Setting the scene: perspectives on twentieth-century theatre architecture, edited by Alistair Fair
Browsing the new book display, this interesting cover caught my eye. I love theatres as buildings and as places for performance. As a seasoned traveller who loves the classical world I have sat on stone seats at Delphi and Ephesus (and many more) imagining I was in the audience watching a play and listening to the narrative of the chorus. I have been to twentieth-century open air theatres and enjoyed spell-binding performances on warm summer evenings. Last Thursday evening I was at the newly refurbished New Theatre Royal listening to comedian/scriptwriter Andy Hamilton’s thought-provoking take on ‘change management’. Many of our older style theatres have retained the original shape and design of classical theatres from ancient Greece and Rome. And by building with stone or marble and designing tiered step seating with unobstructed views their acoustics are second to none. For research on this subject see the article here.
However it is inevitable that building styles will evolve over time reflecting changing fashions, or the emergence of new ideas, technology or materials which make new styles possible. A new style can often be a rebellion against an existing style so the early decades of the twentieth century saw an emergence of raw concrete structures for larger communal buildings which were more utilitarian than beautiful. This style prevailed into the 1950s and 1960s eventually becoming known as the brutalist style. We can see some of the best examples of these concrete theatres on London’s South Bank.
My book of the week, Setting the scene is all about twentieth century theatre design in Britain, Europe and the US with photographs and plans to illustrate the many examples. Elain Harwood writes about theatres in West Germany 1945-70. Alternatives to the conventional proscenium auditorium appeared in Germany as architects and theatre directors endeavoured to bring actors and audiences closer together to develop a greater sense of intimacy, something which smaller theatres had successfully achieved in England during the reign of James I. The actor and director Max Reinhardt experimented with cabaret and studio theatre and introduced the idea of a small studio within a large theatre building when he opened his Kammerspiele at the Deutsche Theatre in 1906. Germany had also been at the forefront of theatre design in the early part of the century partly as a result of the expressionist movement. Harwood explains that Richard D’Oyley Carte’s Savoy Theatre in London was the first to be lit entirely by electricity in 1881, followed by the Paris Opera. But it was the Germans who adopted the powerful tungsten filament in 1910 which led to huge improvements with stage lighting and spot lights that could track actors around the stage. Illuminating stuff indeed!
This book is crammed with fascinating detail about many of our twentieth century theatres. Unsurprisingly, the essay on festivity theatre design c.1955-82 is full of information about the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. As co-designer, Peter Moro was then asked to alter the Nottingham Playhouse. Alistair Fair explains that Peter Moro’s specialism meant that he was well-placed to contribute to a remarkable period in the history of British Theatre architecture. The opening in March 1958 of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, the first all-new professional theatre to be built in Britain since 1939, was followed by what turned out to be a 25-year boom in theatre building across the country. This fascinating book contains everything you always wanted to know about theatres. There are obviously facts about construction design and architects, but also everything else that goes with the design of a theatre such as lighting and staging, much of which came from the creative minds of influential directors. And for those of you who are interested in how theatre design evolved, each essay places its subject matter, into historical and cultural context. There’s also information about the development of national and international drama festivals! It’s a great book for so many disciplines: Architecture, Interior Architecture, History, Performing Arts and Musical Theatre, Television, Film and Media.
In conclusion, my overwhelming impression is that our very own Shakespeare seems to have triumphed by the end of the twentieth century; enjoying a renaissance in popularity with Elizabethan-style buildings springing up in Germany, the United States and of course, England. If you are interested in finding out about his original theatres click on this link. I cannot finish without mentioning our very own Globe Theatre whose existence only came about by the incredible persistence of American director Sam Wannamaker. Here is a link to the Globe website. And did you know the Globe now has a small Jacobean-style playhouse which holds just 100 people? See the BBC article here. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death so see what the Globe is organising here.
Setting the scene: perspectives on twentieth century theatre architecture (ed) Alistair Fair can be found on the Library Catalogue. Look for more resources on stage and theatre design here. Don’t forget the My Subject pages if you would like to explore more about theatre, performance and architecture. Look under the Creative Arts page.
Don’t forget that Oddsocks are back in town next year! They will be appearing at the New Theatre Royal on the 18th and 19th February playing The Legend of King Arthur. Book your tickets here.
Did you know? The New Theatre Royal and the King’s Theatre were both designed by theatre architect Frank Matcham. He trained two apprentices who between them built or refurbished up to 200 theatres and community buildings in Britain between 1890 and 1915. Amazingly Matcham received no formal training as an architect, he learnt on the job.
And finally, although theatres have always brought us pleasure – please remember those at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris…