In the post-war world of the 1950s and 60s, the format of theatre space became a matter for a debate that aroused passions of an intensity unknown before or since. The proscenium arch was clearly identified as the enemy, accused of forming a barrier to disrupt the relations between the actor and audience. An uneasy fellow-traveller at the time, Francis Reid later recorded his impressions whilst enjoying performances or working in theatres old and new and this book is an important collection of his writings in various theatrical journals from 1969-2001 including his contribution to the Cambridge Guide to the Theatre in 1988. It reports some of the flavour of the period when theatre architecture was rediscovering its past in a search to establish its future.
Regular 'Theatres' readers will need no encouragement to sample this, the latest offering from Francis Reid – lighting designer, lecturer, writer and international theatre guru and traveller. This time, and once again under the umbrella of John Offord’s splendid Entertainment Technology Press, Francis has put together a literary sandwich.
The filling is a collection of his reviews of theatre buildings. They span a period of some thirty years, from the Farrer Theatre at Eton College of 1969 to the rebuilding of RADA the Royal Court. There is an equally varied mix in between, including some unfortunate civic concert/multi-purpose halls, black box studios, revamps of Matcham-esque gems, and icons and conversions troll1 across the world. Indeed the range of buildings described (including many that are less well known or that I had forgotten) and the author's international perspective are one of the most impressive things about this collection.
There are useful illustrations and plans and sections, and thoughtfully the author has included brief introductions and updates to put the buildings into context so that the collection hangs together remarkably well.There are clear themes running through the need for a proper brief, a yearning for an intimate auditorium based on curves, the need for what he calls a 'come hither element' in their external design, and of course, the importance of achieving an appropriate balance between purity of sightline and a cohesive three-way relationship between individuals and the rest of the audience and the performers. Nor are audience comfort and the technical aspects overlooked, but overall one senses that the writer is first and foremost a practical man of the theatre who knows what it is like to work these places. His Judgements have stood the test of time remarkably well and, as always, his writing is stylish, laced with humour, and free from pomp and jargon. My one regret (and, I suspect, his) is that after he stopped writing for the Architect's Journal, and Tabs and Cue Magazine both closed, there were fewer opportunities for him to write about buildings.
The reviews are sandwiched between two longer articles on theatre design generally. 'Seeing, hearing and contact' was written for 'Making Space for Theatre' in 1985, whilst the other, his Brief History of Theatre Space, was a 5,000 word article for the 'Cambridge Guide to Theatre' published in 1998. I was not at all sure at first that such a format would work, but it does, splendidly. Inevitably there is some repetition, but such is the author's enthusiasm that reading and rereading his words gives pure pleasure - he seems incapable of writing a boring sentence.
You can dip in and out of this or read it at a stretch. It really is the essential primer for anyone interested in the development of theatre buildings, and shows how a good building can enhance a performance and the audience's enjoyment.
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