In this extract from new book London Theatres, legendary actor Sir Mark Rylance explains why circular auditoriums hark back to a primeval story-telling tradition

Sir Mark Rylance
The Novello Theatre foyer

In a theatre you need to hear the truth, while in a cinema you need to see it.

People don’t realise the importance of the wonderful voice in the appeal of a successful film actor like George Clooney, for instance, because one is so captivated by the expression of thought and emotion in his eyes. But, in a theatre, no one can get as close as a camera, many are more than ten rows away, so the actors’ eyes are distant. The thought and emotion need to be heard in the voice.

Also, when many of the beautiful theatres in London were built, theatrical lighting was far less powerful than it is today. You will see that most lighting fixtures, sockets, brackets and poles, are not part of the original design. Nowadays they even crowd out the all-important private boxes that connect the auditorium with the stage. Footlights and such would have given some visual dominance to the stage, but nothing like the blazing stage we now witness, or the darkened auditoriums.

This is why I object to the storing of equipment in the boxes of West End theatres rather than people, and why I have it in my contract that the boxes must be used for the audience. The circle should remain unbroken.

Some of these theatres will have employed gaslight, which, I presume, while an audience was present, could only be turned down, never extinguished. Actors employed make-up to strengthen their facial expressions, but really, until the designer Edward Gordon Craig added a third dimension to scenery, there was only so much an actor could visually do in front of a painted canvas. So we clap our hands and make funny noises when we first walk out onto a stage to check the acoustics. I also look up at the ceiling.

In my experience, the best of these old theatres always have some circular device in their ornate ceiling. I once toured Hamlet to 11 different cities in Britain playing all the old theatres. I learned to look up as soon as I arrived on Monday morning and when I saw a circular pattern in the ceiling above the auditorium, I knew we would be all right that week.

If there wasn’t one, it wasn’t just that the acoustics were probably problematic, I knew it was going to be harder to convince the audience that they were in the same room with us. We would be unconsciously perceived to be masters at the head of the table and they passive diners down the sides. I feel the greatest theatres always have the irrational curve of a circle in their seating and design and I have a theory why.

The Barbican auditorium, an example of a modern theatre

Most years I go walking in the mountains with my brother and a group of friends. When we light a fire at sunset, we roll rocks around to sit on and intuitively create the earliest story-telling theatre known to man. The centre is where the heat is and that heat spreads fairly to each walker sat round in a circle. Someone within the circle holds the attention and passes it easily to another in the red glow of the flames.

I love how many of these West End theatres also choose red for the colour of their seats, as if conscious of their great grandfather, the primeval fire! Of course, they are not theatres in the round such as the Circle in the Square of New York or The Globe of Southwark. They are not even the semi-circle of a Greek amphitheatre, such as the Olivier at the National Theatre, but they haven’t forgotten their past.

I learnt the most about how to play these theatres from Giles Havergal, who gave me my first job at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and from my time at the newest old theatre in this book, Shakespeare’s Globe. On most evenings, Giles instinctively stood at the front of his theatre with the humblest employees, the ticket-takers, welcoming the audience as if they were part of his company.

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Everything was contained within that one old building, and the crown touched the feet so to speak; the governor walked amongst us, all of us, knew us all by name. Mr Havergal was the finest director of a theatre I have ever encountered -- because he made a true circle of the audience and artists, inspired, I propose, by the architecture of his old theatre.

Shakespeare’s theatre inspired me alike, on stage as well as off. Unable to turn off the sun in the daytime I saw my audience for the first time. Saw, for the most part, their innocence and willingness for the play. Thrust into the middle of the circle in an age before steel allowed the architects to throw forward the galleries and push the actors behind a proscenium.

I realised this was the single most important lesson I have ever learnt. I must play with the audience, not at them, for them or to them… with them, as fellow players. I was part of a circle, a story-telling circle. This is why I object to the storing of equipment in the boxes of West End theatres rather than people, and why I have it in my contract that the boxes must be used for the audience. The circle should remain unbroken.

Do you notice the straight lines of rationality creeping into the modern auditoriums, the removal of boxes and curved rows of seats? If a young Hamlet looks up in search of a circular design in the heavens in these, he sees nothing but technology.

The old theatres celebrated the audience. The gaslights were never extinguished and no stage set could match the ornate and divinely inspired decoration of the auditorium. I want to protect these architectural treasures of the nation. We have lost so many. I hope we will lose no more and when we build anew, we will consider the designs by firelight.

London Theatres by Michael Coveney and Peter Dazeley, published by Frances Lincoln, is available now for £30

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