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The Royal Shakespeare Company, which many consider to be the world’s preeminent producer of the Bard’s plays, will begin its 50th season today in a new, $185 million theatre complex in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

The centrepiece of the new complex - which has been under development on the River Avon since 1996, and is opening, coincidentally, in time for the company's 50th birthday - is the 1,040-seat, thrust-stage Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which  contains four bars, a riverside café and a rooftop restaurant, all new.  The theatre almost halves the distance that separated actors and audience in the previous 1932 theatre. The original riverside façade was left intact, the old teak stage floorboards are now flooring in the lobby and the original art deco box office decorates one of the new bars.

Also part of the complex - designed by London based-architects Bennetts Associates - is a new colonnade that connects the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with the RSC's 1986 Swan Theatre. A new, 118-foot high tower offers wrap-around views of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire and three nearby counties.

The 50th birthday season will feature new productions of Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice, with Patrick Stewart as Shylock, all in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the RSC will perform five plays at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, from 6 July through 14 August, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The performances will take place on a specially-built thrust stage, modelled on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

In Stratford, Ontario, the 2011 season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will feature four plays by Shakespeare, and one about Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard III will start performances next month, and the other performances will start in June.

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