Paul Levy

Pleasure palaces and hidden gems

Many London theatres have been lost over time to fire or city planning. Michael Coveney celebrates the best that remain

Theatre buildings are seriously interesting – as I ought to have appreciated sooner in the course of 25 years writing about theatre and opera. This coffee-table whopper, weighing in at just under a kilo, dazzles: Michael Coveney’s text is even better than Peter Dazeley’s remarkable photographs. And in a luminous foreword, Mark Rylance sets out the not-so-obvious difference between theatre and cinema: ‘In a theatre you need to hear the truth. In a cinema you need to see it.’ Most of the theatre audience can’t see the actor’s eyes, and have to rely on hearing emotion in the voice and, to a lesser extent, detecting emotion in body language. Hence the importance of lighting. In the past, footlights gave the actors some ‘visual dominance, but nothing like the blazing stage we now witness, or darkened auditorium’ in which we sit.

Rylance has a clause in all his contracts insisting that the stage boxes must contain people, and not, as is more usual nowadays, the lighting equipment that disfigures the building’s architectural and decorative features. He wants the boxes visibly peopled, ‘so that audience and actor can be seen together, completing the circle’ that reflects the primitive origin of the theatre, where the storyteller and his listeners sat in a ring around a fire. These reflections on how history and human nature have shaped theatre architecture increase my admiration for him as a thinker as well as an actor.

When Cromwell’s Long Parliament shut the theatres in 1642, the Shakespearean playhouses and theatres were in the City and south of the river; their recovery began soon after the Restoration. Two centuries later, the Theatres Act of 1843 led to the building of music halls. Michael Coveney, one of our best and most erudite theatre critics, details how the West End finally became ‘theatreland’ in about 1915, in response to city planning issues, especially London’s need for new roads in the 1880s, and the consequent property speculation boom.

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