Axel Burrough, Director of Levitt Bernstein and the project’s lead architect, considers the challenges presented by the brief to combine restoration and modernisation.

I first visited Theatre Royal in 1987 when Levitt Bernstein was invited by the National Trust to undertake a design study to assess options for the theatre’s future.

In the previous few years we had designed two theatres – the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell. Although both these theatres were radical, contemporary designs, they were in fact heavily influenced by Elizabethan and Georgian theatres. This serendipity greatly added to the fascination of the commission.

Our clients in Manchester, the 69 Theatre Company, impressed upon us the need for the type of intimate contact between actor and audience enjoyed by Georgians but lost or diluted when the 19th Century actor retreated from the forestage into the scenic stage beyond the proscenium arch. Both the Royal Exchange and the Wilde had galleried auditoria, the first in the round, and the other rectangular with the option of a ‘Georgian’ forestage. The Wilde design was a collaboration with the theatre consultant Iain Mackintosh, who knows Bury St Edmunds well and was the author of ‘Pit, Boxes and Gallery’, the story of Theatre Royal.

Then, as now, the essence of the brief was deceptively simple, to combine restoration with modernisation, to ensure the theatre’s continued success as a regional theatre, initiating and hosting small to middle scale theatrical product. There was never any intention to realise a totally faithful restoration, because that would have consigned the building to the status of a museum, rather than a working, living theatre.

The Theatre Royal project has been a fascinating process of discovery. Research into the building’s history was undertaken in order to build a picture of what it would have been like in 1819; contemporaneous theatres and illustrations of their decoration and fittings were also researched in order to plug gaps in our knowledge; and discussions were undertaken with the National Trust, the staff and management of the theatre and many authorities and advisory bodies in order to develop a viable scheme. In addition, the audience was consulted, and the unconventional seating, whose design and comfort were a particularly sensitive issue, was mocked up and tested on an intrigued public.

The discoveries about the building will no doubt be written up elsewhere. Theatre Royal is a very special building: it is a rare survival of a late – Georgian playhouse; it is even rarer for having been designed by an architect of national importance, and rarer still because that architect, William Wilkins, was also its owner. That overused word ‘unique’ might, for once, be entirely appropriate!

Our 1988 study showed that William Wilkins had used all his formidable intellect and knowledge in his design. We discovered that he had employed complex geometrical and proportional systems which appear to justify, beyond reasonable doubt, the position of lost or disputed areas of the building, such as the forestage edge and the stage height. We have, incidentally, changed our minds on the latter issue, even though raising the stage would have improved the sightlines from some of the side boxes. We had thought that in the 1960’s it had been put back at the wrong level, possibly because it had been lowered in 1906 to increase flying height. But the more we looked the less convinced we were, and when the survey was completed we realised that the proscenium was based on the Sacred Triangle – 24ft wide, 18ft high, with a diagonal of 30ft. The proportional relationships that had caused us to justify raising the stage, in fact, applied to the level of the dress circle floor.

But why did I say that the brief was deceptively simple? Why couldn’t we simply restore the theatre to its 1819 appearance? Here are some reasons:

  • it originally held 780 people, tightly packed onto bare, backless benches; no modern audience or fire officer would accept such cramped conditions. Now the capacity is closer to 350, a function of the steady growth of the population and the introduction of stringent safety requirements.
  • it originally had about three earth closets to serve the entire audience and conditions must have been intolerably hot and pungent by modern standards. We have adequate toilet provision for men, women, children and disabled.

There was only one means of escape from each section of the theatre. Current standards require at least two. Only the occupants of the boxes would have had access to the small entrance saloon (the upper bar was added in 1906). Current audiences expect better and more democratic provision of bars and foyer space.

The theatre was heated by a solitary stove at the rear of the pit and lit by oil lamps – too few to light the auditorium adequately according to contemporary accounts – but to our eyes a Georgian audience would have been used to astonishingly low lighting levels in fact the original building contained not a single pipe, wire or duct and used a well in the adjoining garden for water. Now the theatre is well lit and air conditioned, with a plethora of communications and safety systems, and large plant rooms.

Following the research, the challenge was to incorporate modern facilities as seamlessly and sensitively as possible, and where we couldn’t restore in totally authentic fashion, to design in a sympathetic idiom. The principal objectives were to:

  • restore the auditorium to its original shape and proportions, with box passages, forestage, stage boxes and neo – classical decorative scheme
  • a new foyer on the site of an adjacent garden
  • re – establishing the original entrance sequence to the pit seating
  • facilities for the disabled
  • improvements backstage
  • new heating, cooling, lighting, communications and safety installations.

Alterations to the front façade were limited to opening out the original portico and re-glazing the colonnade. Inside, the beautiful new decorative scheme is immediately obvious, but it hides a huge amount of careful design to incorporate modern technology and marry the often conflicting demands of the brief.