and coffee.
If you are visiting the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the Rooftop Restaurant provides the perfect port of call for a meal or drink at any time of day. We enjoyed a very tasty lunch in wonderfully cool surroundings, with the added pleasure of the faces of many of the theatrical stars of the RSC’s past looking down at us from the poster walls.
In the evening we were lucky enough to have tickets to go to the stunning Swan Theatre to see Imperium Part II: Dictator in preview. Following his stunning RSC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (2013/14) Mike Poulton has adapted Robert Harris’ best-selling Cicero Trilogy, entering the thrilling world of Ancient Rome. Directed by RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran. Watch out for this, I suspect they have another great success on their hands.
My visit to the RSC was action packed; I managed to pack in an exhibition, a theatre tour, and a delicious lunch in the Rooftop Restaurant and bar, plus see an exciting new theatre production in The Swan Theatre.
But of course whilst in Stratford if you really want to experience the theatre world first hand, I recommend taking a little trip down the road to the Dirty Duck formerly known as The Black Swan to join the thespians in a post-show drink. It’s a fabulous pub with all the trimmings and the walls are adorned with signed photos of the many actors who have frequented this fine establishment over the years and there are plenty of familiar faces in situ to do a bit of star-spotting…..cheers!
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For further information:
The Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Company,
Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6YF
Tel: 01789 403493
Thank you to Shakespeare’s England for arranging such a fantastic trip to Stratford-upon-Avon – for more information check out their website
If you are thinking of visiting yourself, why not pin this post for later