Friday 28 October 2016

Stage: Riots, tragedy and the theatre 'on a dirty street'

Maggie Armstrong

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Back: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot returns to Smock Alley Theatre next week
Back: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot returns to Smock Alley Theatre next week

Wandering through Temple Bar recently, my attention was drawn to the sign announcing "one of the most important sites in European theatre history". There on Exchange Street, past the run-down locksmith and chi-chi boutiques, stands Smock Alley Theatre, which they're calling "Dublin's oldest, newest theatre".

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I learned that Dublin's oldest theatre, built on Werburgh Street in 1635, no longer exists. It was shut down after the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in 1641. Then Cromwell attacked Ireland, and the Puritans outlawed theatre as "a hotbed of vice".

Two decades of civil war and strife followed - the beheading of Charles I, exiled Royalists, and a quest for land in Ireland. In 1662, following the restoration of Charles II, the Theatre Royal at Smock Alley was built, the first purpose-built royal theatre in the British Isles.

"Cromwell left a legacy of violence and destruction. The theatre has an important role to play in all that trauma. You're building up your country, a country that's so divided," says UCD's Rosalinde Schut, who is writing a PhD on the early years of Smock Alley.

The Lord Lieutenant was transforming Dublin into the next major city to London. Smock Alley was a big part of the colonial project, an opulent theatre with a proscenium arch. This sole Dublin theatre was not going to have a particularly Irish character.

"The theatre was to be as English as possible, to compete with London," says Rosalinde.

It was also a propaganda wing for the monarchy, "used to disseminate ideas and educate people". Its Scottish founder, John Ogilby, aka Master of the Revels, poached actors from London and programmed a season that suited royalist tastes.

'Revels' then meant 'royal festivities', nothing more fun than that. Ogilby had a royal patent stating that the theatre should be "decent and becoming and not profane and obnoxious." The first plays put on in 1662-3 were uncontroversial: a comedy of manners, Shakespeare's Othello and a French political tragedy.

Of course, the theatre was built close to the Castle, the centre of the English government. But we aren't sure why they chose this particular back alley by the quays. A bookseller visiting the theatre in 1698 wrote that "it stands in a dirty street called Smock Alley; which I think is no unfit name for a place where such great opportunities are given for making lewd bargains". 'Smock' means women's underwear; Smock Alley was where prostitutes found business.

This being long before electrification, performances began at 3.30pm. Theatre-goers were Protestants and Catholics but definitely people of leisure, and their class was written into the unofficial seating plan. Dublin Castle officials and other lords and ladies sat in the boxes closest to the stage. In a pit down below were rows of benches, where soldiers, students and lawyers sat. In a gallery above sat the even less important shopkeepers and rural gentry. The Lord Lieutenant, the eyes of the king and most powerful man in Ireland, sat enthroned in his own box directly facing the stage.

Despite this serried order, a production could have been "fairly rowdy, with plenty of audience participation", says Rosalinde.

Many riots happened in the theatre during the 18th century. There were also brutal deaths when a gallery collapsed during a Ben Jonson play in 1670 - though the theatre wasn't rebuilt until 1735. In that century, the leading British actor David Garrick first played Hamlet, Peg Woffington made her debut as a child star with a trapeze artist, and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan premiered plays. Facing competition from a boom of new theatres in Dublin, Smock Alley closed in 1789, becoming by turns a whisky store, a church and a Viking museum.

When the site was dug up in 2009, archaeologists found - amid the original brick and a wig curler belonging to an actor - clay pipes, oyster shells and wine bottles, suggesting a good time was had by all.

"Going to the theatre was an event. People enjoyed themselves, indulged," says Rosalinde.

Smock Alley Theatre reopened in 2012 with three performance spaces - the main space, a black box and the gothic 'Boys School'. It shares a director with the Gaiety School of Acting, Patrick Sutton, programming a lively array of touring shows and its own shows. Their acclaimed Waiting for Godot returns next week.

We might ask ourselves what is to love about a theatre that was built by and for the coloniser, a symbol of centuries-old oppression. One answer: they called it the Theatre Royal, we call it by its nickname, Smock Alley.

Waiting for Godot runs August 24-29 at Smock Alley Theatre, 7.30pm with a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm.

There are free tours an hour before each performance

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