Mark Shenton: Theatres are secular cathedrals that absorb the spirit of their plays
A theatre is more than just a building you visit to see a show. Cinemas, on the other hand, especially in the multiplex era, are mostly generic, interchangeable spaces. You may select one based on the comfort of the seats or the size of its screen but, importantly, you have a choice of seeing a film in multiple locations.
With the theatre, there’s only one place to see a given show, and regular theatregoers have venues they particularly favour. In London, I adore the grand theatrical palaces of Drury Lane, the Palladium and Coliseum. There’s the modern, yet classical, embrace of the National’s Olivier theatre, the regal grandeur of the Haymarket, and the warm intimacy of Wyndham’s and the Apollo. I also love the raw brick of the Royal Court (and its glorious leather seats), the Almeida and the Menier Chocolate Factory.
I’ve just added the new Bridge Theatre – and its amazingly versatile stage, shown to such startling effect in the current Julius Caesar – to my list of favourites. The recent restoration of the Victoria Palace is likewise gorgeous.
I still can’t stand the botched conversion of the Whitehall into the desperately uncomfortable Trafalgar Studios or the vertiginous Other Palace: descending its unevenly spaced stairs always feels like an accident waiting to happen.
Outside London, I’m always startled and excited by Manchester’s Royal Exchange, with its Tardis-like glass box installation of a theatre in the classical splendour of an old trading hall. There’s the wrap-around thrill of the Crucible in Sheffield and the epic splendour of the Grand Theatre in Leeds. But I’ve never warmed to the overly wide West Yorkshire Playhouse, also in Leeds, or to Leicester’s Curve, though I’ve seen great shows at both.
Yet theatre is about more than just the physical building. Each structure is imbued with your own memories of the previous shows you’ve seen there. I have a long and intimate relationship with most theatres in London, stretching back nearly 40 years to when I first arrived as a teenager.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane was my first: I saw the final Saturday matinee of the original London production of A Chorus Line in 1979. It was also there that I saw the original, all too brief, London transfer of Sweeney Todd.
Sitting last weekend in the church-like splendour of Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre, I realised I have a similar relationship with many New York houses, too. I saw the original production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods there multiple times, and will never forget the giant boot that hung from its facade during that run. There I saw Kander and Ebb’s The Rink with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, as well as Curtains, Grand Hotel, and revivals of Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, Man of La Mancha, Wonderful Town and Sweet Charity, as well as notable flops such as Sweet Smell of Success and a musical version of A Tale of Two Cities.
Partly my relationship with the Al Hirschfeld theatre is to do with turnover – it has hosted many shows during my years of coming to New York, whereas the Majestic – the first Broadway house I visited for the original production of 42nd Street – has only ever had one since: The Phantom of the Opera, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary there.
Likewise, I’ve only ever seen one show at the St Martin’s in London, The Mousetrap, though revisiting it recently reminded me what a unique, wood-panelled gem that theatre is.
Actors, too, sometimes forge ongoing relationships with theatres. It’s lovely, for instance, to see Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson both back at the Duke of York’s, where in the early 1990s they transferred in the Royal Court productions of Oleanna and Death and the Maiden, respectively. When I interviewed Williams recently, she said: “I have a hugely romantic, wild soul about opening a show in the West End. There’s something very special about it, and I feel very lucky.”
Mark Rylance also has affinities with particular buildings. In London, he transferred to the Apollo with Jerusalem and the Shakespeare’s Globe double bill of Twelfth Night and Richard III; the last two went on to Broadway’s Belasco, where he is now to be found in the transfer of the Globe’s Farinelli and the King.
Like secular cathedrals, some theatres have a spiritual quality that transcends the shows playing there. They absorb the ghosts of the past – literally so, in the case of the reputedly haunted Belasco – and though the shows that play there may be transitory, memories of past glories are soaked in them… and us.