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Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre brings the Bard to York

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Creating a pop-up Shakespearean theatre in the middle of York has certainly been a challenge – but the result is something to behold. Phil Penfold reports.

The logistics are staggering. Not one but two companies of actors, performing four major Shakespeare plays. Add in musicians. The construction of an entire theatre building from the foundations upwards – and not just any old theatre, a replica of one which the Bard himself would have instantly recognised. Scores of costumes to be made and hours of rehearsals to familiarise all the performers with. The list is endless.

Construction of Shakespeare's Rose Theatre in York. PIC: James Hardisty

Construction of Shakespeare's Rose Theatre in York. PIC: James Hardisty

Audiences will be transported back over the centuries to the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean times when the Rose, York’s newest theatre, opens its doors later this month.

Located on a site adjacent to the historic landmark of Clifford’s Tower in the centre of the city, it is surrounded by all sorts of other facilities and attractions that will be bustling with life. It is, in effect, a “pop-up” theatre and will be carefully dismantled and put into storage once the season ends in early September.

However, two things are certain. The first is that this is the only structure of its kind in Europe, and the second is that when the theatre was first suggested, and then commissioned by Yorkshire theatre impresario James Cundall, the CEO of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, he went straight to the experts. “The story is that James saw a theatre like ours when he was in New Zealand”, says Damian Cruden, the artistic director of York’s Theatre Royal. “One of his many successful international tours was booked in to play in Auckland, and there – rather to his surprise – was their ‘take’ on The Rose. James immediately wondered if he could ship the whole thing back to the UK, for a season here, but that was not to be. It seems that it went to Australia instead.”

However, the seed of the idea was sown. “He told me: ‘Right. Plan A isn’t going to happen. Plan B is ‘build it ourselves’. Which is what we’ve done. James has a passion for Shakespeare, and a passion for Yorkshire, for him, this is the dream combination of the two. He is one of the most determined people I have ever met, very ‘hands-on’, and with a clear vision and a sense of purpose can’t be matched. This has been the most wonderful collaborative effort.”

The firm that picked up James’ challenge was Acorn Events Structures (AES), down the road, in Sherburn-in-Elmet. The request to “please build us a replica Rose Theatre”, didn’t faze them at all. They specialise in temporary structures and in fact this isn’t the first theatre that they’ve constructed.

Nothing is left to chance in the construction of the thirteen-sided building – all regulations are strictly adhered to, and city requirements are observed to the letter. While the Rose will look exactly as it would have done to audiences of the day, it is built out of scaffolding, cladded with metal and timber, and has plywood decking. There are 30,000 linear metres of scaffolding behind the façade. Then there’s 15,000 square metres of cladding, and, in all, 60,000 tons of equipment. For those constructing what you might like to think of as the biggest Lego set in the world, it has meant three solid weeks of work, and between 40 and 50 skilled workers have been involved. AES say it’s “one of the most original things” they’ve done, which is saying something for a company who have (justly) won numerous awards for previous projects.

The Rose seats 600 people on two tiers, with another 350 in the stalls area – except that the “groundlings” will all be standing.

The firm know what they are about, and built a mock-up prototype in their yard at Sherburn. Then everyone in the team went to see the result and everyone had the opportunity to make suggestions. The concept was up and running and, in the event, very few alterations had to be made to the nuts and bolts of the prototype build.

Designer Sarah Perks (who has responsibility for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth) was particularly interested in the space that she could use for a team of aerialists who will soar above the stage and the audience. “There has to be a liaison between the designers, the people who make the costumes, the performers, and those who create the space”, she says.

“It is essential that the structure is right. It is also about knowing, in costume and fabric terms, what will stand up to performing the shows night after night. I used to work in the wardrobe department on major shows that toured all over the UK, and believe me, there’s nothing more tiresome than having to repair, and repair again when accidents happen. You have to choose things properly first time around, and today there are all sorts of wonderful textiles available.”

Rose audiences are going to be wowed with Sara’s concept of the forest floor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Down there, under the canopy of trees, it can be quite dark, so the light has to come from things like the silver birches, and the different textures.

“On the other hand, if it is a really hot summer ahead, the actors wearing leather and furs in Macbeth might well have some problems with the heat – so we’ve factored that in, and they will have a sewn-in cool-pack, which the performers will appreciate, and the audiences won’t see.”

There are another two plays in repertoire during the season. Romeo and Juliet and Richard III will be directed by the acclaimed Lyndsay Posner, and Olivier Award winner Damian Cruden will be at the helm for Macbeth. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in the hands of Damian’s colleague Juliet Forster, the associate director at the Theatre Royal.

Strangely enough, Richard III is not well-regarded by some York citizens, because it is one of Shakespeare’s strongest “propaganda” plays, and casts the Plantagenet monarch in a less than favourable light. “It’s an amazing piece of work”, says Damian, “but it was written for a Tudor court, and for the grand-daughter of the man who toppled Richard from the throne. When I last directed it in the city, I received a lot of letters saying that, in an attempt to be fair, I should commission a second play to ‘set the record straight’. Well, that hasn’t happened. Not yet. But I am keen to see how Lyndsay tackles it.”

Damian is happy directing just one of the productions. “It would have been very greedy – audiences want to see a different hand, a different ‘take’, and we are sure that there are many, many of them who will want to see all four of the productions. Others will – if they are just visiting York for a few days, will be able to see one, or two. Since it is a repertory season, they can arrange how they do it for themselves.”

Lyndsay’s company has been rehearsing in London, while Damian and Juliet have been at work in York. Each company has 17 actors, and three musicians, so given the scale of Shakespeare’s epics, there has been some “doubling up” of roles – not uncommon in today’s theatre.

Damian Cruden is “passionate” about accessibility. “I hate it when people can’t get a good view of what is going on”, he says, “particularly the smaller ones, the kids. If they can’t see over the edge of the stage, and get their full appreciation of what is going on, what is the point?”

He’s also been energised by the freedom that this sort of theatre gives actors and directors. “The performers speak directly to the audience, and I have certainly made sure that there will be a lot of entrances and exits through the ‘groundlings’. It will be a very immersive experience. Essentially we are stripping back Shakespeare’s plays to what they were originally, and that makes them come alive with an intensity that I have seldom experienced.

“There is no ‘fourth wall’, it connects instantly. You don’t have to worry about any of the ‘extras’ that you have to confront in a conventional theatre, it’s all there in the text. Shakespeare wrote for places like The Rose, this is his perfect home.”

And what after the season closes? For Sara Perks, it’s over to Red Ladder, in Leeds, to design a new production of Mother Courage. For Damian, “It’s the annual pantomime. With the irrepressible Berwick Kahler. I was asked the other day if I’d been tempted to cast him for The Rose. Good grief, no! He’s writing the panto. Let’s keep his attention focused fully on that.”

The 10-week season runs from June 25 to September 2, when four of Shakespeare’s most popular plays will be staged at the Rose Theatre. There will be two shows a day seven days a week. Visit www.shakespearesrosetheatre.com