Sunday 23 August 2009

The latest act at Smock Alley

ARCHAEOLOGY IS RARELY used for marketing purposes, but there has been such excitement about the discovery of remnants of Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre that promoter Patrick Sutton is shamelessly employing it as a fund-raising tool to “reinstate” this famous playhouse on its original site, writes FRANK McDONALD Environment Editor

Reinstatement would be impossible, however, as there are three different versions of Smock Alley. The largest and most complete is the shell of SS Michael and John’s Church, where archaeologist Linzi Simpson and her team have unearthed the base walls of two earlier theatres, the oldest dating from 1662.

They have found pieces of mosaic flooring, clay pipes, wig curlers and oyster shells, all testifying to the importance of the theatre in Dublin life, but most importantly the physical evidence showing where the earlier playhouses were located. And Sutton, who is director of the Smock Alley Project, is bowled over by it all.

SMOCK ALLEY WAS only the second theatre to be licensed in Dublin after the restoration of King Charles II (the first was located in Werburgh Street). In one form or another, it continued attracting theatregoers throughout the 18th century – with no less than four separate entrances for different social classes.

All the great actors of the era, including David Garrick and Peg Woffington, performed in Smock Alley, frequently to raucous audiences whose members smoked thin clay pipes, ate lots of oysters and quite possibly threw the shells at actors who incurred their disapproval.

Riots were not uncommon.

“Playgoing in 18th-century Ireland was, at the best of times, a noisy, boisterous contact sport, a public bear pit in which servants, parliamentarians, butchers, Trinity students, haberdashers and ‘ladies of quality’ debated art, sex, politics and fashion,” according to Dr Chris Morash of NUI Maynooth.

In his book, A History of Irish Theatre , 1601-2000 , he brings Smock Alley to life in a series of colourful vignettes that capture the public mood perfectly at different times.

“You could become completely addicted to historical accounts of it in the 18th century – all the duels and the riots,” says archaeologist Linzi Simpson. Amid the damp soil, almost bog-like to walk on because of seepage from the River Liffey, she points to the red-brick wall that survives from the original theatre and how it is bisected by the curved stone wall of the second Smock Alley, forming a curious double-horseshoe shape, all within the shell of the third.

It was this theatre, built in 1735, that later became a mere whiskey store and was acquired for conversion into the first purpose-built Catholic church in Dublin in 1812. Only its facades to Lower Exchange Street on the riverfront and Essex Street West to the rear were altered for church use.

ACCORDING TO SIMPSON , who works with archaeological consultants Margaret Gowen and Co Ltd, the roof was raised to accommodate a very fine Regency Gothic ceiling for the new church.

This was one of the features that conservationists managed to save when the building was converted for the ill-fated Viking Adventure centre. This extravagant project by Temple Bar Properties, costing nearly £6 million (€7.7 million), also incorporated the adjoining boys’ and girls’ schools, west and east of the church, respectively. The Gothic-style boys’ school was hollowed out completely to provide a circulation area between levels of the indoor Viking theme park.

At the time, in the mid-1990s, architects Gilroy McMahon argued that their interventions in the former church and school buildings were “totally reversible” – including the insertion of an intermediate floor that obliterated any sense of the impressive volume of SS Michael and John’s and drew visitors too close to its ceiling.

The gallery of the church was taken out, although pledges were made that it would be salvaged and stored for future use, if required.

Nearly 15 years later, nobody seems to know where it is, or whether any of it still exists. Like so many other elements of old Dublin, about which similar promises were made, it has disappeared.

After Dublin Tourism’s ill-fated Viking Adventure closed in 2002, Temple Bar Properties sought proposals for the complex. The one eventually approved came from Smock Alley Ltd, which proposed reinstating the theatre use – with limited bar facilities – and providing a new premises for the Gaiety School of Acting.

Patrick Sutton, who is also director of the Gaiety School of Acting, says the second phase of his plans for Smock Alley would involve carving out a U-shaped balcony from the concrete intermediate floor inserted in the mid-1990s; the removal of much of this floor would at least reinstate the volume, if not the fabric, of the building.

But the second phase is critically dependent on raising sufficient money – €8 million altogether, of which something over €4 million has been banked so far. This funding gap means that the offensive intermediate floor would be retained in its entirety, with a theatre slotted in underneath as an interim arrangement.

“The plans are to reinstate – for Dublin, Ireland and the world – the Smock Alley Theatre on its original site,” Sutton says. “We’ve tracked the DNA of the building, the heart and soul of what we have here, and fully realise its international significance. But if you ask if we’ll be doing a mock-up, the answer is no – nor should we be.” It can’t, in any case, be a reinstatement of the theatre itself, since there are three versions to choose from and not a single drawing that survives – other than the footprint on John Rocque’s 1756 plot-by-plot map of Dublin, on which it is shown as the Theatre Royal. All that can be reinstated, therefore, is the original use.

‘THIS PLACE HAS no business becoming anything other than what it’s going to become,” Sutton says emphatically. “We’re on a journey here and we’ve had good support, even in the current economic climate.” The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism has put up €3.8 million, and this has been supplemented by private donors.

“We’re moving forward to complete phase one by the end of 2010, creating a performance space by putting a temporary slab over the archaeological layers,” he explains. In the longer term, assuming more money can be raised, it may be possible to incorporate glazed panels in the floor, through which these layers can be seen.

Just back from the US, Sutton has registered the Smock Alley Foundation in Delaware as a vehicle to raise tax-deductible donations from Irish-Americans who want to “put something back into the homeland”. He says he’ll “go over with a clay pipe, red brick and mosaic from Smock Alley and touch them for it”.

His plans for the former boys’ school is to turn its shell into “potentially one of the finest venues in the country” – certainly, the most unusual. It would be a theatre without any seats; instead, the audience would be standing on the gently-rising ramps, leaning on the guard-rails for support – much like Dublin GAA supporters on Hill 16.

The former girls’ school, which currently houses the Cultivate Centre (which is moving), is to be renovated as a new home for the Gaiety School of Acting – now restyled as the National Theatre School of Ireland – which is currently based in Meeting House Square; sadly, this would remove the square’s only lively weekday use.

Like Harry Crosbie, Sutton believes that people want to be entertained during a recession. He wants to “stir things up”, just as the Sheridan brothers did in the Project Arts Centre during the 1980s. And one of the things he finds so compelling about Smock Alley is that “you can smell the soul of theatre in this place”.

Smock Alley Evolution Of A Building

1662 First Smock Alley Theatre opens on Essex Street West

1670: Original building collapses and is replaced by larger horseshoe-shaped theatre

1735 Third theatre built on the same site

1812 Building converted to SS Michael and John’s Church

1829 Church is the first in Dublin to ring its bells for Catholic Emancipation

1988 Church closed by the Archdiocese of Dublin

1991 Property acquired by Temple Bar Properties (TBP)

1995 Church and its two schools converted to Viking Adventure

2002 Viking Adventure closes

2003 TBP (now Temple Bar Cultural Trust) seeks proposals for use of complex

2005 Proposal by Smock Alley Ltd to convert the church into a theatre and provide premises for Gaiety School of Acting approved

2008 An Bord Pleanála confirms Dublin City Council’s decision to grant planning permission for the proposed development.

Frank McDonald
Irish Times

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