All About the Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Company performance, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.

VisitBritain/Getty Images

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is the place where British theater royalty acts their hearts out. If you love theater and you are coming to Britain, seeing at least one play at this marvelous place is a must. And if you never thought you'd like Shakespeare, a visit here will really surprise you. 

About the Theatre

The company's roots date to 1875 when local brewer, Charles Edward Flower, launched a campaign for a theatre in Shakespeare's birthplace and donated a two-acre, riverside site. The first theatre, a Victorian Gothic building, was destroyed by fire in the 1920s but its shell still forms part of the modern theater

The company received a Royal Charter in 1925 and, after the fire, performed in a cinema until the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1932.

In the 1960s, Sir Peter Hall founded the modern Royal Shakespeare Company and the theater was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Who Is Who?

The company has attracted Britain's theatre royalty since it began accumulating critical praise after WWII. In the early days, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Vivien Leigh played alongside up and coming young unknowns like Richard Burton.

Today Judy Dench, Ian Richardson, Janet Suzman and Ian McKellen, along with a host of distinguished character actors, perform with the next generation of newcomers hoping for a breakthrough.

Since Hall, notable directors include Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands, and Adrian Noble. 

The Theatres

  • The RST has been the main stage since 1932. On November 24, 2010, it reopened to the public after a three-year, multi-million-pound redevelopment.
  • The Courtyard Theatre, across the road, served as a temporary home during works. When the new theatre space is fully opened, the Courtyard will revert to a studio theatre.
  • The Swan, built in the shell of the original 1879 theatre, is a modern version of an Elizabethan theatre. Because of a shared lobby, it closed in August 2007 during works on the RST but reopened with new productions in 2010.

Shakespeare for the Whole Family

The RSC regularly schedules workshops and family events for children as young as five and for young people interested in theatre and theatre literature. Selected matinees are paired with events for the kids - workshops, storytelling, play-in-a-day so that parents can enjoy the play while children have a fun introduction to the world of the same play and its stories. Later, you can all compare your ideas over tea and snacks at the Courtyard Theatre's cafe bar.

Simply the Best

If you go to Stratford-upon-Avon without seeing a Royal Shakespeare Company production of one of Shakespeare's plays, as the English say, you are a fool to yourself. The town itself is pretty but often over-praised and overpriced. The RSC, on the other hand, won't let you down.

It may challenge your assumptions about Shakespeare though. The company's great strength is that it always regards Shakespeare's works as plays to be performed rather than objects of ancient literature for worship and study.

Forget the Po-Faced Shakespeare You Grew up with

I remember walking out of the theatre after a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor set in the 1960s. All the wives compared their identical love letters from Falstaff while under the hairdryers in an old-fashioned beauty salon. The American woman leaving the theatre ahead of me said, rather testily, "Well, I'm an English teacher and I was never taught that was what Shakespeare was about!" My thought was too bad she missed all the fun.

Since those days, I have seen the company create languid magic, in Love's Labours Lost; I've become engrossed in English history that I did not grow up with through Henry V, and had my heart broken by Ian McKellen's definitive King Lear. And even in the midst of this tragedy, the company's irreverence showed through. Lear's rowdy followers became a bunch of Cossacks drunkenly dancing; Lear's fool was played by Sylvester McCoy, an early Dr. Who, in his Dr. Who glad rags and Victorian hat. Why? Well, Why not?

Stellar Casts

For the price of a £5 or £10 ticket, you can see legendary performers in the roles of their careers, Britain's best theatre directors showing off what they can do, and some of the finest character actors in the world. After the play, pop round to the actor's bar, The Dirty Duck, across the road, and you are likely to rub shoulders with the actors you've just seen perform.

RSC productions may surprise you, delight you, make you thoughtful or infuriated, but they will rarely disappoint. Whether you choose to eat, sleep and shop in Stratford-upon-Avon, or to stay in one of the country hotels and B&Bs nearby, don't visit Shakespeare's home town without seeing a modern take on what the old boy got up to during his short life.

The Bottom Line

Quite simply the most interesting, and often the best, productions of Shakespeare you may ever see. If you like theatre but have never understood the appeal of Shakespeare off the page, this will make a convert of you.

Was this page helpful?