Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Architecture, SUMMER METROPOLITAN, Arts & entertainment
The new Sydney Theatre opens – at last – at Walsh Bay on Saturday. It may not be perfect but it’s pretty damn wonderful, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Snuggled into one of Sydney’s most artificial topographies is a new house of artifice. Its facade, dominated by that huge romanesque proscenium, declares up front a commitment to reality remade. Yet, at the same time, Walsh Bay’s new Sydney Theatre, opening on Saturday, is profoundly shaped by intimacy. You can call it ironic. Or you can relax in the knowledge that probing this truth-illusion relationship is theatre’s core business.
Core or not, it’s been a long time between acts: 18 years since Neville Wran blocked plans by the Maritime Services Board to containerise Walsh Bay; 14 years since the first redevelopment tenders were called. First of several, and no shortage of pain in the process. But, if the theatre’s artistic director, Robyn Nevin, is to be believed, it is pain well spent. Have they got what they wanted? “Oh, we’ve got it,” says Nevin. “We’re thrilled. It’s not only operationally efficient and wonderfully resourced, it’s also beautiful. The aesthetic, I think, is a kind of miracle.”
It could easily not have happened, or not like this. The tender documents called only for a cultural component to sweeten the overall redevelopment program. PTW architects, through the Jose de la Vega/Transfield developer-consortium, had suggested a drama theatre in the knowledge that the Sydney Theatre Company chairman at the time, Mark Burrows, and artistic director Wayne Harrison had been lobbying hard for such a theatre. It was an empty niche in the town’s cultural ecology; NIDA’s Parade was scarcely a gleam. Then, though, it was to be a 1000-seater, purpose-designed for glam West End musicals; quite a different animal from the theatre we now have.
The difference, according to PTW’s Andrew Andersons, is down to Nevin. Newly appointed, in 1999, Nevin was still under contract elsewhere and still playing three nights a week in Melbourne; she had also just paid an inspirational visit to London’s refurbished Royal Court Theatre, whose architect, Steve Tompkins, notes: “Theatre is often happiest falling between the cracks in the establishment. A theatre space doesn’t necessarily have to feel like a monumental civic presence.” It was this for-God’s-sake-don’t-finish-it feel that Nevin was after. Not quite the real leather seats and Tasmanian hardwood floors of the Royal Court, nor the wine-soaked, body-strewn alleyways that gave Elizabethan theatre its distinctive flavour, but somewhere between. “A high-level international performing arts theatre,” in Nevin’s words, not corporate but also, “absolutely not fringe”. Nevin demanded intimacy and authenticity; “absolutely a spoken-word theatre” capable of recreating the expectancy and connectedness that West End theatre has all but lost.
She also wanted a home for contemporary dance as well as drama, an attractor for other high-end users such as Bell Shakespeare, the Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Sydney Dance Company. This made it essential to give the entire audience a view of the actors’ feet. Feel is fine but in the end it comes down to sightlines, and sightlines are geometry; complex, 3-D geometry. In essence, it involved reducing overall volume, raking the (flattish) stalls, losing a balcony and steepening that which remained. That is, morphing a 1000-seat theatre into an 850-seater with a 500-seat feel.
Even this doesn’t sound so hard, on the face of it. And it mightn’t have been, had not the previous version already become enshrined in the accepted bid documents, turning a mere change of brief into a probity issue. Filtered through negotiations involving a dozen or more parties, this generated a stand-off lasting several months. The STC, not being a contractual signatory, had no direct foot-stamp power (“not that I would have done that anyway”, says Nevin sagely). It was, however, obliged to point out, in the sweetest possible manner, that the theatre to which the Government was committed was one it no longer wanted. Still, the Government resisted, suspecting standard-issue developer creep. Finally, it was Andersons who broke the deadlock, voluntarily redesigning the theatre for no additional fee. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “I probably couldn’t have brought myself to do it.” For Nevin, this, too, was “miraculous”.
Architecture, of course, is theatre’s sensible-shoes twin, so almost any architect can be expected to harbour sympathies in that direction. Even so, Andersons has a particular affinity for things thespian. As Nevin puts it, “Andrew is a man who has loved theatre all his life, a man who recalls with obvious pleasure the night he was able, from the front row, to return Judy Davis/Hedda Gabler’s dropped book. A man who knows a theatre from a venue.” This abhorrence of the corporate is rather a Nevin theme. Recalling the 1998 opening of the Optus Playhouse in Brisbane, for example, she remembers as even more heartbreaking than its qualities as a theatre, its first-night public description as “a facility”. The technics weren’t great but that noun, says Nevin, “cracked my heart”.
Which makes her delight in the new Sydney Theatre all the more touching, produced as it is by an architect-developer consortium (PTW-Mirvac-Transfield) that could hardly get more corporate. Much of the credit, it seems, goes to Andersons personally. He had designed theatres before, including the Riverside at Parramatta, the renewed Capitol and the City Recital Hall in Sydney. More than that, though, Andersons understood the feel thing. He responded to Nevin’s passion to nurture Australian drama, sympathised with her aversion to gold and plush, recognised her desire for a “raw character like the Wharf [Theatre]”, understood the need for the audience to feel the audience, as well as the play, knew that the foyer should be an event as enjoyable and even dramatic as the theatre itself.
So, is it? The Wharf is, as Andersons notes, a hard act to follow. The Opera House Drama Theatre has its problems but, well, it is the Opera House. Can an old bond store with a theatre in its belly foot the pace? Well no, and yes. There’s no great harbour promenade, no outsize timber beams or gleaming turtlebacks. And there’s no getting around the fact that the bond store has gently cramped the theatre’s style – requiring, in particular, an asymmetrical foyer (similar to Andersons’ 1993 scheme for Musica Viva’s Customs House proposal and, as it happens, to the
But it does work, making up in chutzpah for much of what it lacks in form or gaspability. The great load-bearing arch – using specially tapered bricks from far-off Gunnedah – and the slender-strung street-balcony with its snippet of water view add occasion without pomp. The old-new tension – most dramatic back-of-house where the theatre’s working parts meet convict-hewn cliff face, but enhanced throughout by the decision to leave existing walls distressed – adds depth and authenticity. And Nevin’s insistent rejection of the corporate – carpet in favour of lively ply floors and “airlineish” purple-stretch seat fabric in favour of traditional blue velvet – delivers just enough rawness to generate excitement, and not so much it gets mundane. Meanwhile the auditorium itself, with its 64 fully computerised fly lines, state-of-the-art sound pit and French self-building-chain stage-lift set below water level, still has that theatre feel; low sheen and intimate, even when barely occupied.
Quite an achievement, quite a partnership. And quite a piece of luck. It’s not like the theatre was fundamental to the bid (which focused strongly on all those money-spinning finger wharves and apartment buildings). And it’s not like Andersons was working to the STC, which will manage and lease the theatre but not own it, or even appointed for his theatrical scholarship. But for Andersons, Nevin’s driving passion made this “the very best kind of architectural job”. For her, Andersons’ presence and contribution were serendipitous, to say the least.
And the product? Probably not miraculous, in the end. But then it doesn’t have to be. One Opera House is enough. My hunch is Sydney Theatre will quickly prove itself a strong addition to the city, an essential part of our artifice-apparatus and a thoroughly engaging experience. Churlish to
Sydney Theatre opens on Saturday with two new works, the play Harbour, and the musical, The Republic of Myopia.
TWO ILLUS: The stage is set: From an old bond store comes the new Sydney Theatre (above).
Photos: Edwina Pickles