|Gilbert's Plays > The Palace of Truth >
Last night the new Prince’s Theatre, situated in Coventry-street, threw open its doors to the public. Mr. Edgar Bruce, its proprietor and manager, has contented himself in the meantime with reviving Mr. Gilbert’s Palace of Truth, a piece first seen at the Haymarket some 13 years ago, but the occasion was otherwise interesting enough to attract a brilliant and fashionable house. The site, size, equipment, and dramatic aim of the new theatre place it at once in the first rank, and, considering that such theatres in London may still be counted upon the fingers of one hand, Mr. Bruce’s enterprise can scarcely fail to exercise an important influence upon dramatic art.
Mr. Phipps, the architect, has profited by his experience of the construction of some 40 theatres to secure a rare combination of comfort and prettiness in all parts of the house. The theatre is situated in a new block of buildings facing Coventry-street and flanked by Oxendon and Whitcomb streets. The frontage, which is treated in the French renaissance style, is occupied by an hotel, but the greater portion of the block to the rear is devoted to the theatre, which has a distinctive exterior of red brick ornamented with Portland stone. At the corner of Coventry and Oxendon streets three imposing doorways open into a circular and vaulted vestibule, from which marble stairs and mosaic passages lead to the private boxes, stalls, and balcony. Foyers adjoin these parts of the house, and under the vestibule is a smoking-room fitted up in the Moorish style, with grotto and fernery attached.
Admirable as are these various adjuncts, they by no means exhaust the merit of the structural design, which is best realized in the interior of the theatre itself. There is not a bad seat in the house from floor to ceiling; the means of access and exit are ample; there are no pillars anywhere but in the pit, and those very few in number; and brightness and refinement characterize the general scheme of the decoration, the upholstery being red orange plush, the walls Venetian red or Japanese bronze, the ceiling gold, contrasting with a dark-tinted lunette picture over the proscenium, and the whole being bathed in the soft light of electric lamps on the incandescent system. The interior of the house, in short, is a model of snugness and elegance combined. It is not so much a temple as a boudoir of the drama.
The time-honoured arrangement of pit and gallery has been retained, so that no class of playgoers can feel themselves aggrieved. Indeed, the humbler patrons of the Prince’s theatre will find their comforts provided for in a way which the occupants of the favoured portions of most other theatres might envy, the “gods,” for instance, reaching their domain by a staircase composed of successive breaks of four steps and a landing. Royalty is honoured with a special entrance in the form of an inclined plane.
In view of the terrible catastrophe at the Ring Theatre, Vienna, great precautions have, of course, been taken against fire. The stage, where the “devouring element” usually starts from, is shut off from the front of the house, not only by a substantial brick wall but by an iron curtain which is raised and lowered by hydraulic mechanism. This iron curtain is the second of the kind constructed, the other being fitted up in the Lyceum Theatre at Edinburgh. It is composed of two screens of iron-plates riveted together, with an air-space between, and weighs about seven tons. No contrivance of the sort has ever been practically tested, but if anybody thinks of lowering it in the event of an alarm of fire it will doubtless help to check the progress of the flames from one part of the house to the other. To keep it from getting out of order it is to be employed every night in place of the green baize curtain in use at other theatres, being worked by a lever like a railway switch. Last night it was raised in the space of 30 seconds as soon as the orchestra struck up the overture, and being painted a terra-cotta red, its true character would probably never have been suspected by the bulk of the audience but for an inscription painted upon it by an inartistic hand setting forth its nature and uses.
Some surprise may be felt at the choice of The Palace of Truth for the “inauguration” of a new theatrical enterprise, but as a comedy of assured respectability it was probably deemed a safer card to play than a new piece whose failure might have involved the theatre in some discredit. Respectable the piece is, but hardly more. It is rather too elaborate a joke to be enjoyed more than once, and the spectator must be enviably constituted who even for the first time can see it through and escape boredom. The humour derived from transporting the dramatis personæ to an enchanted edifice where they are each obliged to speak the truth to their own detriment, has hardly so much body in it as the author supposes. To flavour three acts which have no dramatic interest of their own, it has sometimes to be diluted to a point at which the consumer may not unreasonably complain. The most favourable method of treating this version of Madame de Genlis’s fairy tale is to divest it of its pretensions to being a comedy, since even in its satire it lacks the ring of truth, and to regard it as a burlesque without songs, slang, or dances.
Unfortunately, the company brought together to interpret Mr. Gilbert’s work have not approached their task in this spirit. They appear to have taken their author, for the most part, au sérieux, and the result is a certain want of finish and sometimes of sense in the performance as a whole. Mr. Kyrle Bellow throws as much sham intensity into the part of Prince Philamir as he might if it were a genuine product of the tragic muse; and Mr. Anson, as the King, proves himself to be rather a melancholy comedian in a part associated with the rollicking humour of the late Mr. Buckstone. In such surroundings Mr. Beerbohm Tree’s subtle portrayal of the complimentary courtier Chrysal necessarily loses some of its significance. Nor on the side of the ladies are much better results achieved. Miss Lingard, an accomplished actress, is not seen at her best as the Princess, having too much earnestness and singleness of purpose for the school of dramatic topsy-turveydom, and Miss Sophie Eyre, as Mirza, the designing coquette, has few chances of turning her emotional faculties to account. On the whole, therefore, there will be little reason to regret an early change of programme. The energetic management which has brought the Prince’s Theatre to its present state of completeness may be trusted to attain a higher level of dramatic achievement than respectability.
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