Prince Edward Opened Coventry's Belgrade Theatre, Warwickshire Life
PUBLISHED: 23:35 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013
Restored, modernised and expanded, Coventry's Belgrade Theatre was visited by HRH Prince Edward in February when he officially opened the venue's new B2 auditorium, which was the centre piece of the recent £14m redevelopment project.
Restored, modernised and expanded, Coventry's Belgrade Theatre was visited by HRH Prince Edward in February when he officially opened the venue's new B2 auditorium, which was the centre piece of the recent 14m redevelopment project.
Jennie Madden looks at how The Belgrade is now aiming to reclaim its place as one of the country's top regional theatres.
The Belgrade Plaza, tucked inside Coventry's notorious ring road, will undoubtedly give a whole new feel to the city centre, boosting it with design-strong urban facilities that will boast two hotels, a casino, bars, offices, restaurants and apartments.
And at the heart of the Plaza is the Belgrade Theatre, renovated and expanded and now forging ahead with its 'programme extraordinaire'. This programme is both ambitious and versatile, taking a pioneering role in theatre performance rather than follow safer traditional routes of crowd-pulling classics.
But then the Belgrade has a history of being at the forefront. When the original Theatre was built in 1958 it reflected the phenomenal kick-back optimism and energy that followed the city's devastation during the war. It was sleekly designed and well-equipped; considerably 'go-ahead' compared with other provincial theatres.
The Belgrade served its local community with great success for many years and was considered one of UK's major regional producing theatres. It has seen many a famous thespian on stage, including Michael Crawford, renowned for playing Frank Spencer on TV and the lead in 'Phantom of the Opera'. Fellow Phantom Dave Willets made his first professional break at the Belgrade. Ian McKellen and Leonard Rossiter also started their professional careers here.
By the turn of the century, however, audiences had dwindled and only recently, since the completion of a multi-million pound refurbishment combined with the appointment of a progressive artistic director, Hamish Glen, has its resurgence become evident.
The theatre is a Grade II listed building so its key features have been restored to their former glory and brought into context with today's upbeat urban style. These, together with the creation of a brand new seven storey building, is the impressive work of architects Stanton Williams, whose award-winning projects have included the refurbishment of the Royal National Theatre in London and The Gas Hall in Birmingham.
A new, double height, entrance foyer fronts the original smaller one and houses a modern ticket counter with several customer points opposite a smart red bar. The Belgrade was one of the first theatres to encourage customers to use the foyer for a rendez-vous area, not simply for its ticket booths. The new space brings this concept a stage further by dramatically increasing its size and facilities. Wall mounted plasma screens display performance information or documentary style programmes on the shows themselves.
In the stairwells, the iconic 1950's chandeliers, now completely re-brassed and rewired, hang in their splendour. Originally designed by German sculptor and industrial designer, Bernard Schottlander, they were commissioned by the local authority giving us a clear example of the post-war ethos of reconciliation and internationalism.
A large abstract mosaic occupies much of the wall space both to the ground floor and first floor. Again an original feature, this work of art was mostly hidden over recent decades since an earlier partial refurbishment but uncovered in the latest modernisation of the building. Mosaic designer Martin Froy, who has works in the Tate, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was commissioned by the city and the Arts Council in a joint venture established in 1953 by the Arts Council to encourage collaboration between artists and architects of new public buildings. The work comprises around 300,000 Swedish and Italian glass and ceramic tiles. They were arranged by the artist firstly in a warehouse in Surrey, where they were numbered, then transported to Coventry to be pasted into place. The mosaic symbolises the four seasons but the artist saw more, visualising his work as a decorative box encasing the main theatre which he considered to be the 'jewel' inside the box.
The revamp has, structurally, little changed the main theatre but an improved ventilation system will add to audience comfort and many will be glad of the new lifts. Inside, the feature ceiling made from a gift of beechwood from the Yugoslav city of Belgrade is not only a remarkable feature but also a further reminder of post-war international relations. The theatre is of course named after this city in acknowledgement of its generosity.
The innovative B2 studio is a revelation to both actors and audiences. It creates a state of the art space with extra-ordinary flexibility exemplified by a floor section which can either be part of the stage or opened up to increase audience seating. The whole area is constructed in metal, concrete and wood - quite befitting to a city which has held such a prestigious past in the manufacturing industries.
Trevor Nunn, head of the National Theatre, began his theatre career at the Belgrade as a trainee director in the sixties, so it is a real coup for the Belgrade to be able to welcome him back in January when he directed a newly commissioned version of 'Scenes from a Marriage' by Ingmar Bergman in B2.
While new dressing rooms are delighting actors, at the very top of the seven floor building is a rehearsal suite, a new facility which is a most exciting space for the theatre. Already the theatre has forged links with local businesses both with a Director's Club and also offering several levels of Corporate Membership to the new facility.
Coventry now boasts one of the most modern theatres in the UK and with a pioneering arts programme in place, local arts lovers need to look sharp to get seated before out of county audiences realize its value both in terms of accessibility, affordability and quality.
Box Office: tel 024 7655 3055 or www.belgrade.co.uk