(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).)
few months ago there was a major re-design of the RSC’s main
The new stage’s designer – Anthony Rowe.
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 –
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
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.
artist Yolanda Sonnabend is the designer for Pimlott’s
truncated translucent column (shown to the left and rear of the ellipse on the
title page of this essay) is supposed to be
“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
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 (
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.
and attendants congratulating
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.)
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
(Difficult to find any of these on the wonderful J internet. Fortunately Stratford Shakespeare courses were more useful.)
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.”
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
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).
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.