The early 1970s marked an era of sweeping change on the theatre scene in the United States. The same was going on in the UK. Over 200 theatre groups, large and small, set up shop in London alone and each promised to wake the public out of its stupor. The Royal Shakespeare Company, now less than a decade old, was also searching for new ways to reach its audiences. Artistic Director and accomplished stage director Trevor Nunn, who had only taken the reigns a few years prior from Sir Peter Hall, discovered the need for a small venue to complement the 1500-seat Memorial Theatre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) in Stratford-upon-Avon and join the fray of small theatres doing "edgier" work.
The Other Place opened on June 28, 1973, just down the road from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Mary Ann "Buzz" Goodbody, an energetic young director, presented her vision of this 140-seat shed in the form of a manifesto to then-Artistic Director Trevor Nunn, and explained how it would allow the company to explore Shakespeare more freely. Nunn, challenging the conventions of the time when women directors were hardly commonplace, gave Goodbody his blessing and she set out to direct King Lear. The 10-person version starred the likes of Tony Church as Lear, Mike Gwilyn as Edgar, Charles Keating as Edmund, and the incomparable David Suchet as the Fool. It was with this "experimental" production that the The Other Place was transformed into the lifeblood of the RSC.
In 1975, Goodbody set her sights on directing Antony & Cleopatra. For unknown reasons, that project was put aside and she instead chose to direct Ben Kingsley in the title role of Hamlet. It was a curious choice since Peter Hall was doing Hamlet (starring Albert Finney) at the Royal National Theatre and the shows would run concurrently, but it was a critical success on all accounts. Four days after opening, in a tragic turn of events, Goodbody committed suicide. The note she left rang with echoes of themes Kingsley recalled eerily, "She had asked herself Hamlet's questions, and here was her answer." The unexpected turn of events was made more mysterious when considering "The Other Place" was taken from Hamlet's speech in IV, 3 when he cannot refer to the fiery pits of hell by name. Was The Other Place theatre Goodbody's personal hell in spite of what she'd wished for? Some could argue that.
Artistic Director Trevor Nunn, who was on tour in the U.S., rushed back to Stratford to oversee Hamlet through to the end of its run. These unexpected circumstances turned out to be a catalyst for the power of small spaces at the RSC. Trevor Nunn decided to direct the now-iconic production of Macbeth, starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench—a breathtaking 2-hour and 15-minute version with no intermission. The experience was so powerful for McKellen that he vowed to never again perform on the RSC main stage because of its "seemingly unsolvable technical hassles caused by architecture, and the diffuse nature of its audience."
The Other Place theatre building was demolished for safety reasons in 1989 but its story continues on, having given the most well-respected actors and directors their humble beginnings or, at the very least, contributed to their performance styles known today. Noted Shakespearean directors like John Barton, Adrian Noble, and Cicely Berry created groundbreaking performances out of actors like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Ben Kingsley in this intimate "tin hut" venue. In Studio Shakespeare, author Alicia Smith-Howard has done a remarkable and painstaking job of sleuthing and compiling the chronicle of The Other Place in incredible detail.
It's hard to find something not to like about this publication. A primary criticism is that it's not chronological, making it difficult to follow the occasionally complex sequence of events because it bounces around. Also, the high price of this book will keep it out of the hands of casual Shakespeare readers and chiefly in libraries or universities. Yet, if you're a fan of the RSC and are fascinated by the intrigue of its heyday, this book is a wonderful read at just about any price.