by Ferne Arfin, 4 May 2024

What’s on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Four different stages and plenty of variety in Stratford-upon-Avon

RSC seen from Clopton Bridge, Stratford upon Avon in 2010

“The play’s the thing”… and the best reason to visit this town

In 2024 the selection of productions and the variety of stages on which to see them in Stratford-upon-Avon is as good as it gets. And no trip to Shakespeare’s home town is really complete without taking in a play at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) complex of theatres beside the River Avon -photo above by Peter Cook (c)RSC. The best way, perhaps – according to some – the only way to have a real Shakespeare experience is to confront the Bard through his plays. Yet, I’m always amazed at how many visitors don’t actually see a play by the town’s most famous son while they are there.

This year, visitors from around the world will flock to Stratford, as they do every year during the warmer months. Numbers may go up and down from year to year, depending upon fashions, politics, the economy, pandemics. But you can reliably count on the streets of this small market town, about two hours from London, being clogged with tour buses, guide-led tour groups and visitors following smartphone maps and guidebooks. They’ll visit the Shakespeare landmarks, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Mary Arden’s House, New Place and others, some of which may be of dubious provenance. 

Spire of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare is buried. Photo by Pjposullivan, CCL

Only Holy Trinity Church, where he is buried and which you can visit, and King Edward VI School, a state-funded academy school where Shakespeare was a pupil in the 1570s and which is not open to the public, are definitively connected with the playwright. Most of the

Shakespeare's boyhood school, half timbered buildings near the village church

King Edward VI School, Shakespeare’s alma mater in Stratford-upon-Avon Photo by Elliott Brown CCL  

other Shakespeare “attractions” have big maybe’s attached to them, fascinating though they are. Though later entrepreneurs, especially the Victorians, did their best to turn Stratford into a Shakespearean theme park, their most authentic effort was the creation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

More about how that came about, below. 

Open air theatre with cast of Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors at the Garden Theatre in 2021. Photo Pete Le May (c) RSC

But first a look at some of the highlights of 2024

Outdoor theatre returns to the RST

The Holloway Garden Theatre makes a popular comeback for summer 2024. The  500-seat, temporary outdoor performance space in the Swan Gardens, between the Swan Theatre and the River Avon, was created during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2024, it has been rebuilt with a promise of great views from all seats. During July and August it will host a lively production of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It.

On at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

This summer’s romp at the company’s 1,018-seat main auditorium, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a tale of double dealing, lies, whispers and over the fence gossip as the woman of a suburban town get the last laugh on a would be seducer. This play is always fun. It’s on from 5 June to 7 September.  Alternating on the main stage between 2 July and 6 September, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal, a Restoration comedy of manners. Reduced price preview tickets are available for a few dates at the start of the run.  And from 19 to 28 September, consider Shakespeare through another medium as the Northern Ballet performs Romeo and Juliet to music by  Sergei Prokofiev.

On at The Swan

view of the thrust stage at the Swan Theater, showing the thrust stage and the audience

The Swan Theatre from the actor’s point of view. Photo Stewart Hemley (c) RSC

The company’s more intimate, 469-seat Swan Theatre offers a different kind

Victorian Gothic Exterior of the RSC's Swan Theatre

Victorian Gothic shell of the original, 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, all that remained after the disastrous 1926 fire, now houses the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre complex. Photo Stewart Hemley (c) RSC

of theatrical experience. This summer of 2024 the schedule includes Kyoto, a political thriller set during the 1997 climate summit in Kyoto, Japan. It’s a co-production with Good Chance, directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, on from 18 June to 13 July 2024. Voyages, shipwrecks, abductions and loss are the struggles of Pericles, in Shakespeare’s eponymous drama. Will the hero ever see his family again? Find out, at the Swan between 26 July and 21 September. The RSC Directing debut of co-Artistic Director Tamara Harvey, the production transfers to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in October 2024.

Ending soon

If you’re quick you might just have time to squeeze in a performance of The Buddha of Suburbia at the Swan. A new adaptation of  Hanif Kureishi’s award-winning 1990 novel that was also a television series. It’s on right now and until 1 June. Also finishing in Stratford on 1 June is the European premier of English, Sanaz Toossi’s 2022 Pulitzer Prize winning play at the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place. The play then transfers to the Kiln Theatre in London, which co-produced, between 5 and 29 June.

And for something really different

For two days only, the Uzhhorod Theatre Company performs King Lear in Ukrainian without surtitles.  When Russia invaded Ukraine, thousands of people fled to the town of Uzhhorod in western Ukraine. A local theatre director, Vyacheslav Yehorov, finding resonance between the refugees’ experience and the themes of King Lear, involved them in the creation of this play. A most unusual experience, on 14 and 15 June at The Other Place.

About the Royal Shakespeare Theatre:

From a Victorian idea to a vibrant 21st century theatre hub

Stratford-upon-Avon was a magnate for literary tourism as early as the 18th century. US Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited in 1786. A guest book opened in 1812 collected the signatures of many of the literary and artistic lights of the day including Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But, despite his  London success, and later international fame, Shakespeare’s hometown lacked a dedicated theatre for his plays until the late 19th century.

Hard to believe, but until the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1879, the town indelibly identified with Shakespeare had no Shakespeare theatre. Building one was the pet project of local brewer Charles Edward Flower. He donated two acres of land beside the Avon and instigated an international campaign to raise funds for it.

If the building that stands on the Waterside site, 145 years after the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre looks like its been assembled of random pieces, tacked on here and there, that’s probably because it sort of is. Starting with a disastrous fire in 1926.

A Royal Charter and then disaster

The original Victorian Gothic theatre, seating about 700. was used for plays during spring Shakespeare festivals and for local events throughout the year. It housed a Shakespeare museum and library. In 1925 it was awarded a Royal Charter and became the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Less than a year later, in 1926, fire destroyed the building, leaving only the library, an art gallery and the burnt out shell of the theatre.

New theatres rise from the ashes

Following the fire, the theatre remained in ruins until the early 1930s. In 1932, a new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened beside the remains of the Victorian Gothic original, which by then had been converted into a flat-roofed conference centre. Designed by architect Elisabeth Scott, the new theatre was distinguished by being the first important public building in Britain designed by a female architect.

This theatre was completely demolished in 2007 and in turn replaced in a major redevelopment with the theatre you can visit today. The £112.8m transformation project which included the  also included improvements to the to the Swan Theatre (first opened in 1986 in the shell of the original Victorian theatre), the creation of new cafes and restaurants and the addition of the 118-foot observation tower.

Auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The main auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, following the Transformation project from 2007 to 2010. Photo (c) RSC

Meanwhile, following the maxim the show must go on, a full-sized temporary prototype of the new theatre, The Courtyard Theatre, was built up the road at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s studio theatre location, The Other Place. Today, that prototype, that helped actors and directors get used to the new thrust stages being built and provided a public performance venue while the transformation took place.

That temporary theatre has now been replaced with the return of The Other Place (a 200-seat studio theatre), rehearsal rooms, a cafe an wardrobe stores. By the way, The Other Place is not just a random name for the RST’s experimental and studio theatre. The name comes from Hamlet’s answer to Claudius who asks where to find Polonius.  Hamlet’s answer subtly tells Claudius to go to hell.  “In heaven. Send hither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself.”

Throughout this building, observant visitors will find remnants of Scott’s design and even of the original 19th century theatre:

More things to do at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Arrive early for your show or linger a while after. There’s a lot to do to make a day of it:

—Have a drink or a bite to eat at one of the RSC’s cafes, bars and restaurants – in the main theatre complex or up the road at The Other Place.

—Explore free wardrobe exhibit outside the first floor lift and try on a costume or two yourself.

—Climb the tower – or lets be honest here – take the lift up to the top for stunning views of Shakespeare’s hometown and, on clear days, miles of the surrounding Warwickshire countryside.

—Book a guided tour for an indepth look at the buildings and for great stories about the history and role of the RSC, backstage stories and more.

Theatrical museum exhibition

The Plays the Thing exhibition, photo Sam Allard courtesy of the RSC

—Browse The Plays The Thing, a wonderful new free museum of 100 years of theatre making with costumes, props, stage designs, photographs and lots of stories.

— Get in some retail therapy in the wonderful bookstore. Just off the main entrance in the lobby that connects the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan, the RSC’s large shop is more than a collection of tacky souvenirs. Here you can find beautiful editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, books about Shakespeare and the plays for adults and children, books about acting and interpreting the plays and also a few tacky souvenirs to take home. You can spend a long time browing the goodies here.

—Sink your booty into the Insult Chair and in a few seconds some of Britain’s greatest Shakespearean actors will assault you with a selection of rich Shakespearean insults and curses. It’s in the second floor lobby next to the lift. Check it out.