This Statement of Significance was issued by the Historic Buildings Council (the forerunner to Heritage Victoria) in 1986, the one hundredth anniversary of the original Alexandra Theatre.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
199 – 225 Exhibition Street
Year Construction Started
Extent of Registration
To the extent of all the buildings and the land as defined by the Heritage Council.
STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE
The building now known as Her Majesty’s Theatre was opened on 1 October 1886 as the Alexandra Theatre in honour of The Princess of Wales. It was designed by the Melbourne architect, Nahum Barnet, for a French born exhibition entrepreneur from New South Wales, Jules Joubert.
The building was constructed in a quarter of the city that, even in 1886, had long been associated with entertainment and theatrical ventures. The eastern end of Bourke Street was the entertainment centre of the central city area and the corner of Exhibition Street and Little Bourke Street was within this entertainment precinct, but was hardly its best aspect.
The Alexandra was an early work of the architect, Nahum Barnet. Stylistically, it was an amalgam of mainly renaissance derived English and French sources. The second empire, or French renaissance style, was reflected in the slight projection of the central pavilion and the emphasis of a steep mansard roof over this portion, capped by a cantilevered Belverdere or Widow’s Walk. This quickly became a local landmark. The English component was seen in the use of cement pilasters and dressings against a red brick carcase in the manner of the Queen Anne revival and cognate British modes of the day.
The architect, Barnet, was an advocate of the use of red brick, amongst other features, and the Alexandra Theatre was an early material expression of his views. This aspect of the building has been impaired with painting. Another prominent feature of the early building that has been lost is the mansard roof. While this detracts from the nineteenth century character of the building, this is only one aspect of its importance. The ground floor facing Exhibition Street has also been altered beyond recognition. Originally, the theatre entrance was flanked on either side by shops, with a castiron verandah along the footpath, arched over the entrance, an early addition. The 1886 building featured a central tower with a half- wheel window (reminiscent of that of the Exhibition Buildings).
Joubert had hoped that his building would be the home of high class entertainment, opera and drama, but in its initial years low melodramas were the main fare and Joubert and his partner, Captain de Burgh, did not achieve financial success. By November 1886, the theatre was under new management. Only gradually did it develop the range of drama, light opera, grand opera, theatre and other stage shows with which the it came to be associated. It was through melodrama that the Alexandra’s first real successes were achieved.
Alfred Dampier, an English Shakespearian actor / manager, leased the theatre between 1888 and 1893. The Alexandra was billed as ‘the Australian theatre’ and presented plays on Australian themes written by Dampier and the litterateur, Garnet Walch. These included Marvellous Melbourne (1889), stage versions of the novels For the Term of His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms and sensation dramas such as The Miner’s Right and The Scout and the Trapper (1891). These melodramas were staged with spectacular realism and their themes and cliffhanging suspense anticipated the motion pictures of the twentieth century.
J.C. Williamson’s historic involvement with the theatre began towards the end of 1899 when his lease of the nearby Princess Theatre ended. He now leased the Alexandra and opened it as Her Majesty’s in 1900 after renovations. More extensive renovations were undertaken by the architect William Pitt later in the year. Pitt had already designed many places of entertainment in Melbourne, including the Princess Theatre. Among Pitt’s alterations were the removal of the shops. From this time, Her Majesty’s was the venue for a great number of theatrical successes.
The theatre was particularly associated with Dame Nellie Melba, who appeared here in September 1911. She was also associated with alterations to the theatre. Two years before she had claimed that the acoustics of the theatre were ‘dead’ and alterations were made to the proscenium and auditorium to accommodate her requirements. For many years, a Rupert Bunny portrait of her hung in the foyer of the theatre.
During the next seventeen years, the management of J.C. Williamson’s Theatres Ltd consolidated the position of Her Majesty’s as being of equal importance to the now demolished Theatre Royal as an outlet for opera, Gilbert and Sullivan and musical comedy. The name of the theatre was changed to His Majesty’s after the first world war. On 29 October 1929, the auditorium of the theatre was destroyed by fire. It was to be nearly five years before the interior was restored but even in its burnt condition it proved a suitable sound stage for motion picture production under the management of F.W. Thring and his Efftee film company.
In 1933, J.C. Williamson decided to rationalise its theatre holdings. The Theatre Royal was closed and a decision taken to redevelop Her Majesty’s. C.N. Hollinshed and Albion Walkley were chosen as architects and reconstruction began on 24 March 1934. The 1934 works effected changes to the decoration of the auditorium. The crimson and gilt colour scheme and heavily ornate wallpaper gave place to pale applegreen and oyster walls, Australian timber surfaces and rose floor coverings. The thickly encrusted mouldings beside the stage were replaced by elegant bas-reliefs. The traditional horseshoe with its balconies and boxes in a continuous circle, gave way to a more open design with the upper circle more as a top tier than a balcony. Structurally, many elements of the theatre were sound and in a position to be retained. As well as the renovated facade and interior, the ground and first floor foyers were also among the striking new elements of the theatre. These spaces, with their fine detailed wood and metalwork conveyed an overall impression not of revolutionary design but of modern comfort and affluence, catering to the tastes of the well-to-do citizens of Melbourne.
Stylistically, and technologically, the new interior represented a major advance for Australian theatres. Hollinshed had entirely rejected traditional theatre design features in a bold new conception that distinguished the interior from other recently renovated theatre interiors (such as the Princess) and challenged the most modern cinemas with this restrained and elegant expression of modernism. The theatre was also the first in Australia to employ the services of an acoustic consultant (H. Vivian Taylor) in its design. To this day, Her Majesty’s is recognised by Australian theatre performers for the distinct and appealing timbre of its acoustics. In employing extensive atmosphere control facilities, His Majesty’s was now one of the best equipped large theatres in the country.
The general impression of the theatre as it stands today is one of contrast, revealing a sequence of stylistic accretions over time. The outer shell is late nineteenth century in character while the interior is distinctively 1930s, almost cinema-like even. ‘Modernisation’ of the interior in the 1930s enabled the continuing popularity of what is essentially a nineteenth century theatre in its form. It may also have helped J.C. Williamson to defend live theatre against the new appeal of the motion picture industry.
As far as Australian entertainment is concerned, Her Majesty’s is a shrine of major significance. Opera, ballet, theatre, musical comedy, pantomime and cinema have all had their day here, and many major Australian and international artists have been associated with the theatre. For example, Anna Pavlova was the highlight of 1926. The theatre played a role in the development of an Australian ballet company as host to Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monto Carlo in 1936. Several of its dancers stayed on in Australia, notably Eduard Borovansky, after whom the Borovansky ballet (the fore-runner of the Australian Ballet) was named. The theatre also proved a successful opera house. The 1940s and 1950s saw seasons of Italian opera and in 1965, Williamson’s introduced Joan Sutherland to Australian audiences here. Dr. Harold Love, reader in English and an authority on Australian opera and the stage, has described Her Majesty’s as ‘the most important major theatre still standing’ in terms of its contribution to Australian theatre history.
After its renovation in 1934, Her Majesty’s became J.C. Williamson’s principal venue for large scale productions ranging from opera and ballet to musical comedy. It has proven itself extremely well suited for the latter by virtue of its location and design attributes. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the traditional home of musical comedy in Melbourne, with such productions of the 1930s as The Chocolate Soldier, Rose Marie and No No Nannette, to the new type American musicals of the 1940s and 50s, like Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma!, culminating in the long running My Fair Lady in 1959. The modern period has seen such productions as Evita and Guys and Dolls (1986).
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne may be regarded to be of architectural and historical significance for the following reasons: as a well-known landmark institution of entertainment with a hundred year history of contribution to the cultural life of Victoria’s capital; as a key element of the entertainment precinct of central Melbourne; as a surviving feature of the redevelopment of the Little Bourke and Exhibition Street entertainment precinct in the 1880s; as an important focus for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century development of melodrama and opera; as an important focus for the twentieth century development of entertainment in Victoria, including opera, Australian film, radio, ballet, plays and musical comedy; for its singular and intimate association with such famous Australians as Jules Joubert, William Dampier, J.C. Williamson, Dame Nellie Melba, F.W. Thring and Eduard Borovansky; as the leading theatre and production centre of the J.C. Williamson chain of theatres after 1934; as the traditional home of musical comedy in the past 1945 period; for its contribution to employment and the development of production skills in the entertainment industry over a long period; as an early major work of the noted architect Nahum Barnet; for its association with the noted architect William Pitt; as a material expression over a long period of changing commercial and design considerations to the entertainment industry; as a restrained expression of modernism in the reworking of the interior to the design of the architect C.N. Hollinshed undertaken in 1934; for the popular appeal of its interior (including foyers), which have successfully accommodated Melbourne theatre audiences for over fifty years; as an expression of fine craftsmanship in the detailing, materials and overall design of the theatre interior and as a distinctive and successful performing venue.