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A Third Millennium Theatre for a First Millennium City

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Four years and £26.5m in the making, the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury is now ready to take centre stage. The new venue stands on the site of the old Marlowe Theatre, a converted 1930s cinema which – though popular – could not satisfy the sophisticated needs of modern audiences.

Janet McGuinness, head of culture and enterprise for Canterbury City Council, says that the project is at the cultural heart of the council's vision of regeneration and is linked to other cultural hubs in East Kent such as the new Turner Contemporary in Margate and Folkestone's burgeoning Creative Quarter.

Unlike many other civic projects, the Marlowe Theatre is not only ready in time, but also came in on budget. You could say that’s surprising, for the build was due to begin just as the global economic downturn took hold. Everyone involved praises Canterbury City Council for taking the decision to go ahead with the project.

Architect Keith Williams said at the Press launch that: “The authorities recognised that although the city has plenty of heritage, it also needs to have a future.” This new theatre – built with the audience always in mind – should ensure that Canterbury remains at the heart of arts in the South East. No seat is more than 25m from the stage and, although it's significantly larger than the old Marlowe, it feels more intimate.

The main auditorium has a capacity of 1,200 compared to the previous 940, and Williams admits that it was a challenge to get the acoustics right. Like most regional venues, the Marlowe will be used to host everything from pantomime, concerts and musicals to straight plays, dance, opera and stand-up comedy.

He is confident that they have got it right, with solid reasoning behind every stylistic decision. The Italian-made leather seats were acoustically tested to prevent sound bouncing back if they remain unoccupied, and there are lengths of black American walnut strategically placed around the auditorium to capture and disperse sound waves evenly. This is a third millennium theatre in a first millennium city.

However, there are nods to the past everywhere. In recognition of how the previous theatre started life, the stalls are reminiscent of a cinema’s screening room, while the external architecture echoes and complements its historic surroundings. The building also boasts a studio theatre space. With seating for 150, the seats here are retractable, meaning that the room is also suitable for rehearsals. This space will be used for more experimental theatre as well as providing a home to artists and playwrights in residence.

The Marlowe Theatre has its official opening by HRH Prince Andrew on Tuesday 4 October, with the first public stage show– the Canadian company Cirque Eloize's ID – having its UK premiere between 12 and 15 October. WoS will be at both events.


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