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12/12/2008 

Bartoshevich Aleksey V. Stratford Theatre of Our Time: Is Shakespeare for Tourists?

The renovation of the theatre in Stratford is proceeding, with all the disastrous effects of such undertakings. As the old saying goes, two removals are as bad as a fire, however well-intentioned and scrupulous the renovation plans are. Or rather, it should be called a reconstruction and through overhauling. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is lying in ruins, like another Coventry. Painful it is to see today’s swans of the Avon wandering up and down the river in search of feeding hands. The construction fences ban visitors.

Shakespeare’s theatrical house was erected 129 years ago, the constriction works financed by local brewer Charles Flower (when you chance to visit, never fail to drop in at The Black Swan (people may also refer to it as The Dirty Duck), and partake of a pint of Flower’s, or your trip will be wasted). In 1926 the old theatre building burnt down, to evoke G.B. Shaw’s anti-Shakespearean flamboyant essay. Six years later (for money was not to be found until habitually helpful Americans had lent a hand) the old Victorian building was replaced by a new, geometrical onein the art deco style. The locals did not like the new theatre, considering it to be a blasphemy against the Bard. They used to refer to it as «the factory», a swearword when pronounced by a Stratford resident. However, habit is second nature, and local residents gradually came to terms with the squares and rectangles, and actually came to like. The angles stopped irritating them, and what was avant-garde at the time of construction gained solidity with age. Of course, the architecture does not matter as much as the events that were run inside and entered the history of European theatre, the stage, the auditorium, and the foyer. The stage saw Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus with Sir Lawrence Olivier, and King Lear with Paul Scofield (revolutionary in theatrical history). Here young Peter Hall staged his famous Wars of the Roses, Trevor Nunne stepped beyond his success with the Cats musical, emerging as a major theatre psychologist in Macbeth with Jady Dench and Ian McKellen, and it was here that Anthony Sher appeared as Richard III, whereupon even reserved English critics acclaimed that «this was something to tell our grandchildren about».

Yet these walls have to go now, and not to «leave a wrack behind». A team of young architects has designed a revolutionary building and put up the layout scheme at the construction site. The building is to be opened in 2010, and so it will. The familiar Victorian stage-box is going to be replaced with an Elizabethan open stage protruding far into the auditorium and surrounded by seats on three sides. In place of the dim foyers, «patrons» (for so theatre visitors are called in Stratford) will be able to eat in spacious, well-lit areas, and not too expensively. High-ceilinged passages will encircle the building, connecting the main house with the smaller one. The Victorian firepond tower (of little avail, as we know) will be raised, with an observation platform built at the top, for visitors to drink in surrounding landscapes.

To tell the truth, I am not happy about the reconstruction plan. The layout of the theatre to appear does not thrill me as a Shakespeare scholar; and I feel rather like a Stratfordian in 1932. This is not mere conservatism. The size and contours of the 2010 Shakespeare theatre are well-considered and functional, and cool at all that. It is just one more cultural object, among millions of others all over the world. There is nothing of Shakespeare or of his London in there. But these are not the main reasons for lack of enthusiasm. We crave a «temple of art», to use the old phrase, and we get a sanctuary of mass culture and tourist industry, a monumental production complex delivering useful services; the focus is not art, it is comfort or, rather, Comfort. These two are compatible, but one of the other should be given priority.

Recent performances have been oriented at new tastes. The Courtyard stage (temporary pale of performances) is running Hamlet. It is a smooth staging and acting, no tricks or heaviness. The impression is that all the talks about highs and deeps are sentimental rubbish, and the matter stands presented very simply: the uncle kills the father, so the son has to kill the uncle. So, the very good actors energetically act out the mere plot, and they happy to be doing this whodunit; they seem to have reconstructed Thomas Kyd’s lost Hamlet.

Naturally, this Hamlet had huge success among tourist audiences, especially because of David Tennett in the title part (famous through his performance in TV fantasy series Doctor Who). Watching an installment of the series, I tried to spot differences between Tennett’s prince of Denmark and his extraterrestrial Doctor — not much success.

I wonder if time is going to work wonders again. Will this be another home for Shakespeare? Are we going to like it there?

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