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Royal Shakespeare Theatre

List Entry Summary

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

Name: Royal Shakespeare Theatre

List entry Number: 1207396


Royal Shakespeare Co, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-avon, CV37 6BB

The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Warwickshire

District: Stratford-on-Avon

District Type: District Authority

Parish: Stratford-upon-Avon

National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.

Grade: II*

Date first listed: 13-May-1971

Date of most recent amendment: 22-Sep-2016

Legacy System Information

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System: LBS

UID: 366450

Asset Groupings

This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.

List entry Description

Summary of Building

A complex of two theatre spaces with rehearsal room, front of house and backstage facilities, exhibition areas, restaurant, cafes, shop and viewing tower. Designed by a number of architects, principally Dodgshun and Unsworth, 1877-9 and 1881; Elisabeth Scott, 1928-32; Michael Reardon and Associates, 1984-6; Bennetts Associates, 2005-11.

Reasons for Designation

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons: * Historic interest: the building, which lies close to the site of Garrick's festival octagon of 1769, displays a range of different architectural styles indicative of its eventful history; * Architectural quality: the complex shows evolving reactions to the performance of Shakespeare's plays by a number of notable architects from the late-C19 to the early C21, and is of consistently high aesthetic quality; * Group value: the theatre complex groups well with other buildings at the centre of Stratford-on-Avon, including the Church of Holy Trinity (Grade I), the Old Tramway Bridge (Grade II) and numerous listed buildings along Waterside.


In 1769 the actor David Garrick organized a celebration of Shakespeare's association with Stratford-on-Avon. No performances of the playwright's works took place, but the event was a success, despite torrential rain. The site chosen for a temporary, wooden octagon to accommodate 1,000 people at the festivities, was on Bank Croft, close to the present theatre and set between the town centre and the river on a water meadow with road access along the river bank. The site allowed for large crowds without disturbing the normal activities of the town.

Despite the advantages of this site, theatre performances happened in a variety of different venues in the town for the next hundred years, including the relatively humble Royal Shakespeare Rooms in Chapel Lane, which opened in 1829 and closed in the 1860s.

The tercentenary of the playwright’s birth in 1864 prompted a national campaign to erect a permanent monument. The local brewer, Edward Flower gave money and land to build a temporary theatre, seating 5,000 on Southern Lane. The arrival of the canal in Stratford had caused boatyards and canal basins to cover the formerly empty site on Bancroft, and it was only after the arrival of the railway in Stratford in 1873 that industry migrated to the north of the town and the land along Bancroft again became available. Edward Flower’s son, Charles Edward Flower, bought two acres there. In 1875 the Memorial Theatre Scheme was established and an architectural competition produced a winning design by the little-known, London practice of William Frederick Unsworth and Edward John Dodgshun. Both architects were pupils in the office of William Burges at the time of their victory, and their design was in a mixed style that used elements of West Midlands vernacular in a way that also owed something to middle-Europe. It consisted of a theatre with a horseshoe auditorium which could seat 600, a tall water tower which drew attention to the building and a separate library and museum building, which was linked to the theatre by a bridge that combined the functions of a porte cochere and fire break (successfully, as events proved). The theatre would be open for several weeks each year around the time of Shakespeare’s birthday, but the library building was intended to operate all year as a centre for study of his life. The theatre was built in 1877-79 and the attached block housing the library and gallery was added in 1881. The area of open ground surrounding the theatre site was extended in 1883 when the borough bought a further three acres of land to the north of the new theatre and opened these in 1887 as a water garden. This initially incorporated the southern canal basin until it was infilled in 1901. To the south of the theatre, ground was landscaped and the Gower memorial to Shakespeare was placed at its centre.

In 1926 a fire largely destroyed the theatre. Portions of the outer walling of the auditorium were retained and incorporated in later schemes. The tower was also largely demolished, but its lower stages were saved and it was partially rebuilt in the 1980s. The library and gallery building and the bridge were relatively undamaged and still form part of the complex, although their original uses have changed. Scott also retained the porter’s lodge and its attached walling.

Following the fire, an open architectural competition was organised, and was won by Elisabeth Scott. Her design was chosen as the most functionally suited and the fact that it was the only one in a modern idiom mattered less. She was aged 29 at the time and it was the first large public building in England to be designed by a woman. Her scheme placed the new auditorium back-to-back with the former theatre, with an entrance from Bancroft at the northern end of the site. Her auditorium was fan-shaped with a proscenium arch to the south and a curving foyer at north, leading to a broad, spiral staircase at its eastern end. The bar was placed above the foyer. The public areas were widely praised, but, despite the fact that Scott had researched theatre design abroad, criticism of the auditorium and back-stage facilities from actors and audiences led to a number of alterations soon after completion of her design. Complaints included: the great distance between actors and the back of the auditorium; the inappropriateness of a proscenium arch; poor sight lines from the balcony; the shiny, panelled side walls of the auditorium; cramped dressing rooms; the lack of a green room. These faults and others led to a number of changes over the following decades. In 1936 150 seats were added to the back of the auditorium; 1936-38, new kitchens, a restaurant and a tea room were added; 1944 the orchestra pit was floored, allowing actors to move nearer to the audience; 1946-50 balconies were constructed at either side of the proscenium arch; 1950-54 a major campaign of alterations costing £80,000 by Michael O’Rourke included altering the rake of seats in the stalls to allow two new rows of seats, an extension of the Dress Circle, a replacement of the riverside loggia by a three-storey block, including new dressing rooms and a green room and new, narrower seats throughout the auditorium; 1961 a hexagonal forestage was added with a false proscenium arch; 1971-78 more side balcony seats were added. Despite all of this, the perceived intractability of the auditorium; its long, thin shape, which was often likened to a cinema, and the resulting disconnection between the audience in the cheap seats of the balcony (often impressionable school children) and the actors on stage were frequently cited as problems which could not be solved. Although the blame for these design faults was often laid at Elisabeth Scott’s door, the theatre board had failed to ensure that the front-of-house and backstage staff worked together on the design, or that discussions between the parties about what was wanted or possible took place.

The earlier, burnt-out shell of the theatre building, designed by Unsworth and Dodgshun, was initially left as a ruin and then converted by Scott in 1933 to a conference centre with a flat roof, but a donation in the early 1980s allowed its conversion to a second auditorium, called the Swan Theatre. This has a horseshoe stage surrounded by rows of wooden balconies. The flat roof was replaced by a pitched one which resembled the original C19 model in its outline and housed a rehearsal room. The former carriageway below the link bridge was glazed to create a foyer. This new theatre, designed by Michael Reardon, won a Civic Trust Award in 1987.

The present plan of the theatre was gradually conceived as the result of debates which started after the appointment of Adrian Noble as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1995. He hoped to completely demolish the 1932 theatre and rebuild on its site. He felt that the old theatre had been ‘cudgelled, re-shaped and revamped’. A Dutch architect, Erick van Egeraat was appointed in 1997 and discussions also started with the Arts Council. The new scheme was roughly costed at £100 million. In the event, Lottery funding allowed for a large-scale rethinking of the theatre site. The comparative benefits of a thrust stage and proscenium arch were explored in detail and at length. Other sites in Stratford were considered and other theatres around the world were looked to for inspiration. Following the appointment of Michael Boyd as Director a decision was made in favour of a thrust stage, to be built inside the existing form of Scott’s earlier theatre. Discussions with English Heritage (now Historic England) about the building (listed at Grade II*) identified those parts which were the most historically and architecturally significant features; these were considered to be the foyer, the fountain court and the facades facing Bancroft and the Avon, which were all parts of the Elisabeth Scott building, and the walls of the Victorian theatre and the library and gallery building dating from the late 1870s and 1881.

The architects for the new scheme were Bennetts Associates and their plans retained the parts which had the most interest, but allowed for a fairly radical restructuring within the shell of the Scott building, including the demolition of interior walls along the rear and flanks of the previous auditorium and the raising of the roof to accommodate flies above the stage. Construction work lasted from 2007 to 2011 and, in addition to the auditorium and associated service rooms, it included new offices, workrooms, dressing rooms, a shop and a new restaurant at fourth floor level, designed to capture the views. The back stage areas were considerably overhauled and a new tower was built to the north-west, containing a lift and providing a high-level viewing platform.


A complex of two theatre spaces with rehearsal room, front of house and backstage facilities, exhibition areas, restaurant, cafes, shop and viewing tower. Designed by a number of architects, principally Dodgshun and Unsworth, 1877-9 and 1881; Elisabeth Scott, 1928-32; Michael Reardon and Associates, 1984-6; Bennetts Associates, 2005-11.

MATERIALS: red brick with stone and grey brick dressings, coated steel and glass with lead, zinc, green slate and membrane roofing.

PLAN: the two theatre auditoria are placed back-to-back with the fly tower of the principal auditorium at the centre. Circulation space is grouped to the north, east and west sides at ground floor level and includes the curved lobby entrance with a bar above on the north side, a café to the east and the shop and loading bays for the backstage on the west grouped along a ‘colonnade’. Above ground floor are two storeys of backstage offices, stores and workshops. Below the fly tower are two basement levels served by the stage lift. The restaurant runs along the north and eastern sides at third-floor level. The viewing tower is placed at the north-western corner and the former Library and Art Gallery building of 1881 (now called the Swan Wing) is connected to the southern end of the west side of the complex.

EXTERIOR: the south front largely consists of the earliest parts of the building, as adapted to new uses after the fire of 1926. At the centre is the semi-circular bowed wall of the auditorium, which now houses the Swan Theatre. This has walls of red, Flemish-bond brickwork with a projecting plinth and flush bands of stone. The central double doors have a round-arched surround and there are blocked, cross windows circling the upper body. To the top of the wall are a series of deep, stone brackets which formerly supported a timber-framed jetty. After 1926 this was replaced by channelled, brick walling in line with that below, but the brackets have been retained. The present lead roof with gabled dormer windows was added in 1984-6 as part of the conversion of the space to the Swan Theatre by Reardon. It houses a rehearsal room and is a partial reinstatement of the skyline of the C19 Memorial Theatre.

To the left of this is the truncated C19 tower, of which the lower two stages survive in their original form, with flush stone bands, as before, and double doors set in a moulded, stone surround, above which are two, blind lancets. Above this a further portion of the tower was reinstated with horizontally channelled brickwork by Reardon in 1984-6.

At left of this and marginally recessed is the bridge which connected the library and gallery block of 1881 to the slightly earlier theatre of 1877-79. This has a segmental arch of the former porte cochere at ground floor level (now forming an entrance to the western colonnade. The first floor above this was originally timber framed, but this has been replaced by brick walling with three-light casements to either side. Projecting at left again is the south end of the Swan Wing, which has a staircase rising along its wall with stepped lancets and a lean-to roof with decorative, chevron-patterned lead roof. The parapet walling behind and above this has a chequerboard pattern of brick and stone and the setback attic storey has close-studded walling and a hipped green slate roof with finials.

Projecting at far right is the three-storey dressing room block with stage door at ground floor level. This has a framework of steel H-beams, expressed at the corners and along the roofline, and walling clad by zinc sheets.

The western side overlooks the River Avon and has a paved terrace approached from the café through French windows. At for left is the new dressing room block of 2011. This has a steel frame and zinc-clad walls overlaying brick walling at the rear of the balconies which are placed in front of each room on the upper two floors. The form of this wing imitates slightly the shape of the loggia which Scott placed along the river front to shield the shell of the earlier theatre. The recessed green room at the top of the block has brick walling and a generous balcony. To right of this is the older brick walling of the Elisabeth Scott theatre restored to the line of its completion in 1932, before the projecting restaurant was added to this side in 1938 (again by Scott). Later openings caused by the change have been blocked using original, cleaned bricks leaving a distinctive, mottled texture which is also seen on the interior. A projecting portion of blind walling at left is decorated with projecting, brick quoins and at right of this are five bays with metal-framed doors to the ground and first floors, leading out to the terrace and metal balconies. These bays are divided by angled, brick fins and aprons formed of projecting rectangular panels of bricks are set beneath the second floor windows. Above this is the balcony of the restaurant, which has dark glass windows with black coated frames. At the top is an overhanging roof with fascia boards and the zinc-sheathed auditorium roof, which is set back. Turning the corner to the Bancroft front is a broad, polygonal staircase tower which has stepped, metal-framed windows.

The northern, Bancroft front is gently bowed and near-symmetrical. It formed the principal entrance of the 1932 theatre. The tall openings at ground and first-floor levels of the five central bays mark the foyer and bar. These bays are divided by angled brick fins, as on the eastern, river front and there is a continuous, stepped awning with copper cladding above the five sets of doors. To the top of the wall are relief sculptures in cut brick by Eric Kennington showing Treachery, Jollity, Life Triumphing over Death, Martial Ardour, Love. The three bays at either side show three storeys of lesser height set against the two principal floors at the centre. At far left is the polygonal stair tower and this is contrasted with a broad, flat bay at right. Set back above this is the restaurant with dark glass and deep awning, as before. Above it can be seen the polygonal roof of the auditorium, clad with zinc. Recessed to the right of the front is the glazed link to the tower, which also serves as a principal entrance to the ticket office and shop at ground floor level. The tower has battered walls of red Flemish-bond brick with chamfered corners. At its top is a tall viewing room with louvered windows and an awning projecting on the east and west sides. The north, south and west sides have brick walling with continuous vertical lights to the chamfered angles and stepped windows in line with the stairs which surround the central lift. The east side has zinc cladding around a central continuous vertical window.

The Eastern front, facing the street called Waterside, has the tower at far left. To the right of this and recessed is the range built in 2011 against the former side wall of the Elisabeth Scott theatre. This is named the Colonnade at ground floor level and has coated metal uprights set in front of a wall of darkened glass. It houses the ticket office and shop at its northern end and the loading bays for backstage at the southern end as well as connecting to the Swan Wing and Swan Theatre. Behind this is brick walling above which appear the balcony, glazing and awning of the restaurant/bar and the auditorium roof. The fly tower rises above the building at right with patterns in relief in its brickwork.

The Swan Wing (former Library and Gallery wing, built in 1881) projects at right. It is richly decorated with stone dressings and has a tripartite front with projecting, two-bay wings at either side of three central bays. The lateral bays have close-studded framing to their taller attics and hipped roofs. The projecting wing at right has two doorways to the ground floor and a balcony with two arched openings at first floor level. The left wing has two, three-light windows at first floor level and three lancets to the ground floor. The central three bays have three-light windows at ground floor level and relief panels to the first floor set in blind tracery surrounds. These terracotta panels were made by Paul Kummer and added in 1886. They represent History, Tragedy and Comedy. The north flank of the wing has two, three-light, traceried windows to the ground floor and an oriel to the centre of the first floor, supported by delicately carved corbels.

INTERIOR: the late-Victorian Swan wing has an entrance hall that was formerly the approach to gallery seating in the theatre. This has a staircase projecting from its south wall with a colonnade to its inner side, and stained glass lancets showing the Seven Ages of Man to its outer wall. Marble colonettes flank the openings and wrought iron panels are set into the balustrade. The ceiling has wood panelling and a stained glass war memorial window on the upper landing is dedicated ‘In memory of / the Old Bensonians / who fell in the War / 1914 1918’ (Sir Frank Benson managed the Shakespeare Festival from 1886 to1916 and his company was named after him). The ground floor former library rooms have parquet flooring, panelled walling and ceilings with glazed bookcases and a richly-decorated, stone fire surround in one room and a wooden surround in the other. The first floor gallery space has a central roof light and panelled ceiling with arched openings between the spaces and stained glass to the northern oriel, showing Bensonians in character roles.

The curved foyer of the Scott theatre has exposed brick walls. Green marble veneers and chromium plated metal are used on door surrounds from the exterior and to the auditorium. The former ticket kiosks are placed at the centre of the southern side and their walls are formed of chromium-plated, faceted metal. Above the eastern door through to the polygonal staircase tower is a large clock face flanked by the date ‘19/32’. The floor has English marble flags of alternating colours.

The polygonal staircase has a broad spiral staircase which climbs around the side of the drum. The walling is of exposed brick, with decorative bands of soldier courses and the ceiling is faceted around a central star shape. The balustrade is faced with panels of Swedish green marble and the floor is of English marble flags forming a circular pattern. At the centre of the hall is an inset pool with a central fountain designed by Gertrude Hermes. Doors with decorative chrome handles (also by Hermes) lead to the café along the east side of the building.

The first floor bar to the centre of the Bancroft front is curved on plan and has an inlayed wood floor. Openings along the south wall and the French windows which lead to small buildings along the north wall have inlayed wood surrounds and there is a double staircase at the western end of the room with chromium-plated balustrade and wood panelling with facetted mirrors. Light fittings to the centre of the room are to the original pattern.

The shortening and widening of the auditorium plan has created two roughly triangular voids at the northern end of the building which are used as additional circulation spaces at ground floor level and rise through the full height of the building with balconies looking down onto them from the different levels. The original north wall of the auditorium is exposed and, other than being painted, the marks indicating the placing of former openings and staircases are clearly shown. By contrast, the curved wall of the new auditorium is of exposed, hand-made bricks.

The restaurant and bar area which wraps around the east, west and north sides of the top of the building includes part of the Bancroft façade designed by Scott. The former external wall now forms a room division and has panels of grey bricks with fin patterns in relief to its north side. Two, hinged screens behind the east and west service stations are made of inlayed doors from the former Scott auditorium. Connected to the restaurant and occupying the space at the top of Scott’s staircase tower is a circular dining room, which was originally a bar. This has a moulded ceiling and inlayed floor, with banded decoration to the walls.

The Swan Theatre auditorium, formed inside the shell of the original 1870s building, has three tiers of seating arranged in a U-shape around the central thrust stage. The structure is of pine and the original bare brick walls are exposed behind this. Above the rear stage is a musicians’ gallery, included at the upper gallery level.

The principal auditorium is also grouped around a central, thrust stage. The proscenium arch has been retained as a bare brick outline in the south side of the fly tower, and allows a continuation of the stage area. The structure supporting the seating is of steel H-beams, clearly expressed. There are two tiers of balconies and above the thrust stage is a fly area. Walls of the auditorium are wood panelled.

Selected Sources

Books and journals
Baxter, Alan , Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Cultural Heritage Report, (November 2006)
Mordaunt Crook, J , William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, (1981), 81
Pevsner, N, Pickford, C, The Buildings of England: Warwickshire , (2016), 595-598
Planning, Greenwood , Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan Theatre, Stratford on Avon, Heritage Partnership Agreement and Conservation Management Plan, (August 2013)
Soros, S W, EW Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer, (1999), 313-351
Ward, David , Transformation: Shakespeare's New Theatre, (2011)
Theatre Trust website, accessed 3 August 2016 from

National Grid Reference: SP 20337 54730, SP2033054772, SP2033254733, SP2035554768


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