Taking centre stage

The Royal Shakespeare Company offers far more than just live theatre as Gillian Thornton found out on a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon

Viewed from up close, the theatrical costumes in the RSC’s extensive collection are quite extraordinary. I’m standing inches away from a multi-coloured bejewelled dress worn by Juliet Stephenson in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Beside it is the dramatic gold and ivory robe that transformed Ben Kingsley into Othello. Even a simple white smock stained with fake blood is impressive when seen at close quarters.

They all feature in a free RSC exhibition on permanent display at the Company’s Stratford home. Entitled The Play’s The Thing – a reference to a scene in Hamlet – the exhibition is regularly refreshed so there is always something new to enjoy. You can even model hats and jerkins, or go ‘on stage’ in a two-minute interactive experience.

The visitor attractions of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire are world famous, thanks to the legacy of 16th century poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Fans flock to see his birthplace and school, his house and burial place, but the theatre company founded in his name has a surprising amount to offer too.

I’m here to watch a matinee performance but have arrived mid-morning to start my RSC discovery day at the top of the riverside theatre’s eight-storey tower. With a circular view across Stratford to the Malvern Hills, the viewing gallery is free to all members of the public, not just ticket holders, although donations are always welcome to help the RSC achieve its goals. 

The Company exists to ensure that Shakespeare – and theatre as a whole – is for everyone, a goal they achieve by unlocking the power of his plays with live performance, and by carrying out education work in the UK and across the world. As well as performing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the RSC also commission a wide range of original work from contemporary writers.

At the top of the tower, quickly accessed by lift, our friendly guide makes sure we don’t miss anything. The spire of Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised and lain to rest; the roof of his birthplace; and, down below us, the RSC’s costume workshop and period cottages used to lodge visiting actors. 

Panoramic view over, I head back down to river level to join a small group theatre tour. Bookable online (adults, £13.50; up to four children half price), these one-hour tours take visitors on a journey through the RSC’s history and offer an inside view on acting, actors, and even architecture.

The original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened on this site in 1879 on land donated by local brewer Charles Flowers. But in 1926, the theatre caught fire and the roof caved in to leave only a shell. Six years later, a competition to design a new theatre was won by Elizabeth Scott, 29-year-old great-niece of George Gilbert Scott, the first female architect to design an important public building. 

Fast forward to 1961 and Peter Hall formed the Royal Shakespeare Company as we know it today. Elizabeth’s Scott’s Art Deco brick building and distinctive interiors are still very much in evidence, inside and out, but the curved back walls of the new auditorium – opened in 2011 after a three-year transformation – can clearly be seen inside her original walls.

No two days at the RSC are the same, so neither are the tours as access to certain areas can change daily. I love the stained-glass windows up the staircase depicting The Seven Ages of Man, and the head of Romeo, a 3D mask made from 2000 shimmering metal stars created by sculptor Steven Follen in 2016. I’m touched by the way floorboards from the old stage have been incorporated into public areas, so that visitors can literally tread in the footsteps of the theatre greats. And I’m fascinated by the picture of Shakespeare’s face made with more than 65,000 Lego bricks. 

When hunger beckons, I head across the theatre gardens for a light snack in Susie’s Café Bar at The Other Place. What started out as a tin hut used to store props and stage sets was rebuilt in 2007 when the main theatre closed for major refurbishment.  Today ‘The Other Place’ stages many works by new writers, perhaps the next generation of literary legends.   

Then it is time to take my seat in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the matinee performance of the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, first production in the RSC’s 2024 summer season. I don’t know the play but it’s not hard to pick up the story, despite the 16th century language and quick wit. A French princess is sent with her ladies by her ailing father to recover the land of Aquitaine from Ferdinand of Navarre, but far from being in Renaissance costume, this is Shakespeare with a twist. The action is now set in 21st century Hawaii where the king and his ‘tech bro’ friends struggle to impress the four independent ladies, and Shakespeare’s poetry and word play roll along at a rollicking pace with some seamless contemporary additions.

It’s all very frothy, with mistaken identities, wrongly delivered letters, and a great deal of swooning, mainly on the side of the men, but it’s huge fun and I’m struck at how Shakespeare’s observations and humour can be made relevant to today. The excellent cast of talented young actors are mostly making their RSC debut, including Bridgerton star Luke Thompson, and every seat has a close-up view of the action.

This particular production finishes on 18 May (2024), but there are other plays to enjoy in this inaugural season of Co-Artistic Directors Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey across the Company’s four theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon – the Royal Shakespeare, the Swan, The Other Place, and the Holloway Garden Theatre outdoor performance space. For programme details to March 2025, visit www.rsc.org.uk. And when you book, make sure to leave time to visit to the Rooftop Restaurant for more stunning views and one of the nicest afternoon teas I have enjoyed anywhere. Tier upon tier of pure indulgence. A bit like a seat in this delightful theatre complex!

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Gillian Thornton

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