One of the highlights of the theatrical calendar is approaching at great pace. The announcement of our new Festival is very close indeed, and summer calendars are being cleared for the moment of booking to arrive. Of course this year there are extra deadlines and hurdles to navigate as Osborne work at an astonishing rate to get the Festival Theatre building ready for its grand opening.
Despite the rain the site has been crawling with workmen; there is activity inside and out, on the roof and on the road, in the auditorium and the dressing rooms, working on electrics and plaster and carpeting. It is a controlled sprint for the finish-line, when the many hours spent sorting through a thousand samples and swatches pays off, and the finished product begins to take shape. Chichester District Council arrived on Wednesday afternoon and were duly impressed – after many months of healthy support for the project, the collected local government seemed rightly proud of what had been achieved.
The hard-landscaping, which still precludes anything other than pedestrian access to the sight, is receiving its base layer while the main pathway is being mapped out across the site. When the final paving is laid there will be no doubt about the proximity of opening night – to avoid damage they will be the last thing to be installed.
Inside the structure, both refurb and new build, the end is in-sight; on a timetable of the project this month would be labelled ‘finishes’. The auditorium has its carpet and the lovingly refurbished seating is arriving to be installed this week. Doors are being hung. Plasterers are at work. At the rear of the structure on the first floor, where dressing rooms enjoy a view across the park, the ‘signature colours’ are going in: these bright flashes of colour will add a playful element to the back view of the bold, yet occasionally austere, Festival Theatre. From the ground, through the windows, one can almost see the silhouettes of actors peering out on a sunny afternoon, killing time between a matinee and evening performance, watching the archers flex their bows across the park.
In 1961, Chichester Festival Theatre received a rather wonderful gift from the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario – a truck-load of maple wood to be used as a fittingly grand stage. Sometime later this beautiful wood was covered and then removed and subsequently stored away for this moment of renovation and reappearance. This wood will be refurbished by Osborne on site, individual planks will be sanded (so helpfully they’re all the same thickness), sealed and then laid in the green room awaiting the step of a relaxing actor or shuffling technician. A new stage, demountable, flexible, has now been installed in the auditorium – a significant step in the plans to get actors back into the auditorium in just a matter of months.
50 years ago, in a theatre only 18 months old, Laurence Olivier programmed a season including a world-premiere of The Royal Hunt of the Sun and his own extraordinary Othello. It is thrilling to think what the current chiefs will present us with at the beginning of March, in a beautifully refurbished space with the theatrical world watching and audiences making their first foray up the steps and into that enchanted darkness.