I did promise to write about the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk a few weeks ago when I wrote about performances of Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s fascinating novel, Mansfield Park and of Mrs Inchbald’s Lover’s Vows...so here we are. Never say I renege on my promises…
The reason this theatre is interesting to anyone interested in Jane Austen, is that it is a rare survivor, an example of the type of provincial theatre she would have known. She visited the theatres in Bath and in Southampton as well as the lager London theatres, and so this type of building would have been very familiar to her. But for us, used to larger Victorian, Edwardian or modern auditoria, a Regency theatre is a very different space, and the experience for the audience was and is so very different from that which we experience today.
Being able to visit a Georgian or a regency theatre in the UK is a rare experience, for the theatre at Bury St Edmunds is the only Regency theatre still in existence and open for business. The only other working theatre of this type in England of which I am aware is the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire which was built in 1788. There is one in Scotland , the Theatre Royal, Dumfries, which was first built in 1792, and accordingly the Bury St. Edmunds theatre is the third oldest working theatre in the United Kingdom.
The theatre was built 1819 by the architect, William Wilkins for use by his own theatre company, the “Norwich Comedians”. Wilkins, born in Norwich in neighbouring Norfolk, was the son of a very successful builder, William Wilkins senior, who was a partner to Humphry Repton between 1785 and 1796. Wilkins senior established an independent practice designing houses in the neo-Gothic and neo-classical styles, most notably Donington Park, in Leicestershire and Pentillie Castle in Cornwall. He also owned a series of theatres in East Anglia. His son, educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, became an architect of some merit, and designed the newly established Downing College in Cambridge in 1804. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states of his career:
Besides the prestigious East India House, however, he had recently finished the new St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner, London (1825–8; now redeveloped as the Lanesborough Hotel). He was also supervising realization of his impressive classical edifice for University College on Gower Street (1825–32), in which he was assisted by J. P. Gandy,
and transforming a proposal to convert the old Royal Mews in Trafalgar Square into a design for a combined National Gallery and Royal Academy. Each of these commissions reflected the enlargement of Wilkins’s understanding of architectural function and of the social space in which it operated, which had been stimulated by reading the works of John Howard, Jeremy Bentham, and continental Enlightenment authors.
In 1815 Wilkins and his sisters inherited their father’s chain of East Anglian theatres. Wilkins junior re-designed many himself but sadly most of these- in Cambridge, Great Yarmouth,Colchester and Norwich- no longer exist, having been either demolished or, in the case of Norwich, burnt down( a fate shared by many theatres of this era). Four years later he obtained backing from the local brewer in Bury St Edmunds, Benjamin Greene, to build a theatre at Bury St Edmunds Greene loaned Wilkins £5000, an amazing sum. The intention was that the theatre would be patronised by the local gentry.
The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds opened on the 11th October, 1819. Amazingly the fabric and design of the theatre remained true to its Regency origins, with very few alterations, until it closed in 1903. In 1906 it re-opened after alterations were made to the structure by Bertie Crewe, but in 1920 it was taken back into ownership by the local brewery, now Greene King, a combination of the Greene and the King family breweries, who still owned the land that surrounded the theatre site. The theatre closed again in 1925, and was effectively “put in mothballs” and used by the Brewery as a barrel store. Eventually in the 1960s some restoration was undertaken after support for a re-opening was generated by a local group led by Air Vice-Marshall Stanley Vincent, and it was re opened in 1965.
Since 1975, ownership of the theatre has vested in the National Trust on a 999 year lease and it is operated as an independent working theatre by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Management Ltd. It is used for theatre performances throughout the year, and there is always a production of an annual Christmas pantomime. As you may already know the theatre has also been promoting the performance of Georgian plays which are no longer part of the repertoire. Its Restoring the Repertoire programme has enabled us to see, for the first time, forgotten plays which were very familiar to Jane Austen, Lovers Vows being only one example. And importantly we have been able to see them in their natural habitat: these intimate theatres.
The Theatre’s website explains why it is important to restore these plays in an appropriate setting:
Due to the disappearance of all other Regency theatres in this country and their unique stages, the repertoire that was written for them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has lain dormant for over a hundred and fifty years.
The repertoire depends for its success on the combination of the physical circumstances which only the Georgian stage can offer. There are literally thousands of plays, many of which are fine examples of the literary and theatrical tradition of the period, and which offer a real opportunity to add a significant body of knowledge about the early nineteenth century English drama repertoire which has hitherto been overlooked.
So you can see that in this type of theatre, actors and audience were not separated by light, or rather dark, or space. An intimate space was created, perfect for exchanges between audience and actors. The lawyer and diarist, Henry Crabb Robinson, who visited the theatre during the first week it was opened, remarked:
“It is a handsome tho’ small house. There is from the upper boxes a cheerful breadth and airiness that is quite exhilarating contrasted with the pent-up chicken coops of most theatrical boxes…
This photograph, above, taken from the rear of the central box, gives you some idea of the intimate nature of the theatre. The boxes, which were the most expensive type of seating in this type of theatre, were arranged in a semi-circle , or horseshoe shape around the stage, almost level with it, and this type of seating was known as the Dress Circle.
This photograph, above, taken from one of the stage-right side boxes, shows you the stage, and you can clearly see just how close the audience is to the performers. The bench seats in the stalls, or The Pit as it was known then, slope down towards the stage, below the level of the boxes in the Dress Circle. You can just see the entrance to these types of seats, under the stage to the right of the photograph, as the steps go down from the pit under the stage to the exit.
This rather poor picture of mine, above, gives you some idea of the size of the auditorium, which you can gauge by the presence of some people. The theatre originally held 800 people, and they would have been squashed together in the pit and the gallery (which is as you can see in the photographs below was above the boxes in the Dress Circle and the Upper Circle.) Modern standards for health, safety and comfort have reduced that capacity to 350.
To give you some idea of the sweep of the semi-circle of boxes in the Dress Circle, here is a photograph of the entrance to the boxes and the semi-circular stone-flagged corridor that runs around them.
This is the view from the stage left boxes in the Dress Circle, showing the audience in the Upper Circle , sitting above:
The cheapest seats were to be found in the Gallery, which was above the Upper Circle, and you can see the audience sitting in the gallery in the central uppermost part of the photograph, below:
This amazing photograph also gives you some idea of just how small the theatre is: by my reckoning, there are only eleven people sitting in the front row of the pit.
Here is the same view, taken from the stage, but without the audience being present. It allows you to see the spaces they would occupy, in order: Pit, Dress Circle, Upper Circle and Gallery.
The first playhouses in England were open to the elements: think of Shakespeare’s great wooden”O’, the Globe:
Wilkins’ theatre was enclosed but paid homage to the open sky by having a painted one:
This wonderful photograph shows the sky painted on the ceiling looking upwards from the pit.
Do note that the entrance for the actors onto the stage is not from “the slips” but from a pair of wooden doors providing access from backstage.
This is my photograph, again rather poor quality, of the stage, taken from the viewpoint of the central box in the Dress Circle, which shows the doors set before the proscenium arch, and which allow access and egress to the stage.
And finally let’s compare this with an example of a real regency theatre.This picture. below, is a scan of a Regency theatre from my copy of Pierce Egan’s 1825 book, The Life of An Actor:
I’m afraid it is not of a very high-resolution and for this I apologise. ***
To resume….this images shows two actors on stage. To stage-right is a door allowing access to the stage, as at Bury St Edmunds. You can clearly see the Pit, ( this is a badly attended production, it has to be said!), and the Dress Circle of boxes with its solitary well-heeled on-looker. These boxes are at a slightly higher level than with the stage, note as at Bury St, Edmunds. Above the Dress Circle is the Upper Circle. The Gallery would have been above that level, no doubt. The similarities between this print and the theatre at Bury St Edmunds are remarkable don’t you think?
So, if you want to experience the theatre as Jane Austen would have known it, you now have the opportunity to do so by visiting the theatre at Bury St Edmunds. Not only can you see productions of Georgian plays there, which are not performed anywhere else, the modern 20 and 21st repertoire having no place for them, but you can also take backstage tours. I’ve not done this yet, but it is on my to do list for next year.
I should like to than the staff at the theatre for all their assistance in preparing this article, and for their extreme kindness in supplying me with theses wonderful photographs of the theatre’s exterior and interior. I only hope my description has done them justice.
*** The reason why I have resorted to doing this is that I have had problems recently with unscrupulous authors and publishers using my images for commercial purposes without my permission. I’m afraid that, from now on , my old images taken from my collection of 18th and early 19th century books and engraving will be published here but only at low resolution. A practice which will not affect your enjoyment of them but which will, hopefully, stop the theft of my images. I do hope you will understand why I have reluctantly had to take this step.