Commercial theatre in Northern Ireland
Over the centuries, commercial presentations, including both touring productions and local work, have consistently proved to the Ulster taste. When audiences began to return to theatre in numbers from the 1910s onwards, the commercial theatre was what it came to see. Since then this line has proved redoubtable.
Frequently described as cautious and conservative in taste, Northern Irish audiences have shown huge enthusiasm for musicals, West End style commercial shows, comedies, pantomimes and classics. Ballet and opera have always drawn strong attendances in Northern Ireland, as has locally produced work by performers such as the very popular character actor and comedian James Young.
In the course of the 20th-century, this commercial work certainly helped theatre to overcome the distaste with which some in Ulster had once viewed it. Throughout the Troubles particularly, it provided brightness to a society that was often in real need of it, offering sheer escapism or work that reflected local situations rather than seriously challenged them.
Northern Ireland’s longest-standing commercial theatre is Belfast’s Grand Opera House (designed by Frank Matcham and opened in 1895). Others have included the Theatre Royal (from 1793, in various incarnations, until 1915 when it became a cinema), the popular Empire Theatre music hall (from 1894, in various incarnations, until 1961) and the Royal Hippodrome variety and music hall (1907 to 1997, though used a cinema from 1931).
More recently, there has been the Belfast Arts Theatre (commercially programmed from the 1960s until its closure in 1999), while more recently Belfast’s Waterfront Hall (opened in 1997) and Derry’s Millennium Forum (2001) have established themselves as important venues for commercial theatre.
The non-commercial theatre in modern Northern Ireland
The non-commercial theatre has traditionally had a dedicated, if at times difficult, history in the north of Ireland. Though this is predictable, with non-commercial theatre everywhere fighting for audiences and funding, the unique situation in the north was an additional factor.
From the formation in the early 1900s of the Ulster Literary Theatre, the first northern company created with the intention of showing local audiences to themselves, the non-commercial theatre has very often sought to reflect, address and challenge the tremendous tensions in a divided society.
Major companies founded or emerging to work in this way have included the Belfast Repertory Players or Empire Players (1929-1930s), which notably brought working class theatre to working class audiences for the first time, and the Ulster Group Theatre (1940-1959), which over 20 years consistently brought new work to the stage. The Lyric (Players) Theatre (established in 1951) is the longest-lived and currently the only producing building-based theatre in Northern Ireland.
Over the 20th-century, Northern Ireland’s non-commercial theatre companies have created work with passion and conviction despite ongoing difficulties. With the 1959 controversy sparked by Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge, theatre became front-page news and the sector took a principled stand against the narrow parameters within which it felt it was operating. After this, it was thought, theatre could never be the same again.
Nonetheless, in the 1960s, though now being awarded public subsidy, non-commercial theatre had barely time to find its feet when the Troubles broke out. Badly hit in urban centres, particularly Belfast, by the public disturbances, the 1970s proved enormously difficult in sheer practical terms for theatre as all else.
Amateur drama, always hugely popular in Ulster, now came to the fore, and in towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland the amateurs carried the torch when all professional venues, with the exception of the Lyric, were forced by the civil situation into going dark. This amateur line, though formally unexplored by researchers, is a rich mine of activity which endures as a hugely successful and thriving movement right up to the present.