John Byrne to create roof fresco at King’s Theatre

A detail from John Byrne's design for the King's Theatre dome. Illustration: � John Byrne
A detail from John Byrne's design for the King's Theatre dome. Illustration: � John Byrne
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ONE of Scotland’s greatest living artists has been called in to help overhaul one of the nation’s most historic theatres.

John Byrne is working on a vast new artwork for the domed ceiling of the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, as part of the next phase of a major makeover.

Renowned Scottish artist John Byrne. Picture: Jane Barlow

Renowned Scottish artist John Byrne. Picture: Jane Barlow

Paisley-born Byrne, 73, admits he jumped at the chance when he was approached to do it.

His fresco, to be painted during a temporary closure of the theatre over the summer, will measure 52 square metres and take six weeks to complete.

It will become the largest single surviving work by Byrne, best known as the creator of the Slab Boys trilogy of plays and the TV series Tutti Frutti.

Byrne studied at Glasgow School of Art and his career has seen him design album covers for Gerry Rafferty and the Beatles, and portraits of Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane.

He has a long association with the capital, having spent a year at Edinburgh College of Art. He also had his first play staged at the Fringe and has some of his work held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Managers at the King’s, which opened in 1906, say Byrne’s dome design, which will be kept under wraps until the summer, has been inspired by “duality, light and shade, and the Sun and the Moon”. It will also feature the line “all the world’s a stage…” from As You Like It.

The work, costing £125,000, has been paid for via private donations and contributions from theatre-goers to a “development fund”. The remainder of the auditorium will also be repainted. It is expected to be unveiled in time for the Edinburgh International Festival.

Duncan Hendry, chief executive of the Festival City Theatres Trust, said: “I can think of no-one more appropriate to provide a beautiful and thought-provoking design for the dome.”

Byrne was approached by Rachel Simmonds, the architect leading the refurbishment. She said: “We felt the person had to be at the top of their game in Scottish art, but also had to under­stand the theatre. There was only really one person.”

Byrne told The Scotsman: “I was asked if I would like to do the dome of the King’s and said yes right away. I jumped at the chance. I never imagined they would be mad enough, or enlightened enough, to commission a design for it. I was thrilled.

“I only live a couple of minutes away from the theatre these days and come to about five or six plays a year. It’s a wonderful theatre… It has the atmosphere of a theatre – traditional, proper and grand.

“The design is very much based around the whole idea of theatre and the falsity of what makes it real. The main figure on it is a girl dragging a theatre star-cloth. There is a cut-out crescent moon that she is holding on to against a seemingly real painted sky and also a harlequin.”

The artwork will be installed by architectural heritage decorating firm Nevin of Edinburgh.

Byrne admits he is not looking forward to clambering around the scaffolding, which will be erected in the theatre – because he is afraid of heights.