Lyric Theatre sets scene for new Belfast

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Curtains up as the Lyric in Belfast reopens to the fanfare of heartfelt prayers, hopes and dreams for the ‘living, breathing monument', writes GERRY MORIARTYNorthern Editor

BELFAST’S IMPOSING Lagan river-fronted, reinstated Lyric Theatre was officially opened last night with playwright Brian Friel offering what he called “secular prayers” that it would become a “warm house, a welcoming house” and a “sacred place”.

Minutes before the new theatre kicked into life with a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Friel said he hoped the new Lyric would find voice “where the spiritual has gone silent or is neglected” and that it would be “impatient” of all that was conventional or fashionable.

Setting the Lyric on its new adventure, he said: “This must become a laboratory for scrutinising untried thoughts and practices. I pray that this house never forgets that it is a playhouse, a house of play, and that laughter and merry-making and wit and comedy and raucous fun and ordinary giddiness and silly giggling may be accommodated here and indeed encouraged because a solemn theatre is a dead theatre.”

He prayed that Belfast would “reap the rewards” of sustaining such a theatre, finally offering a “heartfelt prayer for all the creative people who will work here in the coming decades”.

Friel added: “I pray that they find their reward in putting us in touch again with our deepest souls, of lifting us up again to those neglected values that we need to embrace if we are to be fully human. I solemnly pray that they will indeed find great, great reward in that unique venture. Amen.”

Belfast was so proud of the new theatre, which replaced the old Lyric built on the same site in 1971, that it had two openings at the weekend, the “official” black-tie gala opening last night, and an event on Saturday – with more celebrations to come.

Actor Simon Callow, who was at both events, said it was a “world-beating theatre”. He was reluctant to use the word but the new Lyric truly was an “iconic” building, he added. On first sight of the large angular red-brick building looking onto the river Lagan in the heart of Stranmillis, close to Queen’s University, he was struck by the “confidence” of the structure, and how its “panache took my breath away”.

“This building expresses a new Belfast which is alert, fresh, original, ready to take on the world,” said Callow.

The Lyric has two auditoriums, the Northern Bank-sponsored main theatre which holds 389 and the Naughton Studio which can seat up to 150, with Glen Dimplex owner Martin Naughton and his wife Carmel contributing

£1 million for this latter facility. It also has spacious dressing rooms. rehearsal space, a cafe and bars.

On Saturday, chief architect John Tuomey of Dublin-based firm O’Donnell+Tuomey said, “Today is one of the days of my life.” He said it was now time for the building to “fend for itself in the world” as it rose “out of the deep background of Belfast’s urban architecture, between brick streets and tall trees, reflected in the river, belonging in its place”.

The patron of the Lyric, Liam Neeson, was unable to attend events but through friend and fellow actor Adrian Dunbar sent words of congratulations. “You have taken the Lyric from a dream to a concrete idea, to a physical manifestation,” he said. “May it be a living, breathing monument to and for the spirit of the people of Northern Ireland.”

The chairman of the Lyric, the BBC current affairs journalist Mark Carruthers, said the “Lyric was back, bigger and better than anyone dared to imagine” and would “offer more people than ever before the thrilling experience of live theatre”. He said the theatre was never just about “bricks and mortar”; it was always about a “bigger vision” – it was a “unifying force, a new Lyric in a new Northern Ireland”.

Rosalie Flanagan, permanent secretary of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which provided £9.5 million of the £18.1 million cost of the building, recalled that her first visit to the old Lyric was in 1971 to see Romeo and Juliet, and how it “kept going right through the dark days” of the Troubles.

The Lyric opened debt-free with some £6 million in private donations. And after all the fundraising, it still had enough to buy a Steinway piano. It was on this pianist Barry Douglas played pieces by Chopin and Debussy and finally his own wonderful improvisation on My Lagan Love.

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