When writing about halls and theatres, where better to start than with William Shakespeare, celebrated as the best playwright in the world. Shakespeare’s playing company built the original Globe Theatre in 1599. It was a timber structure with a thatched roof, located on the marshy banks of the River Thames. As befell many theatres down the years, it accidentally burnt down, and though it was rebuilt, it was later closed down by the Puritans in 1642 before being pulled down again. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre these days is a modern reconstruction built in 1997 close to the site of the original theatre. It is a focal point for the army of Shakespeare fans globally who regard it as the spiritual home of theatre. These days, visitors can enjoy the performance of a Shakespeare play at the Globe without fear of inferno as there is no thatch roof and it is fitted with modern fire protection!
The Puritans may have had their way in the 17th century, but these days anything goes in theatre and entertainment productions. The venues for performances have evolved from makeshift timber structures to world class concert halls, insulated from external sound and vibration, and designed with flexible scale so that auditoriums can be tailored to complement the needs of the performance whatever style of music, spoken word or dance it involves.
The story of theatre in Britain is about accessibility. In the 14th century, Bible stories were staged on wagons that moved through the streets. By the end of the 16th century, going to the theatre as we know it, was popular with all classes of society. The enlarging of playhouses and building of large scale theatres such as the London Coliseum, referred to as the ‘People’s Palace’, opened up popular theatre to all. Theatre also keeps a place in Society social calendars. Glyndebourne in East Sussex, hosts the ‘must do’ opera festival every summer where evening dress is de rigueur.
We have featured a broad range of theatres, from the Victorian to the modern and the large scale to the intimate. Each have their own character and history to tell, through the setting, architectural design and building materials used, to the famous actors who have performed there and the type of productions that are put on. Live theatre experiences now compete with live relays of some performances into provincial film theatres, expanding the potential audience for a single performance a hundred fold. Nevertheless, the demand for theatre visits remains high as the experience and atmosphere in situ is a special occasion that cannot be replicated.
British theatres and concert halls such as the iconic Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, The Royal Albert Hall and the Birmingham Symphony Hall remain a target for major touring productions of all kinds. The mystical spirit of outdoor performance is evoked by such venues as the Minack Theatre on the Cornwall coast. Audiences still flock to the City Varieties theatre in Leeds where raucous music hall performances of the Victorian era are brought back to life.
Theatre and performance is a significant part of urban and rural regeneration as reclaimed spaces and unused buildings are developed for new uses with the support of the local community who both inspire the performance programmes and seek their entertainment there. The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, The Watermill Theatre, Berkshire and the Snape Maltings in Suffolk are all buildings that started out with different purposes, and now bring theatre to new audiences.
'All the world’s a stage' – William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Please browse our gallery of selected great British Halls and Theatres above for inspiration and enjoyment, and click to find useful information and links to help you locate and visit them.