On 13 November 1986 The Queen visited Stratford-upon-Avon to open the Swan Theatre. The official opening ceremony was held during the day and in the evening The Fair Maid of the West was staged in front of an invited audience, of which I was lucky enough to be part.
The theatre had been converted from the shell remaining ever since the 1926 fire, when it had been known as the Conference Hall and used mostly for rehearsals. Trevor Nunn had called it “an ugly duckling”. For several years a scale model of the theatre the RSC would like to build in the space had been on display in the RSC Collection Gallery. One day a visitor told the rather surprised curator, Brian Glover, that he wished to fund this new theatre. This benefactor wanted to remain anonymous and it was only on the day of the official opening when he appeared on stage with the Queen that the name and a photograph of Frederick R Koch was released.
In his introduction to the programme for The Two Noble Kinsmen, the first play staged in the Swan, Trevor Nunn explained that “as a Company, we have almost continuously responded to the imperative of presenting examples of the plays which might have influenced Shakespeare, or the plays which he might have influenced, or the plays which give us, both practitioners and audiences, greater insight into sixteenth and seventeenth-century England.” From 1964 the RSC had aimed to put on plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries with plays like The Revenger’s Tragedy, but the “comparatively lower box-office response” counted them out for the main theatre. Meanwhile productions at the company’s studio theatre, The Other Place, had proved that “neglected works can still provide tremendous entertainment and theatrical excitement”.
By the time of the official opening, the theatre had been operating for several months with a successful season consisting of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Every Man in his Humour, The Rover and a conflation of the two parts of The Fair Maid of the West. The Swan was cross-cast with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and The Other Place, and actors who appeared in the Swan in their first year with the RSC included Imogen Stubbs, Simon Russell Beale, Nathaniel Parker, Imelda Staunton and Sean Bean while established RSC actors Pete Postlethwaite, Joe Melia, Hugh Quarshie, Gerard Murphy and Sinead Cusack also made their mark on the new stage.
From its first season the Swan was a massive success with audiences. It wasn’t just the chance to explore the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors from 1570-1750. The theatre itself was a star: some people would go to any play performed in the Swan. The Observer praised the theatre and its architect: “Michael Reardon’s pale golden galleried playhouse…an exceptionally attractive performance space… first impressions are of precision, harmony, versatility, joy. The acoustic is warm and clear”. Over the years a large number of plays that fit Trevor Nunn’s definition have been staged there as well as premieres of new plays, musicals, Greek tragedies and of course plays by Shakespeare himself. Since 1986 though there has been no full production of Shakespeare’s collaborative The Two Noble Kinsmen, and only one each of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Jonson’s The Alchemist and Volpone. Next summer Middleton’s city comedy A Mad World my Masters will be performed there.
The theatre has proved to be versatile. It became an in-the round experience for the Histories in 2000-2001, and a promenade space for The Winter’s Tale and Pericles in 2006. Entrances have been made from beneath the stage, from the metal walkway high above it, through the audience and even by swinging by rope from the first gallery.
Themed seasons have been a feature of the Swan, beginning with the Restoration season of 1988, then the 2002 Jacobethans, the Spanish Golden Age in 2004 and the Gunpowder season of 2005. As the company’s new Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, directed some of these it’s to be hoped that this exploration will continue. Critic Michael Billington has suggested that seasons focusing on the work of just one playwright (other than Shakespeare) would be enlightening, and the Swan would be a perfect venue for a closer look at the work of one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
I mentioned Joe Melia a while ago: many people will have been saddened to hear of his recent death. Joe played King Mullisheg in The Fair Maid of the West. This joyful production was a delight from beginning to end, not least because of Joe’s comic performance as the lustful king who desires the virtuous maid of the title. Also in the cast that year was another actor who died last year and is sadly missed, Pete Postlethwaite, playing Roughman, a swaggerer who like Mullisheg is won over by the virtuous Bess.
There have also been many successful Shakespeare productions at the Swan. To my mind the best was Titus Andronicus in 1987, but many will also remember the suave version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1991, the action punctuated by songs from the 1930s with the wonderful lurcher Woolly playing Crab. More recently there have been top-notch productions of mainstream plays like Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, and the Henry VI/Richard III cycle in 2000-2001. For more information about plays that have been performed in the Swan Theatre go to the RSC Performance Database and search for the venue “Swan”.