(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/18.Photo: ‘The power to draw the audience together’ … the Swan Theatre at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)
Not all buildings are created equal. From sightlines to acoustics to the alchemy of actor-audience rapport, the physical facts of a dramatic space are fundamental
What makes a good theatre? Critics are not the most reliable guides. We sit in the best seats, don’t have to pay, and are there to assess the performance rather than the building. If ever I have wanted guidance on architectural issues, I have turned to Iain Mackintosh, who from 1973 worked for Theatre Projects Consultants, has designed many successful theatres and has now put his encyclopedic knowledge into a book called Theatre Spaces 1920-2020. But the revelation comes in the subtitle: Finding the Fun in Functionalism. At the heart of the book lies an assault on modernist concrete buildings and a celebration of any theatre where actor and audience enjoy an easy rapport.
Mackintosh covers a lot of ground and tells a number of good stories, two of which relate to the old Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford, which opened in 1932. Derided at the time as a “jam factory”, yet capable of infinite adaptation, it has long been attributed to a 29-year-old modernist architect, Elisabeth Scott. But Mackintosh implicitly endorses the view that it was the work of her employer, Maurice Chesterton (cousin of the famous GK). He also quotes a story about Tyrone Guthrie, on being offered co-directorship of the theatre in 1950 by Anthony Quayle, saying he would only accept if they built a new theatre with the audience on three sides. Asked what should be done with the existing theatre, Guthrie replied, “Bulldoze it and push it into the river.”
In seeking an antidote to modernism, Mackintosh rejoices in two things. One is spaces built of brick and plaster, which, unlike concrete, are adaptable. The other is what came to be known as the “courtyard theatre”, modelled on rectangular, galleried 18th-century playhouses such as the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond in North Yorkshire. This was the inspiration both for the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) at the National Theatre, and the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in Kilburn, which owe everything to Mackintosh’s design. But Mackintosh also singles out the Swan in Stratford, where he was not involved, and where the architect, Michael Reardon, was inspired by galleried churches whose architecture “had the power to draw the audience together in a way that modern theatres do not”.