The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-AvonCategory: Theatre
The season of Shakespeare’s plays which is held annually at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre has become so established that it now carries the reputation of an English tradition. In 1874, Charles Edward Flower, a prominent resident of Stratford, began a scheme for building a theatre for the town, and he presented a two-acre site on the banks of the river for this purpose. He met with the most violent opposition in the local and National Press. But nothing deterred him, and on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday, in 1879, the first Memorial Theatre was opened with a Shakespeare Festival. From that time, Festivals were held for a few weeks every year.
In 1926, like two other famous theatres — Drury Lane and Covent Garden — Stratford’s theatre was burned to the ground. But the fire did not stop the Shakespeare season. For the next six years it was held at the local cinema, while the Chairman of the Board of Governors, then Sir Archibald Flower, began a ‘world-wide campaign for funds to rebuild. [...] In 1929, three years after the fire, the foundation stone of the new theatre was laid. The present Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was opened in 1932, does not attempt to imitate its Gothic predecessor. The design is bold, and the rose-coloured brick matches the surrounding houses. In 1950, the governors spent £, 100,00 on complete redecoration and extensive alterations: more dressing rooms and a Green Room were provided for the actors, an electronic switchboard was installed for stage lighting, and 135 extra seats were added to the auditorium. The Theatre is now one of the most comfortable and best equipped in the world, completely self-contained, with its own wardrobes and workshops, library, picture gallery and restaurant.
INTRODUCTION TO 1955
There is a happy pattern about the plans which have been made for 1955 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon- Avon. These plans are far-reaching in the fullest sense, since they extend across Europe, while promising a first-rate season in the Home Town. They unite in a common purpose the sovereign players of our time, for Sir Laurence Olivier and Miss Vivien Leigh will be leading the company at Stratford, while Sir John Gielgud and Miss Peggy Ashcroft will be the leaders of the other team, whose range of travel will include a season in London as well as visits to many European cities and a final appearance in Stratford itself — a most ambitious and exacting scheme of operations.
After a fortnight at Brighton, the travelling company will play until mid-July in Vienna, Zurich, the Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Then follows a two-month season in London. This should be most valuable since there is unlikely to be any other company performing Shakespeare in the capital during these holiday months when so many foreign visitors are with us and are eager to see our best work in classical productions. Then comes a tour of five British towns before the final three weeks at Stratford itself immediately after the Home Company has completed its season.
The town in which all this is being organised has not been swamped by urban development. The coming of the motor-car has inevitably filled its streets, while making it much easier of approach from all sides. But it is still a piece of English country life, a trading-place and meeting-place of country folk who farm the Avon valley or the slopes of the nearby Cotswold hills. There could be no better frame for presentation of the work of the great English dramatist, who was the voice of the meadow and the market as well as the portrayer of Courts and Kings.
So Stratford abides. But its theatre marches on, having grown in size, appeal and ambition. It is now a base of expansion overseas as well as a magnpt with a world-wide power to attract playgoers to Warwickshire. This prestige and popularity have been won by the heightened standard of casting and production during recent years.
For a long time the London stars did not care to undertake Stratford seasons; these broke up the year and were thought to confer insufficient glory.
Now all that has been altered. The “box office names” are happy to give what is, with preparatory planning and rehearsals, virtually a year to playing Shakespeare “on the home ground”.
(From The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: 1955)