(The cover of this essay shows Anthony Rowe’s model (which he kindly demonstrated to the class during our June study week) and the stage as it is (during a guided tour).)

 

Overview

A few months ago there was a major re-design of the RSC’s main Stratford stage by it’s resident Design Co-ordinator, Anthony Rowe. (But you would not think so if you read reviews or searched the internet – not even the RSC’s own site mentions it.) By at once reducing the playing area and thrusting out the stage (see cover pictures), adding playable wings and balconies the main house has become a little like the much loved Swan. To those who see the main house as doomed, the refurbishment may seem like little more than re-arranging the deckchairs aboard the Titanic. This essay discusses the designer’s intent, looks at one production’s use of it (that is the design elements, the acting is outside the scope of this essay), offers a personal view of the new stage and one use of it, brings together some relevant comments from the critics and finally offers the opinions of five actors who have played on the new stage.

 

 

The new stage’s designer – Anthony Rowe.

Anthony Rowe, Design Co-ordinator has worked at the RSC for nearly 4 years and during that times has worked on the re-design of all 3 Stratford RSC stages. Firstly, he worked with Katie Mitchell on the re-design of the TOP. Most recently he has re-worked the main house’s stage to critical, actor and audience acclaim. It started when Adrian Noble drew up a list of problems with the main stage. He expects it to stay for at least next year but it will be temporarily disappearing during the Winter season for the return of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. In doing the re-design he didn’t think of any particular Shakespeare play but instead considered a flexible space for all. He is also pleased that the four director/designer teams are approaching the new stage in different ways. The thrust ellipse takes out two rows in stalls (and further as the lady on the guided tour explained that the left and right rows of the new front row are not usable). Rowe feels that pushing out the ellipse like this and the curve itself takes out the feel that you have to fill the space. In both the current productions of Othello and Timon of Athens there are moments where the stage is empty (JGM: also in A Midsummer Night’s Dream we have Hermia and Lysander on a bare stage). Another restriction on his work has been the fact that productions will need to fit into other theatres – Newcastle, Plymouth, Barbican and then there are the leisure centre tours.

 

Speaking of the designer Yolanda Sonnabend, Rowe was frank “we don’t know what her artwork means but she has done massive research – put in things that have meant something to her emotionally”. “She does not consider practicalities”. However, the marriage of the designer and implementor seems to have been a successful one as what Rowe has been able to make palpable is impressive. He had similar words for Artistic Director Adrian Noble “child brain – he keeps coming up with ideas – without thinking of practicalities” but the Pimlott Antony and Cleopatra production attests to general success here. What we see is nothing like the self-indulgence and opulence of the Burton Taylor film (which seems to have very little indeed to do with the Shakespeare with the two protagonists overly self-loving (I.e. even for Antony and Cleopatra) to the extent that any respect or sympathy for them is almost impossible) but a more soapy deliberate non-epic (in the spirit of the source text) story of two somewhat narcissistic people who have kissed away kingdoms. (At 65 and 54 rather older than expected – especially as she was 39 when she suicided – having been Antony’s partner for 11 years (Britannica).

 

The stage, of course, is raked but only 1 in 24 which is comparatively mild. Rowe believes that it is important not to impose a design on a play and that theatre design is about creating the right space – it does not exist on its own outside of production. The show changeovers are relatively easy as each show has its own floor which comes apart like a massive jigsaw and is stored backstage (as we saw on the backstage tour). Traps, if any, are cut for each play, the stage does not come with them already present.

 

One of the season’s designer’s use of the stage.

The artist Yolanda Sonnabend is the designer for Pimlott’s Antony and Cleopatra.

The truncated translucent column (shown to the left and rear of the ellipse on the title page of this essay) is supposed to be Rome (as she stated herself in an interview with  Rupert Christiansen ( ffolio, acinter.html). There are richly painted gauzes. Guilded scarab throne and a carpeted floor (which Sonnabend hopes does not put people in mind of the Hilton foyer). Christiansen describes her as a “very fine painter of mannerist, expressionist canvases, full of lush, disturbing and ghostly imagery”. Anthony Rowe has to help realise her imaginings. It is her first design for the main stage. Speaking to Rupert Christiansen (ffolio, acinter.html) she seemed not over confident “You never know, it may or may not work but it will certainly look different”. She counted her sources as including The Book of the Dead, the haute couture of John Galliano. She sees Rome and Alexandria in the time of the play as very close yet very different. Alexandria was sophisticated and self-indulgent (count the goblets that Bates drinks in the play) while Rome was harder and business-like. Two symbols are on stage for most of the play – a kind of door knob indicating the exotic for Egypt. While a similarly sized (cubic foot) very square door knob for Rome – indicating its discipline. There are polycarbonate mirrors to facilitate the filmic fluidity inherent in the play (one of the defining things about Antony and Cleopatra - there are a lot of short scenes). This and the raising of the monument are perhaps the biggest challenges in staging the play[i]. Sometimes we have two scenes overlaid with one set of actors doing their scene followed immediately by the other set doing theirs. Or, alternatively, having lines interspersed by the two sets of actors. This technique is reminiscent of Pimlott’s own Richard III[ii] in 1996 – in which he also used the device of Brechtian walk-off style deaths. Slightly curiously there are coins behind the mirrors this may be intended to allude to the magnificent wealth of both the states.

 

Press reactions to the set and stage in Antony and Cleopatra

A fluid design of three tilted mirrors lends cinematic speed to this always difficult but magnificent epic tragedy” (Coveney). However, not everybody has been so open armed about the set. Charles Spencer writes “It’s a horrible clutter of sawn-off columns, metallic triangles and curves, a tattered back cloth and hideously ugly Perspex panels that create distracting reflections.” He continues equally unimpressed with the costumes: “costumes range from Carry on Cleo to the present day by way of the Jacobean and the Victorian eras, and this junk-shop of a design concept is  not adept at signalling the difference between Rome and Egypt.” Compare this with Coveney’s “some lovely silken costumes by Yolanda Sonnabend”. I am not familiar with the work of Spencer but this suggests he is very much in the pose striking, cheap joke ‘review’ market who will occasionally throw in a concessional “but the audience seemed to enjoy it”[iii].  Spencer, bless his cotton socks, continues “beneath the tiresome exhibitionism of the “creative team” there is a halfway decent production trying to emerge”. ( He also describes the play as “the greatest love tragedy in the language”. Perhaps he saw the wrong play as I thought that was Romeo and Juliet – maybe its just whichever one is up for review.) Michael Billington in the Guardian predictably comes to the RSC’s rescue and writes about Sonnabend “has designed a beguiling space that effortlessly contains both Rome and Alexandria: three tilted mirrors in the foreground, an elliptical astrolabe in the background.’ He continues “it both implies the characters’ narcissism and Shakespeare’s cosmic range and allows the action to move fluently”. Jeremy Kingston “How to win a Tony in Old Egypt” says “we don’t always know which part of the Mediterranean we have reached, though the wires and tubes behind Yolanda Sonnabend’s otherwise plain set sometimes make a triangle prominent (a pyramid for Pompey’s feast gives the stage a wonderfully warm tavern feel).

 

A personal view of the stage and set

Unlike Spencer and Kingston, I rarely had problems locating where we were and thought Sonnabend’s set made good use of the re-designed stage giving a deep back to the stage outside of the elliptical playing area that could be used to help locate us as well as the inventive use of the three mirrors/glass. Rowe states that they have a special coating and that they can work as a two way mirror that you can look through – can work like a sheet of glass – what is behind that is normally vague.

 

Good use was also made of the wings and there was a semi-Swan feel to the show at times with both actors performing a little in the wings and musicians playing there (instead of being confined out of sight in the sound room). However, the raising the monument completely threw me the first time that I saw this production as it really does help if you already know the play – which many, like myself, won’t. Sheila (on our course) thought that this was a “problem of having an artist” as a designer. There was nothing to haul him up to. He (Antony) was sat behind the three pulling women at the time which did not help me. So this seems to be a weak area – the new stage has not been used successively here to make clear to a first-time audience (which in theory is always the director’s brief) what is happening. (There’s also the problem of the audience-stupefying dying walk-offs which is bound to confuse non-experience theatre-goers but that’s a directorial decision not a stage issue and so is outside of the scope of this essay.)

 

Specific uses of the new features of the re-designed playing area

I won’t allude to every single use of the new playing area but I list some below.

 

Musician behind screen end of the first part.

Soldiers in wings before entering for sea battle and immediately before the sea fight that come to the very front of the stage – so they are in a place where people would previously have been sitting.

 

Musicians are generally in wings whilst playing (disappear when they are not).

Once or twice there was one in the  right hand balcony – something common in the Swan.

 

The wings were also used for storage of props – e.g. chairs.

At the end the deep pieces of set are taken away revealing a plain wall – i.e. an opening up of the set and we have a brass band and soldiers.

 

Cleopatra and attendants congratulating Antony.

 

During Cleopatra’s last long scene her two attendants move to the mirrors – i.e. using all of the playing area – creating space in what is in metres a small playing area.

 

Towards the end of the play the glass pieces at back of stage raised up so we could see the stage all the way back from the wall. (A lifting of a veil perhaps in line with the showing of Cleopatra in all her non-glory.) Some minor characters came up through steps. Brass band and Romans used the back area.

 

(Incidentally, Frances de la Tour has experience of playing in experimental sets – she was in Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

 

Perhaps in the current Midsummer Night’s Dream they use the width and certainly height more (for instance, to hide the bed) with Peter Quince in wings mouthing words during his play. The latter is sustained for a longer time than is any wing use in Antony and Cleopatra. However, it would be a bad thing if directors and designers used the new stage too much. We would not appreciate a child with a new toy approach to the challenge of the new playing area.

 

 

Actor reactions to the new stage

(Difficult to find any of these on the wonderful J internet. Fortunately Stratford Shakespeare courses were more useful.)

 

Malcolm Storry thought that the “Idea of the ellipse – presumably to bring the actors and audience closer together” But that’s not the way it works for him. He feels he prefers the old stage – thinks it seems to send the audience further away. Can’t understand why. Prefers the Swan. Feels lost. “totally lost” – tempted to stand still and just say the lines.

 

When he spoke to the Shakespeare Studies class two months earlier (in June) and was asked if the ellipse made him feel more in touch with the audience he replied “compared with the Swan it’s a compromise. Aware as an actor standing on an ellipse and know audience can’t see your expression”. However, he thought that the “entrances from back in Othello were really good”.

 

Josette Simon was very surprised with what Malcolm said – was “completely the opposite” – very aware in the past of the audience being a long way away both as a performer and as a member of the audience. “A great thing”. Have to careful not to go too far down stage or lose the connection. “Do find a connection with the audience that is quite astounding… Exciting connection… Tremendous improvement a very good idea. … From both sides of the auditorium a very welcome change.”

 

Zoë Waites on the other hand had not played on the old stage. She felt very much close than ever did before as a member of the audience. Saw current production of AMND Very well connected with what was happening on stage – although didn’t have a particularly good seat – felt more connected than ever have done before..

 

Ray Fearon. Thought that the new stage was “more actor-friendly”. Looking out into a black void before. …  Also as a member of the audience before never felt the connection.

 

Alan Bates (who was not at the Summer School but made his view known via an internet transcription of an interview with Marion McMullen (ffolio, acinter.html))  said “I’m looking forward to working on the new stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It is much more intimate and accessible. I really do feel I’m here for the first time. Everything is fresh.”

 

 

Conclusion

Although Yolanda Sonnabend’s “different” set and costumes have had a very mixed response the re-designed stage seems to please almost everybody other than those who would like the theatre raised to the ground and replaced with two or three Swans (which might not be a bad idea). The only dissenting voice I’ve heard is that of Malcolm Storry – whose view should be taken seriously as he is a skilful and experienced actor and when he made the statement he had been performing on the new stage for a few months. As Anthony Rowe said to the class in June his stage is only one in a long line of stages in the main house and his will in time give way to other designs. For now though, the RSC seems to be making the most of its challenged legacy building. In the words of Josette Simon ‘Tremendous improvement a very good idea. From both sides of the auditorium a very welcome change’. It can’t match the Swan but it is certainly enhances productions. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but the RSC will come very close with their latest main house stage.

 



[i] One approach has been to have a revolving stage to help with the cinematic action. One solution to the monument problem is to raise it from a balcony – a possibility with the re-designed stage.

 

[ii] In which David Troughton excelled in the title role.

 

[iii]  Personally, I have given up reading reviews prior to seeing a play and rarely see them after either. For years I have attended RSC Press Nights but have found the disparity between critics reviews and my own too different. My reactions are more in line with other people who attend Shakespeare courses than with any of the critics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography for Essay on the New Stage in the Main House Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

Billington, Michael ‘Enobarbus steals the show’. The Guardian, Friday 25th June 1999.

 

Covebey, Michael “Bates’s date with destiny…Daily Mail, Friday 25th June 1999.

 

Encylopaedia Britannica 99 Multimedia Edition (CD-ROM, Britannica, 1998). Used generally to check facts.

 

Ffolio (WWW http://www.ffolio.com/abarchive/stage/Antony/acinter.html, USA, now last updated summer 1999) This site is devoted to Alan Bates and in passing contains an interview ‘Bringing magic to the RSC’ that has Antony and Cleopatra’s designer Yolanda Sonnabend talking to Rupert Christiansen which is. In fact, an interview lifted from ‘The Electronic Telegraph dated Tuesday 22nd June 1999).

 

Kingston, Jeremy ‘How to win a Tony in Old Egypt’, unidentified newspaper, June 1999.

 

Rowe, Anthony. Interview notes of Anthony Rowe speaking to the class during study week in June.

 

Spencer, Charles ‘RSC resorts to adolescent shock tactics’ in an unidentified newspaper, June 1999.

 

Storry, Malcolm Interview notes of Malcolm Storry speaking to the Shakespeare in Studies class in June 1999.

 

Storry, Malcolm, Josette Simon, Zoe Waites and Ray Fearon. Interview notes of these actors speaking to the Shakespeare Summer School in August 1999.