Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre unveils a radical new look for its winter season

The Lyceum Theatre is reimagining its auditorium for an ambitious winter season, allowing it to welcome socially-distanced audiences and stream shows to the world

Thursday, 8th October 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 8th October 2020, 7:25 am
An artist's impression of how the Lyceum's reconfigured auditorium will look by designer Tom Piper PIC: Lyceum Theatre
An artist's impression of how the Lyceum's reconfigured auditorium will look by designer Tom Piper PIC: Lyceum Theatre

Passers-by walking down Grindlay Street in Edinburgh, over the past couple of weeks, can’t have failed to notice that the glass foyer at the front of the Lyceum Theatre was suddenly full of chairs. Small chairs and large chairs, new chairs and battered chairs, towers of chairs, insignificant-looking chairs, and chairs that obviously had a tale to tell. At half-past seven each evening, too – round about theatre time – the tale was told, for an hour or so, as lights began to play over the chairs, screens showed images of the chairs in their original settings, and voices began to talk about these chairs, and their significance for the speakers, in a time without theatre.

This was the Lyceum’s Take A Seat installation, a beautiful, elegiac response from a group of Scotland’s female stage designers, backed by a team of production managers and sound and lighting designers, to the Covid shutdown of Scotland’s theatres; and it seemed like a necessary act of mourning and memory, before Scotland’s theatre community turns towards a future that is desperately uncertain, but that also offers its own strange possibilities.

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And as part of that tentative shift towards an unknowable year to come, the Lyceum this week announced plans not for an outdoor seasonal show, of the kinds being planned by Perth Theatre and Pitlochry Festival Theatre, but for a unique Christmas transformation of its famously beautiful blue, red and gold Victorian auditorium, designed both to allow for “distanced” live performances with an audience – as soon as Scotland’s Covid rules make them possible again – and also to create an arena big enough for safe distanced rehearsal, performance and filming, even if tight restrictions remain in place.

Another angle on the Lyceum's new-look interior by Tom Piper PIC: Lyceum Theatre

“The critical thing for us has been the Scottish government bail-out money for producing theatres that we received in August,” says Lyceum artistic director David Greig. “We received the maximum grant of £750,000, and that enabled us to stay solvent for this year, to stop any process of compulsory redundancies – although we have had some voluntary ones, and we will be trying to work with a slightly smaller team in future, to make the company more sustainable in crises like these – and to start thinking about creating work again, and crucially, bringing freelance artists and theatre-makers back into work.

“We thought about outdoor work, of course, given the situation we’re in; and that will certainly form a part of our programme for next spring, which we’re hoping to announce soon. For this Christmas, though, we really wanted to do something that would focus on this building, and give people a chance to experience an evening of theatre here again – even if it turns out that we can only do that on screen.”

The idea that Greig came up with – together with Lyceum associate artists Zinnie Harris and Wils Wilson, designer Tom Piper, and the rest of the theatre team – was to transform the Lyceum’s auditorium by building an arena-like new stage, sweeping up from the back of the existing stage, out over the forestage and stalls, and then up to a finishing point not far below the ornate plasterwork of the Lyceum’s first circle. This will create a vast playing area, almost twice the size of the existing stage, which will be able to accommodate both cafe-style tables around the stage (one of the most effective configurations for social distancing by household), and a distanced audience in the circle – very close to the action.

It will also act as a television studio stage for the filming and live-streaming of Lyceum productions during the pandemic; and Greig is keen to see the company develop its skills in that area. “We’ve learned so much during the pandemic about the power of online work to reach previously excluded groups,” says Greig, “and we’re definitely not letting go of that again, after it’s over.

“Then for Christmas,” explains artistic associate Zinnie Harris, the writer and director behind recent shows including This Restless House and The Duchess, “we’ve commissioned 12 new stories that we know we can present over the Christmas season, all with a seasonal flavour, and produced by two different teams of artists – so effectively we’re involving as many different freelance theatre-makers as possible, for a project of this scale.”

The writers involved include Linda Radley, Karine Polwart, Denise Mina, Morna Young, Tony Cownie, Robert Softley Gale, Mara Menzies and others; the designers are Tom Piper and Anna Orton, the composers Michael John McCarthy and Oguz Kaplangi, and the performers will be cast soon.

“Eight of the stories will be filmed around the theatre – in the auditorium and elsewhere – and released as a kind of advent calendar in the run-up to Christmas,” Harris continues, “and the other four will become part of a short series of live performances, for which people will be able to buy tickets and watch at a specific time, either online at home or – fingers crossed – in the theatre.”

It’s all a pale shadow of a traditional Christmas theatre season, of course, with 15,000 people packing into the Lyceum over a few weeks to watch shows like last year’s Edinburgh Christmas Carol. Most if not all of the 12 Lyceum Christmas Tales will be solo pieces, and even if it is possible to include a live audience – a move that Greig and Harris feel would greatly improve the quality of the experience for everyone, including those watching at home – there’s no suggestion that the income raised from such restricted sales would significantly improve the theatre’s finances.

“But the point is that we have to do what we can, now,” says David Greig, gazing out over the silent auditorium. “We’ve been given the money to help us survive this crisis, and now we have to reach out to the artists that create the work, and start making make theatre happen, somehow.

“Even before the Christmas season, we’ll be hosting the opening night of Daniel Kitson’s new ‘show for empty theatres’ tour, on 1-2 November, and streaming Hannah Lavery’s great piece about the death of Sheku Bayoh in Kirkcaldy five years ago, live from the Lyceum, in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival. Theatre companies and arts organisations are going to have to work together in that way, to get through this.

“And whatever happens, we hope we can reach out to our audience over this Christmas. Some of our Lyceum Christmas Tales are ghost-stories, and some are sad. But many are funny, and full of joy and warmth; and after a year like this, I think we all deserve some of that.”

The Lyceum Christmas Tales will be available online and as a live stream in December. Daniel Kitson’s Dot.Dot.Dot is at the Lyceum, 1-2 November. Hannah Lavery’s Lament For Sheku Bayoh will be performed live online from the Lyceum on 20 and 21 November; www.lyceum.org.uk

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