The new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was opened to the public in 1932. The Grade II* listed building was designed by Elisabeth Scott, and replaced the greater part of a Victorian structure which had burned down in 1926. The surviving shell of the old theatre was incorporated into the design where possible rather than being demolished yet the new building presented a crisp and distinctive modernist profile to the riverside.

The theatre as featured in a post-war British Railways poster

Scott’s success in winning the commission aged only 30 was extremely impressive. She had been one of the first women to study at the Architectural Association in London after it lifted its ban on female students in 1917, and the theatre commission meant she was now the first woman to win a major architectural competition in Britain. Sadly, despite these successes, she was still subjected to prejudices and sexism of the inter-war period. She rightly resisted efforts to label her as a ‘female architect’ and did all she could to help fellow women entering the profession in the face of resistance from male colleagues. To make matters worse modernism was still not readily accepted by the British public, hence to be a feminist and a modernist in Britain during the 1920s and 30s must have been very hard going indeed.

Fookes Ursula linocut SMT
The theatre as depicted in a contemporary woodcut by Ursula Fookes

Comments in the press on her design were largely negative, and critics quickly began to refer to the theatre as ‘the battleship’ or ‘the jam factory’ (a common dismissal of large scale modernist structures in Britain at the time). Others saw fit to make crude references to Scott’s appearance and hair. The elderly composer Sir Edward Elgar (who had been earmarked as the new musical director) even refused to step foot in the building, referring to it as “unspeakably ugly and wrong” and “an insult to human intelligence”. Comments from the architectural profession were more positive, yet controversy persisted for decades over the success of the auditoria. Scott had taken advice from several theatre experts during the design process but those staging work in the building soon found them to be unsatisfactory. Successive small-scale modifications attempted to correct these shortcomings but the latest and most extensive works, completed in 2010, saw the demolition and complete rebuilding of the main auditorium.

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre axiomatic

Unlike many of her British modernist contemporaries Scott was able to continue her architectural career into the post-war period, although later commissions were not on the scale of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

Her pioneering work was commemorated in 2015 when an illustrated page showing Scott was included in the new British passport.

More on the long history of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as it now known, can be found at the Theatre Trust’s website.