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January 8, 2011

A dramatic crucible takes shape

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

On a bright September morning in 2009 motorists and pedestrians progressing down Ridgeway Street in Belfast could be excused for doing double takes at the unusual sight of a well-dressed group of people seated on rows of white plastic chairs in the middle of a building site, listening to poetry and cello music. Sharp-eyed people-spotters may have spied the poets Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, the singer Brian Kennedy, the actors James Nesbitt and Conleth Hill, the cellist Neil Martin and many other prominent artists. Among them was Conor O’Malley, son of Pearse and Mary O’Malley, who, in the 1950s, founded the Lyric Players Theatre in a converted stable block at their home in the leafy south Belfast suburbs. In 1965 Heaney, then a budding young poet, was called on to write some lines to commemorate the laying of the foundation stone of a purpose-built theatre upstream from Queen’s University. Now a stanza from the poem has been engraved in sandstone to mark the entrance to the spectacular new Lyric Theatre, which is due to open in May.

At the unveiling of that threshold stone, 15 months ago, Longley recalled his “decades of plays, hundreds of epiphanies, thousands of hours of fun and enlightenment” at the Lyric. In a message read by the actor Geraldine Hughes, Brian Friel wrote of a theatre as “a home of miracles and revelations” and observed that the building of a new theatre in times like these is “an act of fortitude and a gesture of faith in your community”. Then Heaney rose to read Peter Street at Bankside , the poem, written 44 years previously, whose closing lines will mark the next phase.

I dedicate to speech, to pomp and show,
This playhouse re-erected for the players.
I set my saw and chisel in the wood
To joint and panel solid metaphors:
The walls a circle, the stage under a hood –
Here all the world’s an act, a word, an echo.

Its title derives from a London carpenter called Peter Street, who worked on the construction of the Globe Theatre beside the Thames, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. It has fallen to O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects, in Dublin, to pick up the gauntlet laid down, through Heaney’s words, in Elizabethan England in designing for 21st-century Ireland a playhouse that will again be home to enlightenment and epiphanies.

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

The practice was the winner of an open competition organised by the Lyric in 2003. As John Tuomey explains, the key elements of its original pitch were the same then as now. “Our motto was, and remains, ‘a house for lyric’,” he says. “We were particularly impressed by two things: the fact that the Lyric is a producing theatre and by the strong sense of family that exists there. Whether you’re a director, an administrator, a member of staff in the box office or the maintenance team, everyone has that feeling that ‘we work in theatre’.

The Irish Times