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Preview: The Story of Theatre, Theatre Royal Newcastle

The story of theatre, particularly in Newcastle, is told in a new exhibition at the Theatre Royal. David Whetstone had a look

Natalie Joyce looks visits the Story of Theatre exhibition at the Theatre Royal Newcastle
Natalie Joyce looks visits the Story of Theatre exhibition at the Theatre Royal Newcastle

Does anyone remember seeing Alicia Markova delight her audience in a ballet called The Nightingale and the Rose at the Theatre Royal?

The ballet was premiered in Newcastle on November 1, 1935, and the ballerina – born Lilian Marks, in London – wore a pink tutu.

Dame Alicia died in 2004, aged 94, but her tutu is back at the Theatre Royal – just one of the exhibits in a fascinating new exhibition called The Story of Theatre which opens today.

It follows the refurbishment of the theatre auditorium which began in 2011 and was completed in time for its 175th anniversary last year.

“As a part of the restoration we wanted to share some of the history we uncovered,” said chief executive Philip Bernays.

“People were getting very excited about the theatre and its history and we wanted to make it more accessible. The Heritage Lottery Fund also gave us an additional grant.”

That £50,000 – in addition to the money the HLF contributed to the £5.1m restoration – went towards the £85,000 cost of transforming a bar on the theatre’s upper floor into a permanent display.

London exhibition designer David Hudson was brought in to put The Story of Theatre together.

That story, of course, pre-dates the current Theatre Royal and its predecessor on Mosley Street.

The first exhibit we see is a glass beaker illustrated with pictures of gladiators dating from Roman times when people relaxed to a spot of bloody combat.

The glass is a reconstruction made at Vindolanda, the Roman settlement south of Hadrian’s Wall, and is based on a fragment held in its collection.

A cabinet dedicated to medieval Newcastle recalls the city’s cycle of 12 Mystery Plays, based on scenes from the Bible.

There’s a model of the medieval quay and another of Noah’s Ark that was made in 1947 by men of the Palmers Hebburn Company for a competition organised by the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights.

The most significant exhibit - “my favourite thing,” said Philip Bernays – is the mighty Letter Patent with its grand seal.

Under the Licensing Act of 1737 the production of plays was restricted to patent theatres and scripts had to be vetted by the Lord Chamberlain.

It was in an atmosphere of censorship, therefore, that the people of Newcastle petitioned for a licensed theatre and a patent was duly granted by George III in 1787.

The first Theatre Royal opened on Mosley Street the following year.

Its bigger replacement opened on its current site in 1837 when Victoria became Queen.

Recreations of Victorian playbills – the originals being too fragile for display – feature in the exhibition and are fascinating for the range of entertainment they advertise.

One week you might have got Mr Charles Kean performing his celebrated Hamlet while the next you could have seen a chap called The Lion King who exercised “wonderful controul (sic)” over “the most ferocious and noble Animals of the Forest”.

A set of 19th Century opera glasses is displayed near some theatre tokens, the metal discs that, before paper tickets, allowed admission to the theatre’s various seating areas, each designated according to price.

The three costumes were supplied on long-term loan by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

As well as the tutu, there’s a dressing gown worn by actor Robert Flemyng who played Garry Essendine in a 1966 production of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which opened at the Theatre Royal.

You can also see the gown worn by Sarah Kestleman as Lady Macbeth in an RSC production in 1982.

David Hudson explained the care that went into choosing the correct colours for the cabinets representing the different eras, muted green for the Georgian theatre and rich red for the Victorian.

There is much that will spark memories.

Mr Bernays isn’t old enough to remember Alicia Markova in her tutu but he can tell you that it was transported to Newcastle in a custom-built tutu-shaped box.

And it took him back to his days as a student in Newcastle, helping the RSC prepare for a production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

“I carried a box from a truck into the old Gulbenkian Studio which had ‘Donald Sinden’s nose’ written on it,” he recalled.

Sadly, Mr Sinden’s nose doesn’t feature in an exhibition which, with the best will in the world, can only scratch at the surface of all the centuries’ drama.

But with its photographs (Lillie Langtry, Jenny Lind, Henry Irving and others, supplied by the V&A), its architectural drawings and its costumes, there is enough to make a trip to the top of the theatre worthwhile. The Story of Theatre, which has also been designed as an educational resource for schools, can be viewed during public opening hours.

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