For over forty years, a granite keystone engraved with lines by W. B. Yeats sat directly above the entrance of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, signalling its founder Mary O’Malley’s aspiration that this should be a poet’s theatre. Now that stone has found a new home inside the splendid, rebuilt playhouse beside the River Lagan, where the latest chapter in the Lyric’s history is about to begin.
“Look up in the Sun's eye and give/ What the exultant heart calls good/ That some new day may breed the best/ Because you gave, not what they would/ But the right twigs for an eagle's nest!” Artistic director Richard Croxford says that when he is showing visitors around, he often quotes the excerpt from the Yeats poem in full. “The eagle’s nest is a wonderful metaphor for this theatre,” he says. “It’s an extremely complex structure, where fledglings are born, learn to fly, spread their wings and leave. But as adult birds, they often return to the nest. I believe that we can set our sights towards the sun and provide ‘the right twigs’ for our own bricks and mortar version of the eagle’s nest.”
The new theatre is certainly a remarkable feat of design and construction, which eloquently translates the vision of Dublin architect John Tuomey (of O’Donnell and Tuomey) of the former site and its surroundings into a complex web of red brick, glass and timber. Its soaring six-storeys are topped by three jauntily tilted roofs, echoing the shape of the cargo boats that once sailed up the river and into the port of Belfast. The interior is a maze of open walkways and balconies, interlocking spaces and vast windows, through which can be glimpsed the myriad activities inside the theatre and in the ever-moving landscape of the world outside. In the glass-walled Long Hall, huge rust-red painted metal beams are crafted to resemble sculls, a salute to the crews of rowers, who regularly skim past and the River Lagan has found a significant place in the consciousness of the building and its occupants.
“It has a revitalising effect,” says Croxford. “Wherever you look, inside or out, the views are amazing and you can’t but feel inspired. The actors feel it too. Everyone has a spring in their step and all the people who’ve come in to audition have very evidently upped their game.”
The programme for the official opening on May 1st will include the first preview of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with a cast of twenty-two. As well as a gallery of big name actors, some young members of the Lyric Drama Studio have been given their first taste of working in the professional arena. “It’s an epic production for an epic occasion,” says Croxford. “We’re absolutely delighted that the cast is entirely Irish, with the majority of actors coming from the North. Alan Stanford is among them and Malcolm Adams, Catherine Cusack, Lalor Roddy, Roy Heayberd, Roma Tomelty, Niall Cusack, Michael Liebmann, Frankie McCafferty, Julia Dearden. And the director is simply one of the very best around.”
The man in question is Conall Morrison, an Armagh native. He declares it “a privilege and an honour to be invited back to take charge of this inaugural production of the new Lyric. It’s tremendous that Patrick O’Kane will be playing the lead role of John Proctor – a Belfast boy bringing it home for this special occasion. And Ruairi Conaghan, too, a lovely actor, who hasn’t been on stage here for some time. “Paddy [Patrick O’Kane] is the actor I’ve probably worked with most over the years. He played Proctor in a big outdoor production in Regent’s Park last summer. As you can imagine, we’ve had many long conversations over the past few months and I asked him if he still had something new to give to the role. He said he most certainly does. He’ll be bringing all the energy and intensity and intelligence for which he is so well known – and then some.
“That’s what’s needed at the centre of this huge play. It tells the story of an event, which happened long ago, yet it’s so modern, so much of our own time. You don’t have to go further than Pastor Jones burning a copy of the Koran. It’s a real bush fire of a play, a blow-torch, an earthquake. It starts off going at sixty miles per hour and is doing 180 mph before it crashes into the wall.”
Like Morrison, designer Sabine Dargent has worked on a number of productions at the old Lyric, winning an ESB/Irish Times Theatre Award for her set design for Ibsen’s Ghosts, directed by Morrison in 2003. She says that the stage and auditorium of the new building are “absolutely sympathetic" spaces. “The shape of the space and the stage are very important. The auditorium is lined with wood, which gives it a warm, intimate feeling. It is really beautiful. Without giving away any secrets, I’ve tried to echo that in the set. And the new technology, with the flying system and the trap doors, gives a designer lots to play with.
“In my mind was that I did not want the set to seem heavy. The writing is very light, very fast. The set should not overwhelm the play. And it was important to keep the relationship close between the stage and the audience. It’s a big challenge, a big responsibility so … yes, I hope we get it right.”
Morrison agrees that the architects have done a fine job of preserving one of the old theatre’s most treasured assets. “Whether through the theatrical nous of the people who built it, sheer luck or serendipity, it was a smashing performance space. The sightlines were excellent and the audience always felt close and connected to the action on the stage. They have managed to retain that. Actually, many of the ghosts of the old theatre are still very much present. It still carries that unmistakable spirit, that palpable sense of intimacy.”
The programme of highlights for the year ahead already contains a selection of treats and will be augmented as the months go by. They include the world premiere of an adaptation by Sean Foley of Francis Veber’s surreal comedy The Painkiller, with two high profile Lyric debut appearances by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon; a 30th anniversary revival of Martin Lynch’s Dockers, with an all-Northern cast; two family shows - The Jungle Book and the world premiere of Nick Lloyd-Webber’s first musical The Little Prince - both directed by Richard Croxford. Adrian Dunbar will direct and play the title role in Brendan at the Chelsea by Janet Behan, the first show in the Naughton Studio. This flexible space will be the theatre’s own crucible for developing and showcasing new writing and small scale performance.
Croxford acknowledges that, in the current climate, it will require careful programming to continue to meet public expectations while maintaining a balance between the new, the innovative, the eye-catching and the commercially successful. He says that while the theatre was relieved to receive a small uplift in its core funding from the NI Arts Council, it can no longer rely on ongoing support from the tried and tested public bodies. It has, therefore, appointed a development director, charged with investigating additional funding streams such as trusts, business partnerships, private donors and whatever else may be out there. The Northern Bank’s five-year sponsorship of the main stage, named in its honour, is an example of the possibilities.
Still, with venues such as the extended Grand Opera House, the refurbished Ulster Hall, the Waterfront Hall, the renovated Crescent Arts Centre and the revamped Ulster Museum firing on all cylinders, he says it’s a great time to be working in the arts in Belfast. And then, of course, there’s the ambitious purpose-built arts centre The MAC, formerly the Old Museum Arts Centre, due to open later in the year in the Cathedral Quarter. “We’re busting for The MAC to start up and will be looking to see what kind of things we can do together,” says Croxford. “We’ll be setting up co-productions with other companies and touring at least once a year. The more people are circulating around the arts sector in the city, the more things they will want to see. It’s good for us all. There is a real sense that our day has come.”
Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who also reviews for the Irish Times and The Stage.
The Crucible, directed by Conall Morrison, opens at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on 1 May.