Scotland’s old theatres as relevant today as ever

The Citizens'  Theatre is undergoing extensive renovations. Picture: complimentary
The Citizens' Theatre is undergoing extensive renovations. Picture: complimentary
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At the Citizens’ Theatre in Gorbals Street, Glasgow, the auditorium is stripped bare.

All the old red plush seats are stacked on the stage, available for sale at £25 each; and there’s a rare chance to stand in the middle of the auditorium’s bare and tilting wooden floor, gazing up at the gleaming gold plaster and warmly curved balconies of one of the loveliest theatre auditoriums in Britain.

The Citizens’ is a legend for its quality as a playing-space. First opened in 1878 as the Royal Princess’s Theatre, a home for pantomime and variety in the Gorbals, it’s a small theatre by Victorian standards, seating just under 500 people; and its combination of glamour and intimacy lends itself to live theatre in a way that has been brilliantly exploited over the years, by inspired directors from James Bridie to Giles Havergal.

For all its glory, though, the Citizens’ in an old lady now; and this summer’s work on new seating in the auditorium is only the beginning of what promises to be at least half a decade of reconstruction work.

Architects have already been recruited for the first phase of the project, which will involve the replacement of the 1980s glass foyer, and Glasgow City Council has stepped up with a generous contribution. Overall, though, the cost of making the old theatre fit for the 21st century has already been estimated at £10 million; and it could rise to as much as £15 million.

That the Citizens’ Theatre is worth it seems beyond doubt; it is one of Scotland’s leading producing theatres, and a much-loved centre of Glasgow’s creative life. Yet it is worth pondering, just for a moment, the survival into the 21st century of so many glorious Victorian and Edwardian theatres, despite the huge expense of maintaining them, as the buildings age. Some great theatres have been lost; Glasgow alone has seen the demolition of at least three in my lifetime, the old Glasgow Empire, the Metropole at St George’s Cross, and the glorious Alhambra, the first theatre I ever visited.

Yet the Citizens’, the King’s, the Theatre Royal and the Pavilion in Glasgow still thrive, along with the Royal Lyceum, the King’s and the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, Perth Theatre, and His Majesty’s in Aberdeen; and several others – the Ayr Gaiety, the Alhambra in Dunfermline, the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow, the Tivoli in Aberdeen – are gradually re-emerging from the dark. And this despite a strong argument that by their very shape, appearance and image, these spaces perpetuate a nostalgic vision of theatre – a recurring demand for well-made plays by Coward or Wilde, Rattigan or Christie – that makes the art-form itself seem like a thing of the past. Despite the 21st century appetite for open, unstructured theatre spaces, though, it seems that these much-loved buildings – created as proud palaces of popular entertainment, in an age of explosive urban expansion – embody something about our common life that we can’t easily let go; perhaps something about the idea of the city itself.

For in the end – and despite all the care rightly lavished on backstage and front-of-house spaces – it is the big auditorium that is the heart and soul of the Citizens’, and of any theatre of this vintage; a magical space that brings together an audience of 500 or 1,500 scattered souls, that wraps itself round them in a soft stucco embrace, that draws their attention towards the stage, and that seeks to make them one, in a single, shared experience. The great Victorian/Edwardian theatre is not the kind of performance space we would build today. Yet it still seems to embody some essential part of ourselves and our history; something we cherish, and which we strive to maintain, with love, with persistence, and despite the cost.