Elizabethan theatre, Chateau d’Hardelot – a great view from the circle

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Elizabethan theatre, Chateau d’Hardelot – a great view from the circle
© Martin Argyroglo

Andrew Todd has spent his career exploring theatrical space, and his new playhouse in a French castle blends timeless principles and modern construction

“If you tell a story,” says the architect Andrew Todd, “people will tend to form a circle around you.” This is one reason that the Shakespearean theatre, the wooden O of the Globe or the Rose, “is not a moment in history but a paradigm that keeps coming back into existence”. The history of theatre, he says, “is that of going in and out of the circle”.

In the grounds of a castle in France, he has had the chance to put his thoughts into practice. On the greensward of the Chateau d’Hardelot, near Boulogne-sur-Mer and in sniffing distance of the Channel, a 388-seat Elizabethan theatre has gone up to his design. The chateau, a medieval ruin converted into a Tudor-style folly by its 19th-century British owners, is a relic of the continuous interaction between this part of France and Britain and now serves as a cultural centre of the entente cordiale. Bravely, or perhaps unwittingly, and as it turned out with some poignancy, they scheduled the first public performance of this gesture of European solidarity for last Friday, 24 June, the day after the referendum vote.

The material is timber and the form round. The auditorium is vertical and galleried, with a stage thrust into the middle, and behind it an update of a Shakespearean tiring house, the two-storey structure whose doors and balconies enable actors’ appearances and exits. It achieves the intimacy between performers and audience of its ancient models. There is no view of the stage that does not also include other spectators, which engenders the sense that everyone is in it together. The acoustic, according to Todd, “sits on the knife edge between intelligible speech and mellifluous musical sound”. Actors have to enunciate and project, but they can do so in a conversational tone.

Todd wanted to make a building that “is absolutely up to date but could be 500 years old”, by which he means in spirit rather than in detail. The building is not an exercise in thatched, half-timbered reconstruction like London’s (relatively) new Globe. There is selective use of steel and the basic structure is of cross-laminated timber, a modern technique using factory-made panels that are strong, lightweight and efficient in their use of wood. […]