Looking at Buildings

, printed from the Looking at Buildings website on Monday 16th September 2019

The Theatre Royal

GeorgianGlossary Term [1] Theatre Royal is astonishingly complete and beautiful. It is actually a complex of various dates surrounding Britain's oldest theatre, which has survived in almost continuous use since 1766. Forty-nine merchants subscribed £50 each to fund the first theatre inside the city boundary, against moral and religious opposition. The site behind King Street avoided the need for an architecturally significant façade. It received its royal patent and its name in 1778. It closed in 1942, but was saved by public appeal. In 1946 the Bristol Old Vic was established, whose international reputation ensured the theatre's long-termGlossary Term [2] survival. It was radically overhauled in 1972, a studio theatre added and a new entrance created through the adjacent Coopers' Hall, by then redundant and under threat. After two centuries, and at some cost, it had at last a public face and internal facilities appropriate to its standing.

The present facade to the street was built as THE COOPERS' HALL by William Halfpenny, 1743-4 after their old hall was demolished for the Exchange. A high noble façade, PalladianGlossary Term [3] in detail but not in proportion. The basementGlossary Term [4] is squashed, and the steep pedimentGlossary Term [5] raised over an atticGlossary Term [6] flanked by massive volutesGlossary Term [7]. Over-large sash windows (a Halfpenny hallmark) but a PalladianGlossary Term [8] 1:3:1 bayGlossary Term [9] rhythm with three-quarter columns in the centrepiece. The CorinthianGlossary Term [10] orderGlossary Term [11] is closeGlossary Term [12] to that in Book I of Isaac Ware's 1743 edition of Palladio's Quattro Libri.

To the west is Peter Moro's 1972 extension for the STUDIO THEATRE and offices, in brown brick with carefully modulated recessions and projections giving life to a necessarily blind façade. Four gables echo the neighbouring warehouse and the pediments of Coopers' Hall. The guildhall was on the first floor with its staircase at the west end. Moro removed the floors and internal walls. Halfpenny's modillion corniceGlossary Term [13] and quadrant coved ceiling were replaced in replica. The glazed foyer entrance leads to Moro's processional stair with galleryGlossary Term [14] landing wrapped around the 18th century space. A series of rectangles punched through the rear wall give onto the foyer and bar. The finish is rightly reticent; plain painted walls, smooth stone, glass and chrome on the stairs. Moro's planning integrates the 18th century and 20th century elements and changes of level, and is compact and practical. A proposal to remodel the foyers and studio theatres is currently under discussion.

South of the upper foyer is the irregular octagonal studio theatre and to the north is the AUDITORIUM (1764-6). In 1764 the proprietors paid £38 16s 8d for a plan from Mr. Saunderson, carpenter of Drury Lane theatre, London, and hired Thomas Paty to supervise its construction. It has been suggested that Saunderson based his Bristol plan on Richmond Theatre, Surrey, which he had just designed, rather than Drury Lane. The auditorium is semicircular rather than elliptical as was usual. The dress circle and upper circle were originally arranged as boxes with the fluted DoricGlossary Term [15] columns marking the now-removed partitions - except for an open galleryGlossary Term [16] in the central 3 bays of the upper circle. The ceiling was raised and pitched for an additional galleryGlossary Term [17] tier in 1800. Some pew-endedGlossary Term [18] benches, probably 18th century, remain. The much-altered proscenium archGlossary Term [19] has paired CorinthianGlossary Term [20] pilasters with acanthusGlossary Term [21] plasterwork, possibly of 1766. The remaining decoration dates from successive alterations, substantially achieving its current form by 1881 when the starred ceiling was created. The present pea green and gilt colouring is based on the believed original scheme by Michael Edkins. The 18th century backstage was necessarily sacrificed for Moro's remodelling, losing a central recess for scenic distance effects, and the 19th century backstage machinery. The 'thunder run' (a wooden trough down which balls were rolled to simulate thunder) survives above the ceiling. Moro's backstage spaces and offices are in bare brick with exposed concreteGlossary Term [22] ceilings.

Last updated: Monday, 26th January 2009