Behind the curtain, Michael Nicolaidi

The Theatre Royal: An Illustrated History
Clerestory Press, $50.00, 
ISBN 9780958288804

Grand temples of pleasure and entertainment, rather like temples of prayer and meditation, have the power to galvanise a particular kind of angel when they come under threat of destruction. Is this due to nostalgia, wistful affection for positive and affirming occasions from the past, experienced personally or by word of mouth? Or, rather more, is it the fear of many of us older generation New Zealanders that our cultural heritage, even identity, in this case largely that of (blush) the Mother Country England, is being attacked? Or is it some combination of the two?

That said, how appropriate it is that this exhaustive, often fascinating illustrated history of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch – indeed the city’s three Theatre Royals, beginning with the first wooden building that opened in 1863 over the road from the present building – should be sponsored by its angels, aka its Friends. They join other members of that hallowed unnamed greater tribe of community-spirited individuals scattered about the country that has saved old and historic theatres and movie palaces and helped put a significant capital H in Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand.

Without their drive and devotion to the cause of our lengthy “live” theatre and entertainment history, those decaying pleasure domes in the major cities and other centres, like Timaru, New Plymouth, Hastings, Wanganui and Palmerston North, would not be standing – upgraded and quite magnificent – today. And Nelson is about to join them. It harbours still another Theatre Royal, and a most important one: the country’s oldest theatre, a bijou 380-seater on two levels built of wood in 1878. To date, over four million dollars has been raised towards an extensive upgrade which its angels guarantee will ensure it re-emerges small yet perfectly formed. The path towards all this largely positive outcome has been rocky to say the very least.

During the final decades of the 20th century, city centre developers, spurred on first by the prospect and then the reality of rightist Rogernomics policies, were on the march. With wreckers’ ball swinging, they were bent on reconfiguring and modernising the architectural landscape of the downtown areas in all major cities.

Despite public protests, Auckland’s 1902 Victorian horseshoe playhouse, His Majesty’s Theatre and its Arcade on Queen Street, were demolished in 1988. Wellington too might have lost both its Opera House and St James Theatre if a couple of theatrical gents with the names Bill Sheat and (the late) Peter Harcourt had not sharpened their halos and set to work passionately and persuasively behind the scenes.

Yet it wasn’t simply a story of badass developers finding their moment in history and running amok, invariably with the blessing of local politicians keen to upgrade and boost occupancy in their particular CBDs. JC Williamson Theatres, the Australasian theatrical entrepreneurs, which had come to own several vintage central city theatres throughout the country, was selling up. The nature of the live entertainment beast was changing irrevocably (indeed, had already changed) and these grand “live” theatres, like the old-style picture palaces first built in the 1920s and 1930s, would have to be handled and sold to the public rather differently if they were to remain upright and survive in the age of television.

Christchurch’s Theatre Royal, built in brick rather than wood and opened in 1908, was a case in point. Indeed, to be or not to be was very much the question. Was there any real use for her, or popular value in her, in a new age of tastes and pleasures?

The answer was yes, provided she was prepared to upgrade and transcend her class-ridden origins to fully embrace multi-purpose use by diverse clients – amateurs and professionals, whether community-based or touring the country. Social segregation in the Theatre Royal, for example, had been achieved by making the cheap seats in the upper gallery (aka the gods, perhaps where today’s angels might have sat?) accessible not through the main foyer with the middle class and hoity-toities but by an external staircase entered separately from the street.

But wasn’t that always the way for most of these appealing grand ladies? Certainly you might have the gods with its separate entrance for the hoi polloi but at least they were allowed in to appreciate and enjoy the musical and dramatic entertainment in a populist congregation with their “betters”. And when the great 20th century art form, the movies, landed in the 1920s, most were quick to add a projection box and screen to take advantage if necessary of “live” entertainment downturns.

If there was an archangel among those ministering angels in this story of the renaissance of the Garden City’s Theatre Royal, it would be local architect Sir Miles Warren. For him, as chairman of the Theatre Royal Charitable Foundation that finally purchased the theatre from JC Williamson in 1980 for $175,000, the answer most assuredly lay in refurbishment. He graphically described the state of the theatre at the time:

It looked abandoned, neglected – dust-covered, faded glory. Almost everything moveable and useful had been stripped out: light fittings, chandeliers and theatre equipment. The back stage, side stage, basement and service areas were filled with the detritus of past shows. The worst areas were the dressing rooms, especially the spaces beneath the stage with an open drain. How JC Williamson’s shows emerged from such squalor is a miracle. How did Margot Fonteyn and Anthony Quayle put up with the so-called “star” dressing rooms? The one and only shower was lined with baby corrugated iron, grey-white at the top and black with mould on the bottom wooden grate.


Well, under his guiding hand that has all changed to new splendour behind, below and before the curtain, creating a very welcoming situation for at least one intended, hopefully stable and regular client – a rejuvenated Southern Opera.

Sir Miles’ comments in 1980, almost 30 years ago now, also veil a cautionary tale. Bricks and mortar have no life unless put to the use for which they are intended, which means that the dreaded term “local content” becomes paramount. To this day we may all still recall a Royal Ballet prima ballerina of the name Margot Fonteyn. English she was. But … Anthony Quayle? For 21st century readers of this largely anecdotal, in-depth illustrated history, it really is necessary to explain that he was a mid- to late-20th century leading actor of the Royal Shakespeare Company – of England, too.

Chancing my arm, I’ll predict that in the not- too-distant future, if not right now, the names and even comforts of our own stage notables, let alone the quality of their performances, will be central concerns in promoting and ensuring the continuing survival of historic theatres like this.


Michael (Mike) Nicolaidi is a Feilding reviewer.


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