Dubbed by Noel Coward “a dream of a theatre”, the Theatre Royal is Australia’s oldest working theatre and one of its most beautiful treasures. But its history is a lot more sordid than you might think. Built among the public houses, brothels, factories and tiny workers’ cottages of Wapping, the theatre opened in 1837, offering its original patrons entertainment ranging from music hall to cockfights, boxing matches to religious meetings. Punters could could even quench their thirsts at The Shades – a seedy tavern that operated beneath the auditorium with its own entrance into the theatre pit. Prostitutes, sailors and general riffraff would enter the pit with tankards full and create all sorts of drama of their own, much to the displeasure of the gentry in the boxes. During intervals, drunken prostitutes could be seen bounding across the seats making a bee-line for the conveniences.
Countless leading figures of Australian and international theatre, dance and music have graced the Theatre Royal’s stage, including J.C.Williamson, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Peter Ustinov, Marcel Marceau, Paul Mercurio, Ruth Cracknell, Ronnie Corbett, Hugo Weaving and Charles “Bud” Tingwell.
Saved from demolition several times – most notably in the late 1940s when Sir Laurence Olivier was among the many to leap to its defence – the theatre has withstood a disastrous fire, public criticism and the rigours of age. Soon to be integrated into the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Creative Industries and Performing Arts, the Theatre Royal is today the living centre for the performing arts in Tasmania.
Address: 29 Campbell Street, Hobart
Highlights: Auditorium decorations, tiered seating
Building specs: Type: Theatre. Year Built: 1834-36. Architects: John Lee Archer