Cambridge Festival Theatre

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fezzie_small.jpg - 27788 BytesThe Cambridge Festival Theatre is one of only a handful of pre-Victorian theatres remaining in the country. It was among several theatres built for a touring company, the Norwich players, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Norwich Circuit, as it was known, was taken over in 1800 by William Wilkins whose first Cambridge theatre opened in September 1808, made of wood and probably situated where the Elizabeth Way roundabout now lies. Wilkins’ son (also named William) designed Downing College in 1806 and the National Gallery in London. It is unclear which of the Wilkins designed what we now call the Festival Theatre, in 1814. As the proprietor of the Norwich circuit, Wilkins employed a small company of players to undertake an annual tour of six theatres, Yarmouth, Ipswich, Cambridge, Bury, Colchester and Kings Lynn. Each was open for just one or two short seasons during the year. Although the Barnwell Theatre, as it was then known, was initially very successful, the Norwich circuit did not last long, and by the 1830s Wilkins was struggling financially. The Theatre was auctioned in 1878 and bought by Mr Robert Sayle, who turned it into a mission hall for the Evangelisation Society.

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The design elements that made the building a good theatre also made it effective for proselytising and revivalism. The front of the stage was well placed in the heart of the audience, so the speaker was not too far from anyone, and the building’s curved shape brought the furthest wings of the audience opposite each other. The Theatre remained in use as a mission hall for many years (up until about 1915) and was then used as a boy’s club by King’s College. Derelict, in 1926 it was bought by Terence Gray, who gave it a second lease of life as a theatre.

Gray was a millionaire racehorse owner and vineyard proprietor who once owned the Gog Magog hills. He gave the Theatre the name by which it is probably best known, the Festival Theatre. He wanted to turn his radical, 'guerilla' ideas on staging and design into a reality: Gray's aim was to invite the audience to "come to the theatre as to a party, and act there in their imaginations according to the pattern of the play". This meant eschewing realism and instead using abstract forms and lighting effects on a stage that could be approached by the performers from any direction, without the constraint of a proscenium arch. So Gray tore down the proscenium arch walls and doors and returned the already curved ends of the tiers to meet the side walls; the proscenium pediment, fixed to the auditorium face of a new lighting bridge, was painted with the Royal arms of Queen Victoria and with trophies of war and peace. Gray inserted a hand-operated wooden revolve in a new stage whose front was stepped down into the auditorium. The theatre had no curtain (the original Act Drop, painted as a pillared hall to continue the architecture of the proscenium, was removed) or orchestra pit, and patterns of light were projected against the cyclorama in lieu of scenery while platforms and ramps served as set dressing.

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Terence Gray opened his first season at the Cambridge Festival Theatre in 1926 with a radically experimental Oresteia in masks. The Theatre attracted some famous names, including WB Yeats and Ninette de Valois, and was at the forefront of avant-garde theatre in Britain. This success was, however, short lived. The Festival Theatre operated only seven years under the direct influence of Gray and his colleagues, and was then run by a commercial management company, gradually declining until it closed in 1939. This period included a number of Marlowe Society productions, mostly directed by George (Dadie) Rylands.

The Theatre as it presently exists reflects a rich and varied past. The two tiered galleries stand as they were originally designed in 1814, though the private boxes have been removed. The cut-off stage reveals neither the Georgian forestage nor the stepped front that Terence Gray introduced when he took over the Theatre in 1926. The permanent cyclorama he built (the first in the country) remains, and is the focus of this installation; forty feet high, its flat surface flooded evenly with light almost defying detection and giving an amazing effect of distance. The substage space contains no trace of the Georgian theatrical machinery, but Gray's hand-operated wooden revolve is still there. The box fronts have been covered over, but underneath are the remains of the nineteenth century design imitating panels of red fabric, some of the boldly lettered mission hall texts, and Gray's geometrical motif - remnants of the major phases in the history of the Theatre.

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The Theatre enjoyed a brief re-awakening during World War II. Evacuated soldiers from Dunkirk arrived in Cambridge in their thousands. Entertainer Jean Holmes formed the 'The Cam Merrymakers', who worked with two Army units to provide shows for the troops. At first these took place in the open air at Newmarket racecourse, but the local council subsequently allowed her to use the Festival Theatre, and the Merrymakers performed here throughout the war.

After the war, the Theatre became a store for electrical goods. It was then acquired by the Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust and served for many years as a wardrobe and workshop, mostly unseen by the public. It survived almost untouched while massive redevelopment went on around it to form the Grafton Centre. A few theatrical performances took place, with the Marlowe Society producing The Lady of Pleasure by James Shirley - a play that had not been performed for over 350 years - there in 1995 following a £30,000 renovation project.

In March 1998, the Theatre and its adjoining house were purchased by the Windhorse Trust to be the new Cambridge Buddhist Centre. The Theatre itself is once again in regular use, for Buddhist festivals and large gatherings, for concerts and for occasional special events such as ‘Restoration Drama’. There is an ongoing programme of renovation; most recently the cyclorama was re-painted and the Theatre ceiling patched and painted with generous financial help from Commissions East. The building is unlikely now to return to full time theatre use. A similar theatre, restored in 1965 and in full use, is the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds (circa 1819).

FESTIVAL: Readings of plays put on at the Festival Theatre 1929-1935