In 1994 the Norwich city library and archive burnt down. A great lost to the community. The building was replaced not just with a library, but an amphitheatre. Now it’s not huge, like Greek or Roman ones, and it’s main function is for amateur dramatics and musical events. It doesn’t have beautiful backdrop and probably is a bit hard on the bum, as the tiers are concrete, and I suspect most of the year it doesn’t get used. However, the architects added it for a reason. (The Norwich Forum is part of a series of twelve historic buildings in Norwich ranging from Norman to Modern.)
We’re all probably familiar with the Forum in Rome. Initially a public space for markets, it became more versatile. Speeches and elections were held in the forum, a long with religious ceremonies and criminal trials. Quite a public spectacle no doubt even if the Forum wasn’t intended to be entertaining.
Buildings were added to forums (there was more than one in Rome), including temples and the senate house, and in 55BC, the Theatre of Pompey, Rome’s first permanent theatre. After the defeat of the Roman Empire, the Forum declined and vanished until it was rediscovered by archaeologist Carlo Fea in 1803.
It seems natural for modern versions of the forum (still a popular name for civic spaces) to include a theatre, and while ancient amphitheatres were large structures often positioned on the outside of a town, carved into hillsides, it makes sense for modern ones to be smaller and more flexible. Even my daughters’ small primary school at a semi-circular amphitheatre in the playground: three tiers and sufficient for one class to sit and watch an activity.
Open-air productions are a risky undertaking in the UK. We’re not renown for dry weather throughout the Summer, and you can forget the Winter. Yet, they are popular in parks and the grounds of stately homes. Temporary theatres spring up and picnic blankets pinned down if the wind picks up.
So while it might not be the best place for a performance, and generally people prefer the great theatre houses to uncomfortable seats, the idea of theatre being free of sets or scenery, reliant entirely on the skills of the performers to capture the imagination, just like in ancient times, hasn’t lost out to the grand productions of the West End.