Theatre is just the same… and splendidly different

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YORK Theatre Royal is open again and the citizens of York, owners in a sense of this 270-year-old theatre, can now see what £6 million buys.

The theatre as it stood until early last year was a jumble of buildings from down the centuries. Now this complex composite of Georgian bricks, Medieval stone and 1960s concrete arches has been reshaped for our own age.

At yesterday’s press launch, Ben Reeves, chief archaeologist on the site for York Archaeological Trust, hinted at the difficulties he had caused to everyone else involved.

“I’d just like to say thank you to all our partners on this project because it is not easy having archaeologists under your feet when you are trying to pull off a project like this.”

Ben was a necessary nuisance at a guess, holding up faster progress in the name of discovering the layers of the past on the site as he dug and sifted the ground beneath the stage.

Standing in the 1960s part of the building, which now boasts a massive slate wall rising up through the storeys, as well as a series of bubble-like light pods high in the roof, Ben explained the architectural history of the theatre.

“It’s a palimpsest of buildings together, the origins of which are a medieval hospital…”

At this point we shall bang on the brakes and seek a definition for palimpsest: “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing”.

A useful visual image, as what existed at the theatre was in effect buildings ‘scribbled’ on top of other buildings, the new drawn over the old. As Ben explained, where the theatre stands was originally the site of St Leonard’s Hospital, the largest and wealthiest medieval hospital in England.

“We’ve basically found lots of new structures and we’ve been able to investigate how the buildings were structured from the medieval period, and importantly what we’ve done is excavate the floors and excavation deposits from within those buildings.

“And that from an archaeological point of the view is the most important thing to us.”

Discoveries included rich samples of plant and food waste, and industrial waste and other evidence of the construction of the buildings and their use through time.

The hospital was left standing during the Dissolution of Monasteries, and in 1540 the Royal Mint was moved into the site from its original home in the castle area. “We have got some evidence of silver refining which is exceptionally rare for a medieval mint,” says Ben – before pointing to the third use of this site, as a theatre from 1744 onwards.

Working with architect Angus Morrogh, Ben was able to leave some of the archaeological discoveries exposed – as you will see beneath the newly glassed-in arches at the front of the building. Where people used to queue in the rain for the bus is now what must surely be one of the smartest places to sit in York, and in the walls you will find sections of the original medieval stones. Beyond that is the new box office and café area.

Ben Reeves had more to say, everyone had lots to say, from Liz Wilson, chief executive of York Theatre Royal, to Philip Thake of York Conservation Trust, which now owns the theatre.

But really the interesting part lies in looking around the rejuvenated theatre. Many clever changes have been made, with the glassed-in walkway being the most obvious from the outside.

Once you are inside the auditorium, something immediately strikes you: the theatre has been completely remodelled, given a modern stage that can be moved around thanks to its modular pieces, comfortable new seating and so on – but it still feels just like York Theatre Royal. It’s the same and not the same, in a good way.

Behind the scenes there has been much work too, so that now the theatre will be easier for the actors and crew. And when you step out onto that stage you are almost level with the audience, rather than being high above.

And in a subtle touch, the seats are in different shades of dark red, so that even when empty they appear interesting. Not that anyone wants to see empty seats in a theatre.

Our tour took us beneath the stage, where the medieval well is now encased and on show, and where the working area is now clean and modern. We then went up through the higher levels, all with the new seats – and almost all said to be with an unrestricted view. We also peeped into the fly area, the high backstage galley where scenery and so forth is hauled on and off by pulleys and weights.

I think the theatre-goers of York should be very pleased – and those whose don’t bother going should give it a go.

With York Art Gallery opposite already open after its splendid refit (and less splendid introduction of charges), this corner of York is looking very good. And next time there is a backstage tour, book yourself a place and have a look round York’s new old theatre. It’s a fantastic transformation.


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