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Stirling Prize Winner: Everyman Theatre in Liverpool by Haworth Tompkins critiqued

Intimate yet epic, Liverpoolʼs famous Everyman Theatre has a striking new home that thrives on indeterminacy and is a crucible for experimentation

‘to take
umbrage at death, to construct
a second nature of tomb and temple, lives must know the meaning of If.’
WH Auden, The Birth of Architecture

‘If music be the food of love, play on.’
The opening ‘If’ of Twelfth Night, repeated at its finish in the 2014 Stirling Prize winning Liverpool Everyman Theatre’s re-opening production, reminded us of Auden’s proposition that human architecture exceeds nature’s by its conjecture on imagined possibilities. But if architecture is function plus representation, nowhere is the premise of that sum more evident than in a theatre, which is exactly a device for new stagings of what might be, may be, could be. What we may call the ‘mightlihood’ in theatre, however, is a delicate act to perform in architecture, which must announce its offer to the civil world yet withdraw from that effected on the stage within. ‘Back of house’ and ‘front of house’ have traditionally named a Janus-faced compound where a factory of fictions joins a foyer of beholders in the focused vault of an auditorium. There, no gesture but the actor’s holds the ring, its unnoticed frame withdrawn into the wings.

And if any theatre is an actors’ house it is the Everyman. Since 1964, it has launched a score of careers, not only of players including Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Pete Postlethwaite and Antony Sher but playwrights such as Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. It originated as a chapel, but in 1896 became Liverpool’s first ‘kinema’.


Site Plan

Primitive in the extreme, and still cramped even after a 1977 rebuild, the Everyman and its basement bistro nevertheless became such a fixture in local life that its 1993 crisis prompted a campaign. With funding from the bistro, supporters and the Lottery, closure was averted; but more shows now had to be travelling productions. Indeed, repertory companies were everywhere becoming harder to maintain; and so in 1999 a union with Liverpool Playhouse, itself one of England’s most distinguished rep theatres, was effected. New directors Deborah Aydon and Gemma Bodinetz declared that: ‘the theatres should together be rooted in their community yet both national and international in their scope and ambition’. So successful were they that a new building was mooted to house them both. When it was decided to keep separate sites, it was seen that the grand old Playhouse needed some updating, but the Everyman had to be totally rebuilt. Then Haworth Tompkins − which has worked on auditoriums for the Royal Court, Young Vic and National Theatre among others − was called in.

Before every building runs a procurement tale. Here, the raising of £28 million for building costs was a saga. A lucky stroke was the acquisition of the next-door site, which enabled expansion for a studio theatre, rehearsal room, workshops, wardrobe, dressing rooms, green room, offices, and a room for local playwrights, visible from the glass lift and stairs that rise through nine levels of lightwell from basement bistro through ground and first floor foyers to skylit attic. The floors dovetail at half-levels like fingers of two meeting hands. One level, however, takes a key datum from the tailgate height (1.1 metres) of vans at the backstage loading bay, sets the workshop floor and runs through to the stage, so that props can be wheeled straight from truck to set. All this is naturally ventilated, by drawing air into an understage plenum to rise through a thermally massive and acoustically dense concrete and brick structure to four rooftop funnels. So the first thing to say about the new Everyman is that, at about 40 metres deep in a 37-metre gap between party walls, it is a marvel of accommodation. Even the redbrick fly-tower and funnels barely break the Georgian scale of its Hope Street neighbours.


Floor plans - click to expand

Indeed, continuity was a counsel throughout. Walling interiors with recycled bricks from the old theatre betokened an undertaking to carry over into the new house, with its better kit and comfort, as much as possible of the spontaneous and informal spirit of before. Retained too, is the Everyman’s signature red logo, stretched along the facade in a broad font like that of Liverpool’s 19th-century street signs − redolent of transatlantic liners and railways, which Jake Tilson has refined for the theatre’s general signage. Above all, reminder to the street that ‘the Everyman is for Everyone’ is announced, like a cathedral west front such as Wells, in a great screen of figures − three rows of 35 − that hang as swivelling sunshades across the upper-floor windows. Their effect delights. According to varying angles, they glint positive or negative, silvery or transparent, as if printed in smoked glass familiar among Liverpool’s gin palaces, like the nearby Philharmonic Dining Rooms.

Indeed, the figures recur throughout on windows as smoked-glass silhouettes; in the upstairs office corridor, we see them in glazed doors and, through windows beyond, their originals in the screen. In fact, the shades are aluminium, and the figures in them laser-cut from Dan Kenyon’s photographs of locals, their astonishing veracity an optical effect like that of newsprint Ben-Day dots. Combining in a single device the parallax games played in Dan Graham’s pavilions and a parade of civil characters, the screen is a complete success.


A screen of laser-cut aluminium portraits of local people, which pivot to modulate solar gain, surmounts the elongated neon signage on the main street frontage


Sections - click to expand

Below the screen, the parade is of real people, for both ground- and first-floor are glazed, inviting entry to their café, bars and basement bistro − a trio of new public rooms for the city. The favourite may prove to be the upper foyer, a piano nobile with balcony onto Hope Street. Its south end bay can be reserved for recitals (all the public rooms are wired for performance), while the gallery offers not just a grand saloon for evening crowds but a long lounge of quietude to daytime habitués. Across the ceilings here Antoni Malinowski has created a suite of paintings in reds that resonate around the copper and old-gold hues that recur through the building (and, as Malinowski, like Colin Rowe, noted, in Mersey sunsets). Their red stream seems to flow overhead through the four bays of the long gallery, pauses for a shoal of copper fish to pass above the stairwell, then turns to merge into the recital room’s depth. As the bays are spanned by concrete beams, the red course runs through them like a current − or, maybe, for imaginative beholders − a bloodstream through the building. For, as ceiling paintings like Tiepolo’s at Würzburg evoke a ‘mightlihood’ of ‘sky’, and this sky is in a theatre, they might recall the rapture of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus on the cosmos: ‘See, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.’ Or − more comic than cosmic − Hamlet teasing Polonius on the changing clouds: ‘like a camel … very like a whale’.

Yet despite their fluid symbolism, Malinowski’s paintings never let us lose awareness of their frame, the facture of their pigments, nor the variant lights that play upon their planes, even as they precipitate such evocatively liquid/aerial images across the spaces that they decorate.


Interlocking circulation spaces are divided by pierced and shuttered concrete walls

‘Decorate’ is a word that entered English through theatre: to ‘stage decorum’, as apt conduct and setting for character and place − an ideal of correspondence that Serlio depicted in his three scenes for tragic, comic and pastoral events. That its evental sense was never lost may explain why ‘decorative’, unlike ‘ornament’, was never called criminal by Adolf Loos, and indeed revived in Le Corbusier’s book The Decorative Arts Today.

And if the new Everyman’s Raumplan of interlocking volumes is Loosian, then its most Modernist room − and facility to decide decorum − is of course its stage. Yet the auditorium is also the core of continuity with the old house, following its outline and relations of actors to audience. Their uniquely ‘epic yet intimate’ terms were set by the dimensions of its thrust stage. Once theatre was no longer viewed as a proscenial illusion, thrusts were widely adopted as the best way to stage immediate acting within allusive scenographies, where changes in mood or decorum could be effected simply by altered lighting. And thrust remains the new Everyman’s basic figure: 410 seats around three sides of a 12.8m deep x 9.7m wide stage. With six rows of seats in stalls and another two rows around the gallery, all viewers are within 10 metres of the centre. The great difference now, though, is that a fully equipped technical frame and fly-tower enables not only vastly enhanced lighting but rapid raising and lowering of sets, props and actors, who can enter or exit from any horizontal or vertical angle. Indeed, Twelfth Night had shipwrecked Viola erupt from a pool of water − in fact, an ingenious liquid trapdoor accessed beneath the stage in a way that was previously impossible.

The Everyman has long been a stage of experiment. Accordingly, with theatre consultants Charcoalblue, the Everyman team examined comparable thrust stages and auditoriums, and devised a system convertible to alternatives including end stage with or without proscenium, entry/exit through an under-stalls vomitorium, promenade, in-the-round, traverse and diagonal traverse. The result is an auditorium of great flexibility that, without losing its distinct ‘intimate yet epic’ character, is capable of presenting many kinds of dramatic worlds. It reflects Steve Tompkins and Andrew Todd’s call to resist ‘the architect’s inbred urge towards resolution and permanence’ that has often been ‘at odds with the theatre, which continues to thrive on indeterminacy’.

Detail Preview

Detailed section, elevation and plan of facade - click to expand

That capacity of a stage for enscening many ‘mightlihoods’ may be likened to Keats’ idea of ‘negative capability’, which he described in a letter of 1817 as a quality in ‘a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously − I mean Negative Capability, that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ To entertain conflict and confusion is a capacity, Keats felt, that enables dramatists to endow their various characters with different kinds of credibility, and hence open that capacity in an audience. It is also, surely, a capacity eminently required for architects, who, if they are to design for a public more various than just expected ‘users’, should be able to identify with all the characters who might enter in the narratives of places they are called on to construct. Hence the architectural challenge in the imaginative conjecture that drama always represents, by its persistent staging of our recurrent If.

Everyman Theatre

Architect: Haworth Tompkins

Photographs: Hélène Binet


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