Adelaide Festival Centre’s Her Majesty’s Theatre redevelopment project

Apr 2019

Opened in 1913, Her Majesty’s Theatre is the oldest continually-running theatre in Adelaide, South Australia. Over the years, ‘the Maj’ as she is affectionately known, has hosted vaudeville, theatre, opera, ballet, comedy, rock, tango dancing demonstrations, tattooed ladies and boxing matches.

Riding the waves of changing popular tastes, the theatre has survived wars, recessions and fierce competition from motion pictures and television.

The theatre’s history captures not only a century of arts and popular entertainment, but also some of Australia’s significant moments. Her Majesty’s Theatre was the venue for the welcome home celebrations of Sir Ross and Keith Smith following the first flight from the United Kingdom to Australia in 1919.

Performers have included WC Fields, Rudolph Nureyev, Whoopi Goldberg, Pavarotti, Spike Milligan, Maggie Smith, Slim Dusty and Robyn Archer.

Much of the cultural heritage of the original Tivoli Theatre was lost in earlier redevelopments, but early on in the recent works an original, 100-year-old, theatre program was found below some floorboards.

The small folded program, dated Saturday May 11th, 1918, contains details of that night’s production, ‘Robbery Under Arms’, billed as ‘the Great Australian Drama’.

Along with the cast list and a ‘Synopsis of Scenery and Events’, the four-page program is filled with fascinating adverts for local firms, including some well-known businesses like Bick fords and the Metropolitan Hotel (which boasted ‘Hot and Cold Water Baths’ and ‘Electric Lights throughout’).

In 1918, Her Majesty’s Theatre was just five years old and still known as The New Tivoli Theatre, one of a chain of vaudeville theatres across Australia. Tickets in the Dress Circle for Robbery Under Arms are listed in the program at three shillings, with a seat in the Gallery for just one shilling. On a weeknight, a seat in the gallery could be bought for just sixpence – the equivalent of about five cents today.

Fast forward one hundred years and the Maj is halfway through a complete redevelopment, ready for the next great chapter. In a challenging construction, the redevelopment is creating a bigger, better, accessible theatre, within two walls of the original façade.

The redevelopment celebrates both the built heritage and the cultural heritage of Her Majesty’s and every step of the design and construction process has included consideration of both.

Redevelopments in the 1960s and 70s had boarded up the Grand Circle, stripped out all original features, reduced the size of the stage and more than halved the theatre’s capacity. Well-intentioned at the time, the result was a commercially constrained theatre that was increasingly uncomfortable and inaccessible for audiences and artists.

The current project aims to rectify this, as Adelaide Festival Centre Chief Executive Officer and Artistic Director, Douglas Gautier AM explains: “by bringing back a Grand Circle we are respecting the original grand design of three levels and creating a stunning theatre of which all South Australians can be proud. The painstaking work to preserve the beautiful façade while we build a new auditorium and foyers will result in a new accessible, attractive and commercially viable theatre that honours its past”.

Indeed, the transformation of Her Majesty’s Theatre includes a completely new 1,472 seat auditorium over three levels with high specification acoustics and spacious backstage facilities.  The new auditorium and foyer designs are inspired by the original interiors and will be fully accessible, with lifts and wheelchair seating on all three levels.

The redevelopment extends the theatre’s footprint sideways with the purchase of an adjoining building.  This will house accessible facilities, bars and lifts in a new wing with a dramatic glass façade. A restored central entrance on the exuberant Edwardian Grote Street façade will celebrate the building’s heritage.

The backstage space has been increased by taking over the laneway behind the theatre, allowing for a rehearsal and performance space equal in size to the stage itself, an important factor in attracting bigger shows to Adelaide.

When it reopens next year, the Maj will be able to host at least 50 additional performances each year. This is an essential transformation as Adelaide really needs a second large theatre. The number of people attending arts events is growing every year.

In 2015, the Adelaide Festival Centre had its busiest year ever with 980,000 attendances.  Demand is continuing to grow but there are not enough large venues in Adelaide to show all the performances touring Australia as well as the work of South Australian artists because the 2,000 seat Festival Theatre is Adelaide’s only large scale commercial theatre.  Since 2014, more than a dozen popular musicals have toured Australia but have not played in Adelaide.

In the long term, Gautier believes that “the redeveloped HMT will help bring more shows to Adelaide and increase activity in the Central Market and Chinatown precincts”, resulting in the creation of 100s of direct employment opportunities for artists, production, technical and other staff.