THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
Twenty members of the Society travelled by a Eurostar train to Brussels and there changed to catch the Brussels International train to The Hague. The main purpose of the visit was to attend a lecture given by Iain Mackintosh at the Koninklijke Schouwburg (Royal Theatre) to learn about the 1911 competition for a design to replace the present theatre: architects Frank Matcham & Co and Fellner & Helmer of Vienna were finalists. The STR party assembled early at the newly restored St. Pancras Station in readiness for a 10am departure.
The train left on schedule and in no time was speeding smoothly through its new route into Kent. Kent during the early stages of the journey was heavily disguised in grey concrete and no longer looked like the Garden of England. The way was lined with unending and characterless constructions and then the train arrived at a mass of concrete that was Ebbsfleet - gateway to the Continent.
The Eurostar St. Pancras website states 'superbly located in North Kent, Ebbsfleet International is a modern, beautifully designed station... it embodies Eurostar's vision for the future of travel...' The 1936 edition of Arthur Mee's Kent (in The King's England series) opens its first paragraph on Ebbsfleet as follows 'Where in all the world is a scene that thrills the Englishman like this?' Clearly this section is in need of urgent revision. And to think that in the sixth century, Ebbsfleet was also the Gateway for Christianity into England, as somewhere close behind the station construction, in the sixth century Ethelbert received Augustine and his forty companions following their journey from Rome to England and later gave them a dwelling in Canterbury.
On reaching The Hague taxis took the party to the very pleasant and comfortable Park Hotel. Once unpacked and refreshed the party were escorted on foot to the Royal Theatre in Korte Voorhout by one of the following day's speakers, Marlies van der Riet. The guests were warmly welcomed at the theatre and following a tour of the theatre's four public rooms, all decorated in the nineteenth century 'classical style', were invited to view an exhibition of drawings submitted for the 1910/11 competition, and also those for the 2007 extension to the theatre.
An appetising buffet meal followed accompanied by wines and then it was time to visit the auditorium, prior to the commencement of the evening performance. The theatre has been restored sympathetically and retains its early nineteenth century configuration of a horseshoe shaped auditorium and three main circles. A central royal box has been removed and boxes inserted on either side of the proscenium, a painted ceiling and central lights were added at later dates.
The theatre management has planned a wide range of performances for the first six months of this year to be given by international companies, thus bringing best examples of theatre to The Hague and making the theatre, as the programme stated, a meeting place for both expatriate and Dutch audiences. The ten productions programmed include three to be given by the UK companies Out of Joint, The Reduced Shakespeare Company and Cheek by Jowl.
The evening's performance seen by STR members was Out of Joint's production of David Edgar's Testing the Echo and it was directed by Max Stafford-Clark. The play was performed in English, and Dutch sub-titles were projected above the proscenium. The production was in the second week of an eleven week tour. The play's narrative concerned people from a variety of international backgrounds preparing to become British Citizens, and the programme note included the oath of allegiance sworn by new citizens. The play sets out to assess those who want to be British and how we define ourselves as a nation. The fictional story strands were inspired and informed by a detailed research workshop and Edgar has written a number of pieces within the body of the play to explore a range of identities and approaches to cultural differences, language, ethnicity and identity. The production was focused and swift moving and served by a versatile and accomplished company of actors. Following the conclusion of the play STR members were invited to meet the actors back stage in their extremely well set out greenroom, and so the evening ended.
On the second day members made their own way to the theatre for the morning's lecture and many allowed extra time for the walk and took the opportunity to explore the attractive neighbouring streets. On arrival at the Royal Theatre the party was again warmly welcomed and offered tea and coffee prior to the lecture. The lecture session, which took place in the splendid Paul Steenbergen Room, was opened by the Royal Theatre's director, Oscar Wibaut, who after welcoming those present outlined the theatre's history. He pointed out that the fašade does not suggest a theatre and in fact it is the frontage of the original mansion begun by Pieter de Swart in 1766, as a residence for Carolina van Nassau-Weilburg, sister of Stadhouder, William V, and her husband; this palatial building now provides the entrance and foyer to the theatre. The theatre was added in 1804 (and survived the 1945 bombardment of World War 2) and has undergone several restorations and modernisations, the last took place in the 1990s when Iain Mackintosh was advisor.
Next to speak was Marlies van der Riet the scholar who has collaborated with Iain Mackintosh in research relating to the 1911 competition. Finally, Iain Mackintosh introduced the subject of his lecture entitled 'King Kong versus Godzilla' and explained specifically how Frank Matcham & Co., together with Fellner and Melmer of Vienna were finalists and that the latter were the favourites. However, in the speaker's view the Matcham design was superior. In the event neither of the designs was implemented and so the theatre survived.
The lecture that followed was informative and of great interest, and is not going to be reported here as it can be found in full in the book Frank Matcham & Co. to be published in April. The book is formed of collected essays and has a forward by Alan Bennett: the essayists are John Earl, Gorel Garlick, Iain Mackintosh, Andrew Saint, Michael Sell, and David Willmore who is also editor. The book will be published by Theatreshire Books Ltd (see contact details below). Following the lecture members were able to examine original drawings related to the 1911 competition that had been specially brought over from the archives.
The final event was a visit to the Panorama Mesdag which presents a panoramic painted view of nearby Scheveningen, a former fishing village on the North Sea. Entrance to the Panorama is via the Mesdag Gallery, set up by the artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) and his wife Sientje Mesdag (1835-1909), which house paintings mainly of The Hague School (1860-1890) and the Barbizon School (1830-1870). The time available did not permit the pleasure of viewing these paintings and instead the members were led along a dark and narrow passage, which formerly would have been unlit: today health and safety considerations apply and so safety lights have been fitted.
The original idea was to surprise viewers who after negotiating the dark passage and ascending a spiral staircase suddenly found themselves in the middle of a 'sand dune' (supported by a central platform) which appears to be connected invisibly to the cylindrical painting. This effect enables the viewer to experience an unlimited view of a multitude of objects in this mixture of land and seascape, fishing boats, anchors, planks, the village and houses, sunlight warming the road by a corner house, fishermen and villagers, the cavalry exercising their horses on the beach, and beyond breaking waves with seagulls overhead and shipping of all sorts sailing and steaming on the North Sea.
The lighting is exquisite and, although the picture offers frozen moments in time, if eyes are half closed then the onlooker is tempted to believe that the sea swells and gulls float on the wind and that it is a living scene. Once the sketching was complete the picture was painted over a period of four months. Mesdag was assisted by three artists, one of whom was his wife. She appears as a signature within the picture seated by her easel by one of the fishing boats.
The Panorama Mesdag is, as stated previously, a cylindrical picture which occupies a full three hundred and sixty degrees in its setting and it is the largest painting in Holland. The canvas is fourteen metres high and one hundred and twenty metres long. STR members were fortunate to have a guide who was both knowledgeable and lucid in her explanation.
Then it was off to The Hague station by taxi to begin the first leg of the return journey to London. The changeover of trains at Brussels was smooth and the Eurostar train arrived at St. Pancras exactly on time just before 6pm. The visit had been well planned and led and the varied programme was extremely rewarding for the participants. Somehow in these two full days members had also managed to find time to converse with each other on a range of topics prompted both by the visit and shared interests in the theatre. This without doubt was a successful expedition.
More about the Koninklijke Schouwburg
Frank Matcham and Co. General Events Programme
Email: Theatreshire Books
3rd March 2008