Moving up into Scotland for today’s post on British Theatres through the ages.
The Edinburgh Festival Theatre represents what is the longest continuous site of a theatre in Edinburgh. Previously on the site there was a mixed bunch of venues: Dunedin Hall, Royal Amphitheatre, Alhambra Music Hall, Queen’s Theatre, Pablo Fanque’s Amphitheatre, Newsome’s Circus and the Empire Palace Theatre, which opened in 1892.
The Empire Palace theatre was designed by Frank Matcham and included lavish décor – elephants with Nubian riders, nymphs and cherubs. He was responsible for ninety theatres over forty years in the UK. Born in Devon, he completed his first solo design in London – the Elephant and Castle Theatre in 1879; the front was squeezed in between shops, while the auditorium was much further back from the road.
Matcham worked for Moss Empires, a theatrical company and designed the London Coliseum, Tower Ballroom in Blackpool Tower and was especially good at theatre interiors. He removed the obscuring columns of the upper levels of the auditorium and replaced them with cantilevers.
In 1911 there was a fire on the stage at the Empire Palace. Three thousand people managed to exit the building in under three minutes. But there were eleven deaths back stage, including the illusionist Sigmund Neuburger, the Great Lafayette, who sadly burnt to death. His tall ghost, naturally, haunts the place. The theatre reopened three months later, so no major setback.
The theatre was renamed the Edinburgh Festival in 1994 and a glass front was added. The contrast between modern exterior and older interior is very apparent. The theatre’s primary purpose is performing ballet and opera. No illusions.