Title: Theatrical renaissance in Bristol
Author: José Manser
Theatrical renaissance in Bristol
The Theatre Royal in Bristol has been made the centre of a new complex with an experimental theatre, workshops and bars and a foyer converted out of an 18th century guild hall. The project was designed by Peter Moro. Report by José Manser, photographs by Philip Sayer
Despite the strong strain of Puritanism which traditionally exists in Bristol, the city has for over 200 years enjoyed the sybaritic delights of one of the most decorative and beautiful horseshoe-shaped theatres in England, the Theatre Royal. But because of those Puritan influences, this exquisite little 18th century auditorium was hidden away behind other buildings in King Street when it was built in 1766. The pious, who could not see it, could thus ignore its existence.
At that time King Street was in a pleasant residential area of the city. Come the Victorian era and the industrial revolution, and the middle-class residents began to move out to the classier heights of suburbs like Clifton, leaving the theatre and its environs to warehouses and industry and, eventually, to the fruit and vegetable trade.
The theatre's fortunes fluctuated, but it closed down only twice, once because of typhoid in the 1830s, once at the beginning of the last war. Since the war it has thrived. Now, under the Trusteeship of the Bristol Old Vic, it also runs the nearby Little Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, as well as sending companies out on tour. The calibre of its work, internationally acknowledged, was patently at odds with its cramped and archaic backstage facilities.
Peter Moro, architect to the Nottingham Theatre, was called in to prepare new plans for the Trustees. He was presented with the small, tucked away Theatre Royal, a Grade I listed building with access via a furtive but much-loved tunnel which fronted onto King Street. And he was also presented with another listed building alongside this access front, the Coopers' Hall, once a guild hall for the local barrel makers, which the local authority had decided to give over to the theatre on a long nominal lease. This, with its Corinthian columns and pedimented windows, had an impressive neo-classical facade. Its interior was a neglected and rotting shell, having lately been used as a fruit and vegetable warehouse, only its glorious coved ceiling on the upper floor bearing witness to past grandeurs.
Moro's plan was to demolish the Edwardian entrance and tunnel to the original theatre and replace it with a Studio Theatre, which was the Trustees' additional requirement. And entrance to both theatres, the old and the new, was to be through the Coopers' Hall. Foyers, promenades and bars would fill the spaces between, and more land was acquired behind the Coopers' Hall on which would be built a new and extended stage for the old theatre, as well as three storeys of workshops, dressing rooms, storage and so on - all the desperately needed facilities for which the company was waiting.
In practice, it was not all effected quite so simply. Those two listed buildings, whose worth was belatedly becoming obvious to the local authorities, were at odd angles to each other and, on different levels, the lack of cash (for a local appeal did not by any means bring the money flooding in), and conflict with the town planning committee as to what sort of elevation should take its place alongside the Coopers' Hall, all took their toll. Happily, client and architect were in accord, and the theatre complex which Bristol now enjoys is unique and, appropriately, offers a great histrionic experience before either auditorium is entered.
Above Detail of the theatre's entrance doors Below left Existing openings in the stone plinth of the 18th century Coopers' Hall have now become entrances to the theatre foyer Below right King Street with the Coopers' Hall dominating. To the left is the only new part of Peter Moro's theatre complex which is visible from the street: there are showcase windows at ground level, office windows above
The Coopers' Hall, now the entrance foyer with ticket office, has armoured plate glass doors filling in existing openings below the columns; and Moro eventually persuaded the Ministry that the level of its upper floor should be raised, since the present level gave no link with the theatre itself. And that not only should it be raised but cut away to form a promenade gallery behind the four great windows, thus revealing the beautiful ceiling to those entering the foyer below (a ceiling incidentally which proved to be so rotten it needed to be entirely replaced).
3 A view from the staircase which leads up to the newly constructed gallery in the Coopers' Hall 4 Part of the link between the two old buildings, this is one of the upper level entrance foyers to the old theatre auditorium and it opens on to an internal courtyard 5 The great new gallery in the Coopers' Hall makes a splendid area for both exhibitions and concerts. The acoustics are excellent 6 The new inner courtyard will eventually have both a piece of sculpture and plants
Two crystal chandeliers, deep burgundy carpeting, a broad stair with simple chromed handrail and discreet but somehow superbly elegant rough plastered walls, provide magnificently the timeless effect for which Moro was striving in the shell of this 1 8th century building.
There is a peephole down from the foyer into the studio theatre, and the staircase down to that auditorium also leads to a bar and a large cloakroom which is in the old basement of the Coopers' Hall. The new, six-sided theatre has been designed to give maximum flexibility (in a way that the old theatre with its proscenium arch can never do). This is achieved by means of interlocking seating rostra built on welded tubular steel frames. These are movable and mean that a single theatre can be used for both a 'round' and confrontation type of entertainment, and for many other arrangements too with the complete reorganisation taking only one day at the most. Seats, which the architects wanted to be stacking, linking, tip-up and comfortable, are by Race and are upholstered in bright yellow pvc. They make a dramatic punctuation to the surrounding dimness where walls and ceiling and woodwork are all painted black, and carpet tiles are a soft deep grey. Any number up to 212 can be seated, and the whole area is spanned by lighting bridges. The rostra were made by Halls Stage Equipment.
The only part of the new works to be externally visible lines up alongside Coopers' Hall in place of the Edwardian entrance to the tunnel. This elevation contains showcase windows at ground level and windows of offices over the studio theatre above. Peter Moro wanted there to be no suggestion of it competing with the monumental Georgian façade alongside. It should, he thought, be restrained, with an industrial warehouse aesthetic to complement other buildings in the neighbourhood. The local authority was appalled. His flat roof had to go, there had to be no "warehouse'' aesthetic to taint this glamorous new complex. The misunderstanding has resulted in a piece of street architecture which, in university grey bricks, is certainly restrained but which, with its gabled roof line, falls awkwardly into a non period of architecture and looks what it is: a compromise. The committee would have done better to leave an architect of Moro's proven talent to reach his own solution.
7 The sloping ceiling dates from the early 19th century when it had to be lifted to make room for a gallery 8 There may not be quite the comfort in the old auditorium that there is in many new theatres, but visual compensation is enormous 9 View of auditorium from the stage
Backstage facilities for the old theatre are luxurious in terms of space. This little old theatre, sitting fraily on its bed of rushes, was sealed off and propped up, while the tiny stage area beyond the proscenium arch was removed and replaced with a bigger, deeper, higher stage of really workable proportions, plus the high fly-tower it badly needed. And alongside it are workshops, wardrobes, stores, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, offices and so on.
There was at one time talk of turning one if not both of the old buildings into theatrical museums. It is still debatable whether this should not have been done and a new theatre built on another site. I think not. Theatre going - even leaving aside the performance - should surely be a total experience; much more than sitting in a comfortable seat, drinking at a glittering bar and using a modern cloakroom - though these are in no way to be sniffed at. The complex at the Theatre Royal has a great deal more besides. It has the impact of a grand, neo-classical façade, the warmth and luxury of modern foyers and bars combined with the spectacular beauty of the tall windows and ceiling from another era. It has the ingenious little Studio Theatre, deceptively matter-of-fact and pared down, which probably had more thought put into its design than any other part of the building. And it has the charming 660-seat 18th century playhouse, loved and bedecked by succeeding generations and rarely without a play of some sort on its boards.
In retrospect, Bristolians must be glad that all this was so skilfully welded together to make a vital and exciting whole, rather than being fragmented into two museum buildings, with the obvious potential danger of ossification and neglect.
But it leaves the problem as to whether it is, in practice, possible to combine plush theatre-going with an a experimental theatre in one building complex, or indeed whether such grandeur is in tune with contemporary theatre-goers. It might also be argued that the use of the Coopers' Hall as a foyer has diminished the emotional impact of the theatre - an impact which was heightened when the theatre was approached through the old tunnel entrance. On the other hand, it gives the hall a legitimate role.
1 An inner foyer at street level has a bar, low seating and tables for light lunch-time meals, and carpeting and Sanderson's wallpaper it deep burgundy which make an entirely appropriate cladding for the new building which links the two old ones 2 The New Vic's Studio Theatre is a masterpiece of ingenuity with its versatile and easily re-arranged seating rostra
KEY 1 Stage 2 Side stage 3 Actors' entrance 4 Green room 5 Theatre Royal auditorium 6 Studio Theatre 7 King Street 8 Coopers' Hall 9 Foyer 10 Paint and carpenters' shops
Cost of the work so far has been around £750 000 though there is a shortfall on this of about £45 000. To finish the job completely over £100 000 is still required. The builder was Bovis which did an excellent job on a negotiated contract. The engineers, whose responsibility included the tricky shoring up of the old buildings while the work proceeded were Clarke, Nicholls and Marcel, Bristol; and Davis Belfied and Everest were the quantity surveyors. The architect in charge was Michael Herd of Peter Moro and Partners.
3 The basement area which is reached by a stairway from the main foyer in the Coopers' Hall, has a bar near the Studio Theatre 4 The new side stage and fly tower are being fully exploited by the company 5 A peephole from the foyer down into the auditorium of the New Vic Studio Theatre 6 Lighting bridges which span the new theatre give immense scope for all types of production, like this screen projection 7 The new dressing rooms, though not yet quite finished, are comfortable and well planned