As we ease into the new year, most of us around the globe are still under Covid restrictions of some sort – a cloud that is shifting only very slowly at the moment.
A simple trip to the theatre, an activity that only a year ago we took for granted, is now something we might perceive as a luxury. So while we patiently wait for the black clouds to shift, why not dream big? Why sink into a quagmire of limitation, actuality and confinement? Why not anticipate the day when it is possible to venture further afield and experience some of the more spectacular theatrical venues around the world? Even the thought of planning such an itinerary is an immediate ‘cheerer-upper’. Whether your taste is for big musical venues or aesthetically pleasing architecture, allow yourself to be mentally transported to some of the most striking international locations for theatre fans on this ‘bucket list’ whistle-stop tour.
The odyssey begins right here…
Sydney. Hardly far-flung, but any musical theatre journey must surely start right here in Australia, in a city that boasts immeasurable numbers of theatre-lovers and one of the most arresting venues in the world. This is, of course, a reference to the immediately recognisable Sydney Opera House. This New South Wales performing arts centre boldly announces itself to all within its radius. This is no shrinking violet but a venue which declares its presence with the confidence befitting such a distinctive silhouette. This Danish-designed construction was opened in October 1973 and is comprised of several performance venues. Collectively, these venues accommodate more than 1.2 million patrons and deliver more than 1,500 performances annually.
Whether you look forward to seeing the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play in the Concert Hall, long to experience The Australian Ballet or Opera Australia in the Joan Sutherland Theatre (formerly known as the Opera Theatre), or dream of visiting one of several other performance forums associated with this iconic landmark, take a moment to appreciate this unique structure that Australians can proudly call their own.
Where it all began…
The home of modern theatre is, of course, Greece. It is here that the thespian was born – literally, in the form of Thespis of Icara, the first actor in Greek drama. Athens, then, is a must-visit city for those eager to soak up the atmosphere of where it all began. Theatre as the ancients experienced it is embodied in the
Odeon of Herodes Atticus (known simply as the Herodeon) in Greece’s capital city. Built between 160AD-174AD, it was destroyed around 100 years later and has seen many rebuilding projects and renovations since then. Not all of us are fans of opera, ballet or ancient Greek tragedies, but as theatrical destinations go, this one is worth a visit for its rich history and architecturally intimidating status alone. The Herodeon is sited on the southern slopes of the Acropolis and accommodates a whopping 4680-strong audience. The marble auditorium is overlooked by 35 incredibly steep semi-circular rows, which were at one time circular – not exactly disability-friendly but nevertheless majestic. After all, it did attract the likes of Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti to perform there. Its three-storey frontage is punctuated with tall Roman (as opposed to Greek) arches. Open-air performances are now the order of the day; long gone is the wooden and tiled roof. Even if you don’t take in a performance, do take a once-in-a-lifetime selfie from the top of the Acropolis, with the Herodeon as an impressive backdrop.
An international hotspot…
Of course, no theatre-lover (especially of the musical variety) can afford to leave New York off their bucket list. Broadway is, arguably, the theatre capital of the world. With countless venues to choose from, deciding which one to visit is a dilemma. Well, an interesting choice would be the New Amsterdam Theatre, an authentic Art Nouveau building leased by Walt Disney and one of the longest-running theatre venues in New York. This quirky location was once home to Zeigfield Follies, that glitzy and glamorous production which epitomises the 1920s. Nowadays, this theatre is more associated with Avenue Q and the Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys. If some much-needed post-Covid humour is required, then take in The Imbible: A Spirited History of Drinking, which has elicited such reviews as ‘really fun and different’. New York: Tick!
If Broadway is a little too passé for your taste – who are you? – then the German city of Hamburg is fast emerging as a musical theatre giant of international repute and should tick all your cultural boxes. So you want the whole experience? Imagine this: you hop on a ‘special ferry, soaking up the maritime atmosphere of one of Europe’s major ports, and are transported across the Elbe River to a unique theatre that can only be reached by boat: Theatre im Hafen. This hugely popular theatre is best known for The Lion King, which has been running here for nigh on two decades. Yet this is not the only jewel in Hamburg’s crown: back on the mainland, the ‘entertainment’ district, Reeperbahn, is characterised by venues such as Theatre NueFlora, a 1920s-style theatre spread across four floors and host to musicals of a more flamboyant bent, and Stage Operettenhaus, with its long and colourful history: it has survived fire, three name changes and recently celebrated a three-year run of the stage version of Rocky. Definitely a city to add to/ tick off your list!
Of course, the Brits have always been devotees of the theatre, and a trip to their densely populated little island offers all manner of renowned performance auditoria. The West End, of course, is the very hub of all things theatrical in the UK. High on any theatre buff’s list is the Old Vic, which celebrated its 200th birthday in 2018. With its crested and colonnaded façade and Victorian windows, it speaks of high quality musicals and highbrow casting – indeed, the revered Lawrence Olivier and Dame Judi Dench have performed there. Highbrow indeed.
Lesser known, however, is the nearby Finborough Theatre, diminutive in size but mammoth in reputation. Founded in 1980, this tiny theatre in West Brompton (Kensington and Chelsea) seats only fifty people and gives every appearance of being a pub from its anonymous exterior. It has become renowned
for thought-provoking musicals based on modern texts. And despite its size it has won acclaim from a range of sources, including the Financial Times, in which it states that the Finborough’s reputation is ‘out of proportion to its size’. Why not stick that one on your list and check it out for yourself?
When escape from the city calls, one absolute must is a journey to Cornwall, the UK’s most south-westerly county. It is there that the most magical of theatres is nestled away like a hidden gem. Perched dramatically on a cliff-edge in Porthcurno in Penzance is the brain-child of Rowena Cade: the Minack Theatre. This spectacular open-air theatre was created and sculpted by Cade in the early 1930s, taking only six months to create, using local materials and drawing upon the assistance of only two local craftsmen. Its first performance, The Tempest, was in 1932, with car headlights acting as floodlights. The result is a one-of-a-kind venue which is open from June to September, running a full programme of live events, from children’s theatre to musicals to passion projects. All this, plus the ambient sound of crashing waves as a backdrop. What’s not to love?
Of course, right now we must make do with reality and simply dream of a time when theatre can once again provide morphine for the soul. Until then, we must be satisfied with sticking pins in a map and hoping for a better future.
Dare to dream!