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Her Majesty's Theatre remixes Art Nouveau style for a new era

Chris Oaten

Two years and a whole lot of steel later, the curtains have finally been raised on Her Majesty’s Theatre’s $66 million overhaul. Essentially everything but the walls might be new, but its designers have held the theatre’s 107-year history close.

“I’ve always loved the theatre – I take my granny,” Zoë King, director of COX Architects, tells The Adelaide Review. “The one thing about the old Her Majesty’s Theatre, which was quite evident to me as a patron, was that when I would take my nan she couldn’t actually get in and out of the seats – it became impossible for her to go see a show. She commented to me once that she and her friends ‘couldn’t go because the seats are too tight, there’s too many stairs, and there’s not enough amenity’.

“The 1978 refurbishment didn’t really cater for accessibility,” she explains. “One of the major flaws for anyone with a disability, including performers, was that they couldn’t actually get up the front steps. One of our prime design moves was making sure that we brought the theatre back to the ground, and that anyone could enter it, and it was inclusive and accessible for all.”

Originally completed in 1913, Her Majesty’s Theatre was one in a national chain of vaudeville theatres under the Tivoli banner. Contemporary newspaper accounts of the New Tivoli Theatre’s opening in September 1913 gushed of its “sumptuous scale”, with the Daily Herald writing that “there is no superior house of entertainment in any part of Australia”, with a 2300-person capacity across three tiers that would avoid “the disappointment that has frequently been caused to patrons” at the Tivoli’s previous, smaller premises on King William Street.

The theatre has undergone many name changes, renovations and refurbishments since, and managed to scrape through the television-induced death of the vaudeville circuit to emerge as the last ex-Tivoli theatre left standing in Australia.

It’s this sense of history, King says, that guided the redevelopment from the ground up. “Before we even start to think about what the design will be, we really go deep into researching a site,” she says.  “We uncovered the original 1913 plans, which actually informed the auditorium designs; the original plans, and the original sections that were hand drawn, had this beautiful Art Nouveau curve to the balcony, and we found another image from the first theatre performance in 1913 with the whole audience looking back to the balcony. Those plans and that image really gave us an opportunity to think, ‘what could this space be in a reinterpreted, contemporary form?’”

Opening night of the New Tivoli Theatre in 1913
Chris Oaten
The new theatre presents a contemporary response to the original layout

And it certainly has been a from the ground up sort of project, with the $66-million build courting consternation from some quarters as the theatre’s original 1913 façade was braced by titanic steel beams and its insides thoroughly gutted. This, it seemed, would be an everything-but-the-face lift for the firm behind such high-profile projects as Adelaide Botanic High School and the Adelaide Oval redevelopment.

“We had many comments like ‘wow I had no idea you were actually gutting the whole building,’ and ‘it looks like a Hollywood prop’, just this façade sitting there and a gaping hole in the ground,” she admits. “I think people thought it was a restoration project – when it clearly is not a restoration. The primary aim was to make Her Majesty’s a viable venue for commercial touring shows.”

To meet those technical requirements on stage and behind it, the Festival Centre Trust made the $2 million acquisition of the land adjacent to the theatre for a new annex that would house the new venue’s three bars, bathrooms and other amenities, allowing the COX team to cram as much as they could into the original theatre’s footprint.

State Library of South Australia B 792
The original New Tivoli Theatre in 1913

Chris Oaten
The new Her Majesty’s in 2020
The breeze block 'signature wall' of the original building was carefully preserved and reconstructed
Chris Oaten
"These beautiful spiral staircases that curve gracefully and fall to the floor – like a pair of ribbons from a ballet slipper," says architect Zoë King
Chris Oaten
The new theatre foyer features a bar on each level
Chris Oaten
Inside the new theatre's 1400-capacity auditorium
Chris Oaten
The chorus dressing room
Chris Oaten
The view from under the staircases
Chris Oaten
The new backstage rehearsal room mirrors the footprint of the stage
Chris Oaten

“The back of house provides a whole new multi- storey facility that supports a performance during and after the show, including a rehearsal room that is the same extent of the stage. Which is quite unheard of, and an incredible feat to get that in the back of house area.”

“There were some very tricky structural gymnastics that we had to do to ensure that not only did the original façade stand up, but to insert the new auditorium space and all the structure, the rigging and technical requirements. It was an incredible achievement.”

Despite the scale of the overhaul, Zoe and the team worked to ensure the new Her Majesty’s was spiritually, if not physically, in step with the theatre’s century-long history. “The Festival Centre had actually salvaged some of the original 1913 building components from the demolition; one was a pressed metal detail which had this incredible, Aztec-inspired pattern somewhere in between Art Deco and Art Nouveau. When the building was designed it sort of bridged the two periods, really.”

“It was important for us to then somehow deconstruct those elements, and let them inform the new design,” she says. “Essentially, we’ve taken two or three elements from the original interiors, and then incorporated them into contemporary patterns and forms that really leaned heavily on that original Art Nouveau curve. It’s informed not just the auditorium, but these beautiful spiral staircases that curve gracefully and fall to the floor – like a pair of ribbons from a ballet slipper.”

While the theatre was due to open in June with the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s centrepiece Six The Musical, COVID-19 restrictions mean the stage will instead be broken in with a limited, intimate season of Slingsby Theatre’s The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy from 23 – 27 June.

Despite this low-key opening, it’s hoped that the new 1400-seat capacity seat will eventually recapture the scale and excitement of those early, pre-war performances, when a night at the theatre was the best form of entertainment in town.

Of course, just when that will happen is anyone’s guess.

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.

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