(Apologies for photo quality . . . I forgot my camera, so these were all taken on my almost three-year-old iPhone 4.)
After my excursion to Knocklofty, I walked down to Campbell Street to do the tour of the Theatre Royal. This was another one of those things I’d seen in passing and thought would be fun to do, but never had the time.
The Theatre Royal is billed as ‘Australia’s oldest continuously working theatre’. It was originally funded by a group of Hobart businessmen and was designed Peter Degraves, the founder of the Cascade Brewery, after his release from gaol. The adviser to the project was John Lee Archer, who designed the Penitentiary Chapel, which I visited on an earlier adventure. Construction commenced in 1834 and the theatre opened in 1837.
The area it is in was originally called Wapping, and it was basically a slum area around the waterfront and the Hobart Rivulet which, if you have been reading about my adventures, you might remember had gotten very polluted as the result of industry upstream. So by the time it got to the area where the Theatre is, it was pretty filthy and unhygienic.
(It might interest you to know that Hobart was only sewered in the 1910s, some 60 years after Launceston and it would seem that this was about the time that the Council started to clear out the area of residences, a process that continued until the 1960s.)
My tour guides, Judith and Elspeth, are members of the Friends of the Theatre Royal group, which operates the tours. They were both very helpful and informative and clearly shared a passion for the theatre. They told the stories of the dodgy pub called The Shades (originally the Shakespeare), which operated nearby and had its own entrance into the pit of the theatre, and the sailors, drunks and prostitutes who entered the pit from the pub. Because there were no toilets, which wasn’t a problem for the blokes, the female prostitutes would apparently bound over the seats during intervals to get to the bathrooms, which no doubt would have upset the folk sitting there. They told us that the original performances would last all night, so that while the admission prices were relatively high, even for the pit, the patrons would get their money’s worth.
The theatre has changed quite a bit since its original construction, including the addition of the Gallery (which is where I was when I saw Paul Kelly in 2011) in the 1850s.
A major fire in 1984 caused significant damage to the stage area and the dome ceiling. This had been illustrated with images from Shakespeare’s Seven Ages and are currently illustrated with portraits of nine composers and the poet Schiller. The original illustrations from 1911 were destroyed in the fire and were repainted by George Davis after the fire. According to Judith and Elspeth, the damage could have been a lot worse, but the story goes that Fred, the theatre ghost, dropped a fire curtain across the stage, preventing the fire from spreading. And since the building was empty at the time, who else could it have been?
It’s a huge building – there is so much backstage that, unless you were involved in theatre, you’d never know existed.
We had a look at the dressing rooms, including some of the older disused ones that were used by Laurence Olivier in the 1948.
Olivier’s appeal to the authorities assisted in ensuring that the theatre wasn’t demolished at that time due to its age and poor condition, with the State Government and a national fundraising campaign funding its restoration in the 1950s. This included the installation of Royal Boxes especially for the visit of Princess Elizabeth, but due to the death of King George VI, she never made the trip and the Royal Boxes have never been used.
The tour goes for about an hour, from 11am Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The day I was there, there was only me and one other person, so we got a very personalised tour. Fortunately there were no productions in progress, so we weren’t restricted in where we could go – so if you’re thinking about taking the tour, I’d recommend phoning ahead to find out how much access you’ll get. And some days the tours can’t run at all because of what’s going on in the theatre, so it pays to check before you turn up.
So another adventure – another place I probably wouldn’t have gone to if I hadn’t had time off in Hobart and another place I’m glad I got to see.