Weird Theatre Facts from Around the World

Bristol Hippodrome unique venue with theatre facts including concealed water tank, sliding roof and fire damage

‘All the world’s a stage’, but let’s remember that not all stages are equal. If you’ve sat through a performance in a cramped or strangely pungent space, you’ll know it can be quite distracting (unless you’re at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in which case it can be a selling point, and the smell of damp is strangely comforting).

On World Theatre Day, it’s time to take a look at theatre facts: some of the strangest pieces of trivia from theatreland, including the playwright who became President, and the ghost who was used as a mascot.

Silvano Toti Theatre Rome identical model of Shakespeare's Globe in Italian gardens
This doesn’t look like the River Thames… Credit: Notafly.

There’s a duplicate Globe Theatre hidden in Rome

The Silvano Toti Theatre might look familiar. That’s because it’s a life-size reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe, tucked away in Rome’s Villa Borghese Gardens (at Largo Aqua Felix). Every summer, the venue hosts celebrated open-air performances – mainly staged in Italian – running from June to October.

As with its London counterpart, the cheapest tickets (€10) are for standing guests only, but even the top-price seats are reasonable at €28. If you’re well versed in Shakespeare but not in Italian, you could still enjoy an Italian production. Of course, if you’re learning to speak Italian, this could be a fun way to immerse yourself.

Shakespearean plays have brought countless tourists to Verona, Venice and many other cities, but in choosing Italian locations, the Bard was simply jumping on the bandwagon at the time. Italy was seen as a cultural hub: its poetry influenced many other nations, its trade links and academic reputation were both powerful, and it had many larger-than-life families creating their own fiery dramas and displaying their wealth. Take that, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Slovak National Theatre in main square of Bratislava
Bratislava’s original theatre is lacking in Slovakian statues.

The National Theatre of Slovakia has a controversial design

When my mum and I visited Bratislava earlier this month, we made a point of going on a free walking tour. One of the tour’s first stops was the city’s original National Theatre, or SND, an imposing building at the edge of Hviezdoslav Square. It’s all cream columns, Neo-Renaissance pomp and tiny statues, but the décor actually speaks volumes about Slovakian oppression.

As our tour guide, Anna, explained, Slovaks have been oppressed by a few different nations, but the main one was Hungary, which controlled Slovakia for nearly 1,000 years. The mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire meant that mainly German and Hungarian theatre groups performed here for the first few decades, when it was simply known as The City Theatre.

Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer selected five prominent figures as busts for the building’s façade: writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mihály Vörösmarty, and József Katona (the latter two are Hungarian), plus composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Liszt. Later, Vörösmarty was replaced by William Shakespeare. As you can see, none of the figures were Slovakian. Ahem.

Vaclav Havel theatre facts: Czech president was a celebrated playwright
A man who changed the political landscape, but also the theatrical landscape. Credit: Jiří Jiroutek.

The former President of the Czech Republic was a playwright

Politician has writing side-line – so far, so ‘George Osborne apparently edits the Evening Standard’ or ‘Boris Johnson gets a huge advance for his latest history book’, right? Not in this case. Václav Havel, leader of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, was a playwright long before he entered politics.

Havel’s first play, Nahradni Slavost (The Garden Party) was performed in 1983, at one of Prague’s most daring theatres, Na zabradli (The Theatre under the Balustrade), where he’d started out as a member of the backstage crew, then Assistant to the Artistic Director, and Literary Manager. By 1988 he was playwright-in-residence there. As his writing style developed, it never wavered from his main aim: to criticise Communist rule and its effect on human identity, for example, the Communist rewriting of history.

He co-launched Charter 77, the political opposition movement, in January 1977, which earned him several stints in prison. Simultaneously, the theatre industry continued to champion his work; in particular, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond began a 30-year fascination with Havel’s plays. Following the Velvet Revolution, Havel was elected President of the Czech and Slovak Republic in December 1989.

Theatre facts: Oliver Cromwell's Puritans closed English theatres in the 17th century
Oliver Cromwell, Puritanical leader, hater of fun. Credit: Wikimedia Commons Web Gallery of Art.

English theatre was banned by Puritans from 1642-1660

The Puritans weren’t exactly tons of fun – they banned Christmas, wore intense hats, had bizarre Puritan names, and even began implementing harsh English theatre laws in 1642. First, they made stage plays illegal that September, claiming it was wrong to keep them open during the ‘unrest’ of the English Civil War.

In 1648, they demolished playhouses, made it an offence to attend a play, and had actors arrested and whipped. For a nation that nurtured its theatre industry (and didn’t have TV or the internet…), this was a devastating blow. Theatre was affordable escapism for all classes during their harsh, short and dangerous lives, and its absence would have left a gaping hole. The situation only changed with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

Restoration playwrights flourished, including Aphra Behn, one of the first women to make a living as a writer, leaving a legacy of plays, novels and poems. Unlike Shakespeare, who set many of his plays abroad but probably didn’t leave England during his lifetime, Behn travelled to Suriname. Her trip formed the basis of her most famous play, Oroonoko. Behn was also a spy for Charles II, in the Netherlands, so we can conclude she was an overachiever.

Bristol Hippodrome theatre facts - roof opens for ventilation in unique historic venue
If you get a bit hot on this stage, you could theoretically open the roof. Not a bad perk.

The Bristol Hippodrome has a secret sliding roof

I’m unashamedly biased towards this venue – my great aunt was a showgirl at the Hippodrome, and my great grandma worked behind the bar. Besides the family connections, it’s an interesting building because of the many quirks inside, like the vast 100,000-gallon water tank that was once placed under the stage (quite a feat for its 1912 opening year), or the ancient hoover that somehow still works. Not to mention the domed roof that can open at will to ventilate the space – pretty handy in the days of smoking in the audience.

The Hippodrome was also where a young Archie Leech, a.k.a. Hollywood star Cary Grant, got the acting bug. He was enchanted by the theatre during a school trip, and soon began working there as a callboy, before joining a troupe of acrobats. When the chance came for the troupe to tour America, off he went. However, he regularly visited friends and family in Bristol, and never forgot his roots.

Today, the Bristol Hippodrome shows few signs of the fire that nearly devastated it in 1948. A two hour backstage theatre tour (hosted by its current owners, ATG Tickets) lets you learn more about theatre facts like these, and also modern anecdotes, like the diva behaviour of one famous actor, and how he got his comeuppance…

New Zealand floating theatre on water in Auckland and Hamilton
The Floating Theatre is a great concept. Credit: Winning Productions.

Extra Theatre Facts

  • A huge portion of Bollywood’s best-loved actors started their careers in theatre. Several, including Shahrukh Khan, trained under India’s acting legend, Barry John, in Delhi.
  • Australia’s oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal in Hobart, was praised by Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward. It has its own ghost, as any prestigious venue should, only here the spectre doubles as the theatre’s mascot.
  • New Zealand-based Winning Productions has its own floating theatre, which has recently popped up in Hamilton and Auckland. With only 30 seats, it’s an intimate experience for the audience, but other spectators can catch the action from the shoreline.

Where’s the weirdest place you’ve seen a play? Tweet me – @misspallen – with your stories.

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