A dramatic crucible takes shape


Belfast gets its new Lyric Theatre in May. The building emerging by the Lagan has been designed to reflect both the Lyric’s role as a producing theatre and the strong sense of family among its staff, writes JANE COYLE

ON A BRIGHT September morning in 2009 motorists and pedestrians progressing down Ridgeway Street in Belfast could be excused for doing double takes at the unusual sight of a well-dressed group of people seated on rows of white plastic chairs in the middle of a building site, listening to poetry and cello music. Sharp-eyed people-spotters may have spied the poets Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, the singer Brian Kennedy, the actors James Nesbitt and Conleth Hill, the cellist Neil Martin and many other prominent artists. Among them was Conor O’Malley, son of Pearse and Mary O’Malley, who, in the 1950s, founded the Lyric Players Theatre in a converted stable block at their home in the leafy south Belfast suburbs.

In 1965 Heaney, then a budding young poet, was called on to write some lines to commemorate the laying of the foundation stone of a purpose-built theatre upstream from Queen’s University. Now a stanza from the poem has been engraved in sandstone to mark the entrance to the spectacular new Lyric Theatre, which is due to open in May.

At the unveiling of that threshold stone, 15 months ago, Longley recalled his “decades of plays, hundreds of epiphanies, thousands of hours of fun and enlightenment” at the Lyric. In a message read by the actor Geraldine Hughes, Brian Friel wrote of a theatre as “a home of miracles and revelations” and observed that the building of a new theatre in times like these is “an act of fortitude and a gesture of faith in your community”. Then Heaney rose to read Peter Street at Bankside, the poem, written 44 years previously, whose closing lines will mark the next phase.

I dedicate to speech, to pomp and show,

This playhouse re-erected for the players.

I set my saw and chisel in the wood

To joint and panel solid metaphors:

The walls a circle, the stage under a hood –

Here all the world’s an act, a word, an echo.

Its title derives from a London carpenter called Peter Street, who worked on the construction of the Globe Theatre beside the Thames, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. It has fallen to O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects, in Dublin, to pick up the gauntlet laid down, through Heaney’s words, in Elizabethan England in designing for 21st-century Ireland a playhouse that will again be home to enlightenment and epiphanies.

The practice was the winner of an open competition organised by the Lyric in 2003. As John Tuomey explains, the key elements of its original pitch were the same then as now. “Our motto was, and remains, ‘a house for lyric’,” he says. “We were particularly impressed by two things: the fact that the Lyric is a producing theatre and by the strong sense of family that exists there. Whether you’re a director, an administrator, a member of staff in the box office or the maintenance team, everyone has that feeling that ‘we work in theatre’.

“We thought it would be interesting to move away from the traditional concept of front of house and back of house and create a sense of overlapping functions and adjacencies. We wanted to create a feeling of intensity, so that the moment you come inside you are straight in there, with glimpses of what is going on around and above you. You should immediately feel wrapped up in the activity of the building.”

Approaching on foot along the Lagan embankment, Tuomey’s vision, stripped of its scaffolding, is an impressive sight. Its angular brick bulk, topped by three distinctive sloping roofs, glows russet in the low winter sun, shrouded in the delicately etched trees that line the river.

“Whichever way you come at it, it looks amazing,” says Ciaran McAuley, the theatre’s chief executive, lifting his camera to snap yet another image of the striking building of which they are all clearly so proud. He points out the way the architects have taken the cramped, unaccommodating original site and turned it into a space that now appears vast and embracing. “The grounds are to be landscaped and integrated with the building,” he continues. “The way that is being done reflects John Tuomey and his team’s remarkable attention to detail. He has insisted that even the angles of the pathways need to be minutely adjusted to be complementary with the angles of the design.

“There is strong emphasis on the use of natural light, with the glass-walled Long Hall running the length of the first floor and looking out over the river. There is a roof terrace and balcony on the top floor, and the rehearsal room and Naughton Studio have large windows, so that those inside and outside the building can share in their respective activities. The main auditorium is lined with iroko wood and is a really impressive space. And I’m told that there are something like 33 different styles of brick in the construction, all specially fired so that each one is complete and uncut.”

When the prospect of a rebuilt Lyric was being discussed, there was much debate about whether it should remain on Ridgeway Street or move into the centre of the city. Tuomey acknowledges that the old site certainly had its drawbacks but that the challenge it presented reinforced his creative philosophy that the constraints that bind you set you free.

“The site offered a number of possibilities, notwithstanding that it is very small, restricted, of irregular shape and bordered by adjoining buildings. But around it is a grid of brick streets which comes down to the Lagan, then lets go into a line of trees and woodland. The river meanders past with wonderful reflections. The geometry and structure of what we’ve created are an echo of what Belfast feels like. It strikes me as an angular city, not too smooth, with many beautiful Victorian brick and sandstone buildings. There are three different parts to the building: the main auditorium, the studio and the rehearsal room – what I think of as the crucible. We have created three distinct identities for the spaces. Each has a different hat on. The aim is to express complexity and dramatic possibilities.”

The architects have been mindful of retaining one element of the old theatre that was particularly dear to its audiences. “The old auditorium held 300 people; the new one will hold around 390,” says Tuomey. “We were keen to retain that feeling of intimacy, of being close to the drama and movement of the production itself. The science of theatre architecture is very complex. Acoustics and lighting have conflicting requirements, in that the lighting has to go straight on to the stage but the voices on the stage have to come straight out into the audience. We’ve consulted with acousticians and lighting specialists and technicians to make sure those challenges are met.

“But any building, no matter how well it is designed, is only as good as its construction. I’m particularly happy with the way this is being built by the Gilbert-Ash team and everyone involved. All the members of the team, whether they work on the stonework, the concrete, the joinery or the timber lining of the auditorium, have taken real pride in their work. It has not been hastily done, and the result is beautiful craftsmanship which will endure a long time.”

McAuley acknowledges the marathon eight-year task of raising the £18 million (€21 million) needed to make the dream a reality. He pays tribute to the Lyric’s development team, the tireless support of the Lyric’s patron, Liam Neeson, and the backing of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and Belfast City Council, as well as to Northern Bank, which has just weighed in as principal sponsor of the main stage, and to Martin and Carmel Naughton, whose £1 million donation represents not just a leap of faith in the project but the largest philanthropic gift ever made to an arts venue in Ireland.

“We have created something iconic for the skyline of south Belfast,” says McAuley. “We’re filled with a tremendous sense of anticipation and excitement, a feeling that we’re almost there. But there’s trepidation, too, as we shoulder the onerous task of preserving the fond memories of the wider Lyric family and carrying the tradition and heritage and legacy of the old theatre into the future.”