The jam factory is no more. In one of the great theatrical transformations of our day, the RSC has unveiled its modernisation of Elizabeth Scott’s unloved theatre of 1932; unloved for its ungainly brick bulk on the Avon riverside but no less for the distance of its seating from the proscenium stage. There was much to be said for the earlier proposal of simply razing the building to the ground and starting afresh. What has actually happened is a classic British compromise whereby the best of the old has been spliced together with what is hopefully the best of the new.

The jam factory is no more. In one of the great theatrical transformations of our day, the RSC has unveiled its modernisation of Elizabeth Scott’s unloved theatre of 1932; unloved for its ungainly brick bulk on the Avon riverside but no less for the distance of its seating from the proscenium stage. There was much to be said for the earlier proposal of simply razing the building to the ground and starting afresh. What has actually happened is a classic British compromise whereby the best of the old has been spliced together with what is hopefully the best of the new.

Stripped of ill-advised accretions, you can now appreciate why the ingeniously patterned brickwork and art-deco detailing helped to win the design competition for the 29-year-old cousin of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (other entries had included a castellated monastery and a cathedral with two domed towers — nothing new in ecclesiastical attempts to appropriate Shakespeare). Into Elizabeth Scott’s rectangular shell has been dropped the huge curving back wall of a smaller, thrust-stage auditorium. Just over a thousand seats crowd in around the stage on three levels. The distance between the stage and the furthest seat has virtually been halved (from 27m to 15m), but a price is paid in that those in the circle and upper circle appear to be almost vertiginously piled upon each other.

The argument for the new layout is that as Shakespeare’s own stage was surrounded by the audience on three sides that is what we should give him today. This has worked brilliantly in Stratford’s much-loved second theatre, the smaller Swan that was in 1986 created inside the remains of the Victorian theatre (destroyed by fire in 1926). Once it was decided to adopt the same layout for the new main auditorium, it was tried out in the temporary Courtyard Theatre which has served the RSC during the three and a half years needed for the rebuild. Lessons learned from the Courtyard have helped shape the less spacious RST.

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The theatre has been fine-tuned with various events since last November, was officially opened by the Queen on 4 March, and finally to the press and a sold-out house on 10 March with two well-tried productions from spring 2010, a matinée of King Lear (Greg Hicks superb in an irritating staging by David Farr) followed by an evening performance of Rupert Goold’s enthralling Romeo and Juliet, with Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale as rumbustious modern teens caught up in a nightmare of 16th-century Verona ablaze with inter-familial strife.

No question that the theatre complex as a whole is massively improved. It was a pleasure to walk along the new riverside terrace and from all angles admire the way in which the exteriors of the weirdly Victorian-gothic Swan, modernist brickbox RST, new colonnade and observation tower on the street side have been conjured into the semblance of a whole. Inside it is presently an unfamiliar warren and less fun than the Courtyard. Despite enhanced provision of bars and toilets you have to be moderately athletic to count on both a drink and answering a call of nature in the intervals (the toilets seem to be on only one side of the auditorium).

The new Rooftop Restaurant offers magnificent views, though the food (main courses £11.50 to £18.50) and service have yet to hit their mark.

Access to the auditorium is through rather tight doors. Once inside, the simple burgundy-red upholstered seats in the stalls are comfortable enough, but as seat-widths elsewhere can be no more than 450mm this may not always be so. It seems a mistake that the very front seats offer an overprivileged view of the actors’ footwear and unwelcome exposure to the sand kicked about by a furious Goneril. Another issue is arguably more serious.

The RSC recognises that an actor on a thrust stage always has much of the audience behind them, for which reason ‘the sound from the performers should be loud and strong’. Steps have been taken to optimise this, though for some incomprehensible reason the gangways have been carpeted. No question that the acoustics are oversympathetic to the raucous clangour, bass drumming and other awful sound effects that are too often relied upon to distract from an absence of true dramatic tension.

But the crucial thing is what the performers themselves are doing to be ‘loud and strong’. Thrust stages generally require a pretty loud-voiced style of delivery, even for asides and reflective soliloquy. There’s a fundamental discrepancy between this mode and the prevalent idea, far from exclusive to the RSC, that lines should be delivered as ‘naturally’ as possible and with lyrical ‘rhetoric’ minimised in the interest of ‘realism’. Though the Swan is proof that this can work in a more intimate space, there’s no way it can ever square with audibility on a large open stage like the new one at the RST, hugely welcome though it is.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated