London is currently witness to a curious collision of arts. The Almeida Theatre Company has chosen the derelict Gainsborough Film Studios to present Shakespeare's Richard II and Coriolanus in rep this summer. Two great plays about power, staged in a venue that launched one of the most powerful careers in English cinema history. Alfred Hitchcock was working here in the captioning office when he was offered his first chance to direct. But the resonances of this location go further than the mysteries of Mr. Hitchcock, whose Gainsborough credits include The Lodger and The Lady Vanishes.
Gainsborough Studios inhabits Shoreditch, a drab, shabby district at the Eastern, and ancient, end of London. Formerly the heart of the old city, Shoreditch was once the epitome of suspense, riddled with narrow streets and swirling mists so beloved of the great director. The studios are also barely half a mile from Shakespeare's first theatre. It's enough to raise the hairs on anyone's neck, even the cold-blooded Bolingbroke.
The first week in April saw the opening night to what has been an ambitious project by any measure. The Almeida Theatre Company converted the shell of the studios, closed 50 years ago, in just five months, as technical manager Paul Skelton explains. "The space became known to us about a year ago, with serious work commencing last October." Invest in Hackney, a regeneration agency for the borough, brought the site to the attention of the Almeida's production coordinator, Kevin Fitzmaurice.
For the Almeida's purposes the two-story-high building has undergone radical internal restructuring to create a theatre-sized hall (pictured). "Six weeks ago it was still a complete building site," said Skelton in spring. To accommodate three tiers of seating, the mid-floor of the studios has been completely removed, a 66'x33' (20x10m) concrete stage built, and at the same time, a temporary lighting grid has been installed above by Summit Steel. Initially there was talk of a regular slung truss, but the existing steel work positioned the grid slightly low, and was considered visually intrusive. "In consultation with LD Mark Henderson and Paul Brown the designer, we decided to put the grid actually in the roof." Skelton had used Summit before--"we talked through what we wanted and they designed what we now have and it works really well." The completed grid is made up of five parallel trusses all between 33' and 43' (10-13m) long, running up and down the stage plus three cross-stage trusses used as access walkways sitting on top. Each walkway is decked and fitted with handrails and kickboards.
Stage Electrics is the main electrical contractor for the project, installing all power distro and Strand LD90 dimmers, the London Electricity Board kindly running in a three-phase 400A supply (at 240V a leg) which avoided the need for a generator, much to Skelton's relief. While much of the lighting kit is from the Almeida's existing stocks, some is hired from White Light, and some is new, the company taking early advantage of lottery money allocated for a refit at its home base, scheduled to begin next February (with the planned demolition of the Gainsborough, the lighting equipment will find its way back to the Almeida Theatre in Islington).
Henderson found the conversion so complete that he's been able to approach lighting as with any normal theatre environment, albeit one without flying, the grid being fixed by necessity of its position. "I've gone for lots of profiles [Strand and ETC Source Fours] and a lot of 5kWs," which must feel entirely at home in the studios. He also started by installing lots of PARs, but has since pared them down, finding the back wall, an integral part of Brown's design, quite pale and the reflected light prone to swamping the stage.
His theme runs from warm golden through to icy gray hues for Richard II; Coriolanus was still in development at press time, but Henderson intends to contrast his naturalistic approach to Richard by exploiting the architectural features of the stage for Coriolanus. The show's design makes full use of the building, including a large fissure that has been purposely cut into the back wall from floor to ceiling. Symbolic of the divisions that characterize the two dramas, it's an opportunity for dramatic backlight Henderson does not ignore.
Richard II has been performed since March 30; Coriolanus joins in repertoire on June 1. Both plays star Ralph Fiennes in the title roles. Tragically, they have to close August 5 [although they are transferring to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September], and the Almeida has to vacate the building two weeks later, when demolition begins--the site has been earmarked for the development of luxury apartments. 'Twas ever thus.