Saturday 21 September 2019

Second act for old theatre

Team unearths relics of former city playhouse

Archaeologist Ciara Burke holds a column found in the foundations of
the 17th century Smock Alley Theatre, in Dublin
Archaeologist Ciara Burke holds a column found in the foundations of the 17th century Smock Alley Theatre, in Dublin

Allison Bray

A FASCINATING glimpse into Ireland's theatrical past was unearthed yesterday after excavators found the original walls of an ancient theatre and other artefacts dating back to the 1600s.

Archaeological excavators were stunned to find the original foundations of the former Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin's Temple Bar intact yesterday.

They have been excavating the site -- most recently home to the Viking Adventure Centre on Essex Street -- for the past three weeks as part of an €7.2m project to reinstate the theatre on its original site, known as Smoke Alley when it was built in 1662.

The theatre was the first Dublin playhouse built after the Restoration and was the home of the Theatre Royal up to 1759 after being rebuilt in 1700 and again in 1735.

It was demolished in 1813 to build the Church of St Michael and St John and the site has been vacant for the past few years since the demise of the Viking Adventure Centre. Smock Alley Theatre, in conjunction with the Gaiety School of Acting, received a €3.8m grant from the Department of Arts Sport and Tourism to rebuild the theatre on its original site. The remainder of the funding will come through private donations.

Horseshoe

Smock Alley Theatre director Patrick Sutton said leading archaeologists Margaret Gowan and Lindzi Simpson got more than they bargained for when excavators exposed the walls of the original theatre's horseshoe-shaped ampitheatre as well as the theatres' other incarnations in 1700 and 1735 after digging about two feet down.

"We didn't expect to find the walls of the original three theatres but through this scraping away we unearthed the three lives of the theatres. It's a great day for the country and the world history of theatre," he told the Irish Independent.

"They couldn't even rebuild the Globe on its original site," he said of Shakespeare's London theatre.

They also unearthed some fascinating artefacts including a ceramic curler used by one of the actresses, pieces of the original mosaic floor tiling, a broken wine bottle and oyster shells left behind by theatre patrons who snacked on oysters during performances.

The theatre staged various Shakespearean productions during its lifespan and hosted some of the most renowned playwrights and actors of the day, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his actor-father Thomas Sheridan, Shakepearean actor David Garrick, Thomas Elrington and Joseph Ashbury. It also shared performances with London's Covent Garden.

Hollywood actor Liam Neeson has endorsed the regeneration project as the patron of the Gaiety School of Acting.

"I am particularly excited about this project," he said. "For the school to rebuild a theatre on the site of the original 1662 Smock Alley is inspirational. For it to be a resource for the theatre community as a whole is an added bonus."

The theatre is due for completion by 2012 and will feature the original walls as a backdrop to a modern stage.

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