L'événement culturel de l'été à Bruxelles!
Standing under the canopy of Her Majesty’s Theatre to look across the Haymarket, it Is extremely difficult to compose a picture In one’s mind’s eye of the Immediate area in 1513, when John Norris willed to his wife, Christian, his croft along with an enclosed three-acre toft. Picturesque it probably was not, close to an area where the expanding City of London would meet a developing City of Westminster; but this was the field upon which the Theatre Royal would eventually be built. In 1575 the land was occupied by the widow Golightly, and in 1610 the Earl of Northampton was building stables on it. Around 1614 the Earl of Suffolk bought the stables along with nearby Northampton House and changed their name. By the end of the 17th century Suffolk Street and its environs were laid out, and handsome, ‘well-inhabited’ houses began to appear.
In 1720 John Potter, a local carpenter, built the New French Theatre on the site of the King’s Head, an inn fronting the Haymarket, and a gun shop in Suffolk Street to its rear, demolishing both to make way for the playhouse. Situated In the northwest angle of John Norris’s toft, It lay to the north of the modern theatre, and it was not until about 1730 that it became known as The Little Theatre In the Haymarket. Officially closed in 1737 under the Licensing Act of George II, the theatre managed by various Ingenious, not to say nefarious, means to keep going. In 1767, a royal patent was granted permitting the house to ‘exhibit plays’ between May and September in an enlarged and improved building renamed the Theatre Royal - thus breaking the grip on the theatrical profession held by Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the only two other playhouses licensed by royal patent. Eventually, however, with the manager George Colman failing to run the theatre efficiently from prison, where he was in residence for debt, the building was closed around 1818-19, and lost in subsequent conversion works around 1819-20.
The decline and demise of the theatre may to some extent be accounted for by the general dilapidation of its surroundings, and It was reborn when architect John Nash produced a regeneration scheme aimed at revitalizing Suffolk Street and Its immediate neighbourhood in the early 1820s. Talented architects such as J. P. Gandy-Deering, one of three eminent architect brothers, and William Wilkins, who designed the National Gallery in 1834, built here - all under the strict design control of Nash, who himself provided a number of houses, Including No. 6 Suffolk Street, the Gallery of the Royal Society of British Artists (restored in 1979).
As part of his grand plan Nash encouraged the rebuilding of the theatre as a focal point on the axis of Charles II Street, and to this end he proposed a deep, giant pedimented, six-columned Corinthian portico with five arched doorways giving access to the pit, boxes, galleries and box office. This configuration echoed the flat-roofed four-columned portico of the earlier building. Above the proposed portico, a sheer attic wall pierced only by a recessed panel of nine radial glazed oculi would be provided. Like the front, the Suffolk Street elevation is stuccoed and distinctly domestic in character. Internally the auditorium was almost square, with two levels of boxes extending around three sides and enclosing the pit. Access corridors ran behind the boxes from an entrance lobby.
The theatre reopened on 4 July 1821 under the management of David Morris, George Colman’s brother-in-law, with a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals. In 1843 ‘extensive alterations' were made when the stage was pushed back to allow the introduction of orchestra stalls, and pit seats were abolished to be replaced by the more expensive stalls.
Squire Bancroft, who had managed the Scala in Charlotte Street from 1871, took over at the Haymarket In 1879, immediately initiating a rebuilding programme and commissioning architect C. J. Phipps to remodel the Interior, modernizing it and bringing it up to date with a picture-frame proscenium and a reseated auditorium. Decorative plasterwork was executed by George Jackson and Sons, a firm that retained in its workshops until the late 20th century a wonderful collection of 18th- century moulds.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, one of the last great actor-managers, ran the theatre from 1888 until he moved to Her Majesty's in 1896. In October that same year Frederick Harrison and Cyril Maude, who moved to the Playhouse In 1907, took over and in 1904 set out to modernize yet again, engaging architects Charles Stanley Peach and S. D. Adshead to carry out the work - an odd choice, as Peach’s reputation was built on electricity generating stations and his design for the Centre Court buildings at Wimbledon. The work was confined in the main to the auditorium, where a modem structural frame replaced the perhaps less stable existing fabric. The result Is a stunning essay In elegant Louis XVI decoration, surpassed nowhere in London.
In a deep cellar behind the proscenium arch, 19th-century timber stage machinery still survives today; three bridges remain in situ with original sliders, a rarity indeed. Between 1915 and 1939 a three-piece sliding stage was Installed using
boat trucks. Regrettably, the thunder run was removed in 1970 to accommodate a new counterweight system.
A plaque on the back of the building records that the first performances of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1895) took place here.
Historically of tremendous importance, this theatre has been the subject of books and lectures on all of its aspects; and doubtless one day, when the fabric becomes unsteady through age, the archaeologists will have their say, too.
1720. John Potter builds his theatre on the site of the King’s Head Inn / 1821. The Theatre Royal designed by John Nash opens / 1843. Alterations to stage and auditorium / 1879. Architect C. J. Phipps remodels the auditorium / 1904. Complete rebuilding of auditorium, preserving front of house and backstage, by architect Charles Stanley Peach.
Historically and architecturally one of the most significant theatres in Britain.