A visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in celebration of a Shakespeare anniversary

The River Avon and Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The River Avon and Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Three years on from the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Stephen Roberts returns to Stratford-upon-Avon to mark another ‘Bard-town’ anniversary

The original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879, which burned down in 1926 (Detroit Publishing Com

The original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879, which burned down in 1926 (Detroit Publishing Company photochrom, source United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division). - Credit: Archant

'All the world's a stage.' I suppose it's one of the most famous (and apt) lines from any of Shakespeare's many plays, but would you know which one? (It's actually 'As You Like It', which the Bard quilled over 1599-1600). That feeling of aptness intensified as I headed up to Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring to mark another 'Bard-town' anniversary.

Now, you might recall that I wrote something to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Will's death (Cotswold Life, April 2016). I had some fun with my favourite quotes from two dozen or so of his plays, met up with my Bruv and discovered how Stratford was gearing up to commemorate that particular landmark.

This time it would be slightly different, as I would be accompanied by my soulmate and one true love, 'Mrs Steve'. Behind every mediocre man lies an extraordinary woman. 'Well said, that was laid on with a trowel'. I have nailed my romantic credentials to the mast and 'As You Like It' has much to say about love, romance and getting hitched. True love can indeed be so intense sometimes that it hurts. 'Love is merely a madness'.

It also ponders what it is to be a fool (one of the characters, Touchstone, is a fool, yet a fool who could come out with some insightful commentary). In a nation where fewer people read or acquire general knowledge, yet almost everyone is in thrall to a so-called 'smartphone', Touchstone may have called it right. 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool'.

This needs to be a romantic piece though, and yes, Shakespeare would have had a field day with it all. In fact, he will have, because I'm going to throw in a few more quotes from 'As You Like It', a play that was written when 'WS' was a member (1594-1603) of 'The Lord Chamberlain's Men', a theatre company reconstituted under the auspices of Lord Hunsdon, this following an outbreak of plague (1592-94) that had closed the theatres. It's a comedy. 'Truly thou are damned, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side.' As we headed up to Warwickshire, we had a pair of tickets for this very play. 'And thereby hangs a tale'.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, pictured in August 2011 after the Transformation Project (David Dixon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, pictured in August 2011 after the Transformation Project (David Dixon / Royal Shakespeare Theatre) - Credit: Archant

Digressing slightly (a Shakespearian aside no less), I must tell you that my second book, 'Lesser Known Bournemouth', is to be published this year. 'So what?' I hear you ask. Bear with. The thing is, you see, that the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (opened 1932) was designed by Elisabeth Scott, who was born and raised in the seaside resort. She deserves to be better known, as it was the first significant public building in the UK designed by a woman. Another remarkable lady. That's two already and there'll be more to come. 'Do you know not that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak'. If you get your passport renewed anytime soon, you'll find a picture of Elisabeth and her theatre inside.

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I need to go even further back though, as my journey to Stratford was inspired, not by Elisabeth's theatre, but by the very first one on an adjacent site, the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (SMT), which opened its doors in April 1879, all of 140 years ago. This was a fabulous Gothic looking extravagance, which would have looked at home in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'. Sadly, its days were all too short, as it burned down in 1926, the year of the General Strike, when it was only in its late-forties. 'O, how full of briars, is this working-day world!' The original theatre wasn't totally razed to the ground. After the fire it became rehearsal rooms and, in 1986, the shell of the old SMT was redeveloped, opening as the Swan Theatre.

In a fine example of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre would open in 1932, the one designed by Elisabeth, which had a feature Proscenium Arch, surrounding the stage space above and to the sides, and around 1,400 seats in three tiers. O.k. it took six years, which probably feels like it took 'forever and a day'. Incidentally, that last (and very famous quote) is by Orlando, a character denied education by his beastly older brother, who 'stalled him like an ox'. Well, he did well then to come out with that gem. 'Thou speakest wiser than thou are aware of'.

The next major development in the story was the formation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. Stratford now had the players to go with the plays. The Bard, who acted as well as scribed, would have been very much in favour. The following year saw the theatre renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST).

That 'All the World's a Stage' soliloquy goes on to ponder the 'Seven Ages of Man' (I sometimes feel that I'm enjoying my second childhood). The theatre embarked on its third stage in 2007, when work began to transform the RST via a multi-million-pound project (over £100m in fact). It was 2010 when the RST and Swan Theatre re-opened on completion of the appropriately-named 'Transformation Project', which did what it said on the tin. We maybe shouldn't get too vexed about heading for the 'Sixth Age' and 'Oblivion', when we can say, 'therefore my age is a lusty winter, Frosty, but kindly'.

The new RST has a so-called 'thrust-stage' auditorium, which serves to bring the actors and 1,040-plus audience closer together. The first time I viewed this space in 2016, it put me in mind of the Globe Theatre, on London's South Bank, except that the RST auditorium is inside a larger building. The Swan Theatre was also improved, new public spaces have been created, including the Riverside Café and Rooftop Restaurant, and there is the new Observation Tower, which rises 118 feet (36 metres) and affords panoramic views over the town and river. We now have a more traditional Shakespearean performance area, with a colonnade connecting the two theatres for the first time. In 2011, the revamped complex was officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (March 4), an occasion which included a rendition of the iconic 'Romeo and Juliet' balcony scene. Full Shakespearean performances were once more underway, courtesy of the RSC repertoire.

Chapel Street frontage of the Hotel Indigo in Stratford-upon-Avon

Chapel Street frontage of the Hotel Indigo in Stratford-upon-Avon - Credit: Archant

Geraldine Collinge, the director of the Events & Exhibitions team, is proud of the way the RST has evolved and diversified, whilst respecting its past history.

"We were lucky there was a firebreak between the original theatre (1877-79), and the separate library and museum (1881), which were joined by a rialto bridge. When the 1926 fire occurred, the latter buildings survived and are still in use, with the picture gallery used for exhibitions. The recent Transformation Project saw the replacement early-1930s theatre superseded by a new RST, but our mantra was to create a new space suitable for the early-21st century, whilst also preserving what we could of Elisabeth Scott's theatre, from wooden floors and beautiful doors to marble staircases, Art Deco features and the Proscenium Arch. The original theatre and its replacement are both part of our story. The Transformation Project was very challenging, as it sought to provide a more visitor-friendly environment, whilst retaining the distinctiveness of the site's various time periods."

I wondered how the radical overhaul at the theatre had gone down with the general public. 'Time travels in diverse places with diverse persons'.

"Our visitors really love what we've done. We feel there is something here for everyone now. We have a truly integrated building, which attracts more than a million people a year, with around half of those attending the theatre, and the rest coming for other reasons. That is the key to our current and future success, the fact that we've been able to diversify. We don't just do Shakespeare, either, but have a range of productions to suit every taste. Our family show for Christmas was 'A Christmas Carol'. 'Kunene and the King', which has been playing this year, was inspired by 'Lear'. That kind of crossover is fascinating. Change is an ever present and our current mission is the £8.7 million Costume Workshop Project, which will upgrade the old buildings where we've been making RSC costumes since the 1950s. We aim to have this re-opened next summer (2020)."

Talking of refurbs, we stayed at the Hotel Indigo, a luxury 93-bedroom boutique hotel in the heart of Stratford (actually, opposite 'New Place', the site of the one house that Shakespeare purchased here, in May 1597). The Indigo re-opened in February after a multi-million-pound restoration project that took 18 months. A new hotel it may be, but it occupies a much older building (16th century). Locals will know it as 'The Falcon'. That juxtaposition of old and new works perfectly, from the venerable flagstones you step on as you enter the front of the hotel, to the light and airy reception area at the back. We were treated royally, so will undoubtedly return (a two-minute perambulation down Chapel Lane). As well as being across the road from a place where Will resided, it's also a handy short walk from the RST.

Stratford-upon-Avon map, by Katie B Morgan, www.kbmorgan.co.uk

Stratford-upon-Avon map, by Katie B Morgan, www.kbmorgan.co.uk - Credit: Katie B Morgan, www.kbmorgan.co.uk

It was in the RST that we would watch 'As You Like It'. Now, Rosalind is one of the great roles for actresses. She's the central character and is clever, engaging, impish, yet ardent (and also gets a lot of the good lines and carries the play). She also confuses by switching between male (Ganymede) and female personas (Rosalind), so seems perfect for our more gender-fluid times. Rosalind fancies Orlando when she sees him wrestling and the feelings are reciprocated. 'Awww!' I hear you exclaim. 'No sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved'. The story has a certain 'Romeo and Juliet' about it, as two star-crossed lovers flee in the pursuit of happiness, and to escape awkward relatives. 'We that are true lovers run into strange capers'.

I like the bit where love-sick Orlando starts pinning poems (odes to love) for Rosalind to find in the forest. 'Under the greenwood tree'. Now, my wife is a keen gardener and happiest making mud pies, so the idea of depositing little missives around the estate has a certain allure. My love surely knows no bounds. 'My affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal'. Just for the avoidance of doubt, an 'unknown bottom' is nothing like a 'soggy bottom'. Rosalind finds the notes and masquerades as Ganymede to guide a rather hapless Orlando as to how best to woo her. You may as well get it the way you want it. 'Down on your knees'.

Edinburgh-born Sandy Grierson grew up with the Festival Fringe, which inspired him to become an actor. He'd been to shows at the old RST, but first performed in Stratford, at the new RST, in 2012, and at the Swan, in 2013.

"From a fairly young age I knew I wanted to act, as I loved its immediacy and improvisation. I cut my teeth at the Fringe, but never imagined that I'd go on to appear at Stratford with the RSC. Every theatre space is unique, offering different qualities, but it's amazing performing here at Stratford. The 'thrust stage' employed in both the Swan and RST puts an actor right in the audience and able to stare individuals in the eye: you can feed off the throng. The Swan is gorgeous, intimate with fantastic acoustics. You feel embraced by the audience. The RST is modelled on the Swan, but bigger, and made of steel (not wood), so with very different acoustics. It's important to speak up in here and with clarity, so it presents a very different challenge to the smaller space. The technological possibilities are greater though: it's bigger, more modern and has a raised roof."

Sandy enjoys playing as many different roles as possible and appears as 'Touchstone' in the RSC's production of 'As You Like It'.

"He's a great character to play, a lot of fun and a smart cookie to boot."

Local artist Katie B Morgan designed this beautiful illustrated map of Stratford-upon-Avon for June's issue of Cotswold Life. See below the map for points of interest...

- Mop Fair: Michaelemas Fair in October

- Lamp posts: Different countries have given lamp posts to the town

- Bicycle: Pashley Cycles

- Orchestra of the Swan

- Policemen chasing swan: Simon Pegg studied at Stratford (this is a scene from his movie 'Hot Fuzz')

- Gordon Ramsay: Born in Johnstone, Scotland, the sweary chef was raised in Stratford-upon-Avon

- JB Priestly died in Stratford

- The Curse: Arthur C Clarke's post apocalyptic short story is set in Stratford-upon-Avon

- John Profumo MP: The disgraced politician had his seat in Stratford

- Suede: Keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Neil Codling is from the town

Current and forthcoming productions:

'Measure for Measure' by William Shakespeare (28/06/2019 to 29/08/2019).

'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare (currently showing to 31/08/2019).

'The Taming of the Shrew' by William Shakespeare (currently showing to 31/08/2019).

'The Provoked Wife' by John Vanbrugh (currently showing to 07/09/2019).

'Venice Preserved' by Thomas Otway (24/05/2019 to 07/09/2019).

Stitch in time:

To donate to the 'Stitch in Time' fundraiser and help restore and redevelop the old Costume Workshop, visit rsc.org.uk/stitch-in-time.

Where to stay: Hotel Indigo | 4 Chapel Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 6HA | 0800 389 8100 | stratford.hotelindigo.com

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