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Stratford-upon-Avon: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

On the banks of the Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BB (tel. 01789/403444; www.rsc.org.uk), is a major showcase for the Royal Shakespeare Company and seats 1,500 patrons. The theater's season runs from November to September and typically features five Shakespearean plays. The company has some of the finest actors on the British stage. Warning: For most of 2007, the theater was undergoing restoration, its Art Deco exterior remaining but a new thrust stage built inside. Expect a gala opening sometime in 2008. During the work, the company will perform at a new theater, The Courtyard, being constructed as an extension to The Other Place studio theater near the RST.

You usually need ticket reservations, with two successive booking periods, each one opening about 2 months in advance. You can pick these up from a North American or English travel agent. A small number of tickets are always held for sale on the day of a performance, but it may be too late to get a good seat if you wait until you arrive in Stratford. Tickets can be booked through Keith Prowse (tel. 800/223-6108 in North America, or 0870/840-1111 in England; www.keithprowse.com).

You can also call the theater box office directly (tel. 0870/609-1110) and charge your tickets. The box office is open Monday to Saturday 9am to 8pm, although it closes at 6pm on days when there are no performances. Seat prices range from ţ5 to ţ45 ($9.50-$86). You can make a credit card reservation and pick up your tickets on the performance day, but you must cancel at least 1 full week in advance to get a refund.

Opened in 1986, the Swan Theatre is architecturally connected to the back of its older counterpart and shares the same box office, address, and phone number. It seats 425 on three sides of the stage, as in an Elizabethan playhouse. The Swan presents a repertoire of about five plays each season, with tickets ranging from ţ5 to ţ30 ($9.50-$57). The Swan is a smaller and more intimate space than the RST and stages plays by other distinguished playwrights, not just the Bard. Its plays, however, are just as professional as those staged at the bigger theater -- in fact, many of England's most talented actors appear on the boards at the Swan.

Within the Swan Theatre is a painting gallery, which has a basic collection of portraits of famous actors and scenes from Shakespeare's plays by 18th- and 19th-century artists. It also operates as a base for guided tours, with lively running commentary through the world-famous theaters. Guided tours are conducted Monday to Saturday at 1:30 and 5:30pm, and four times every Sunday afternoon, production schedules permitting. On Saturday there is always a tour at 11:30am, but on matinee days tours begin at 11:30am -- not 1:30pm. Tours cost ţ5 ($9.50) for adults and ţ4 ($7.60) for students, seniors, or children. Call ahead for tour scheduling, which is subject to change.

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