The Octagon Theatre Is 50

On Friday, the Octagon Theatre turned 50.

In the mid-1960s, the need for a 650-seat theatre to accommodate large lecture classes at UWA provided a wonderful opportunity to create a new theatrical venue at the same time.

The Octagon Theatre was completed in late 1968 and opened on 1 February 1969 by then Chancellor Sir Lawrence Jackson. It was the Festival of Perth presentation of Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One, directed by John Sumner.

The Octagon Theatre is the most versatile of the several venues managed by University Theatres. The thrust stage theatre was designed by Perth architect Peter Parkinson, with acoustics by Warwick Mehaffey, based on advice from renowned theatre architect and director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie. The greatest advantage of the thrust stage design is the semi-circular seating plan that provides excellent sightlines and an intimate environment, despite its 658 seat capacity. Adaptable staging allows the thrust to be extended for dance productions or removed to accommodate 100 extra seats in proscenium arch mode. An orchestra pit is revealed when the stage floor is removed. It is the only venue of its type in Perth.

The building committee had the foresight to invite Sir Tyrone Guthrie to Perth to advise on design and Professor Fred Alexander (who established the Festival of Perth in 1953) recalled that he brushed aside local plans for a multi-purpose theatre, insisting on a large open thrust stage. From Guthrie’s sketches grew the Octagon Theatre, the opening of which in 1969 generate enormous interest and caused the University to rethink its theatre policies.

The Octagon was also conceived as a lecture theatre, meaning it was specifically designed for the acoustics of the voice – no matter which seat you sit in, you should be able to hear every word.

Peter Parkinson (1925-2014)

Born in London, Peter Parkinson (1925-2014) graduated from the Architectural Association in 1950, moved to Perth in 1952 and joined FGB Hawkins and Desmond Sands Architects. He founded the architectural practice Hill and Parkinson, later Hill, Parkinson and Harris, in 1965. Lex Hill was also a Sands alumnus. Together they developed Sands’ economy of architecture and line to an extreme in their own work, seeking to derive very clear rules and points of engagement for the architect, the builder and the building.

Parkinson’s architecture was lean and direct, and the Octagon Theatre is a masterwork of clean economy in architecture and construction, striving to an economy driven not only by budget but also through philosophy. Famously, Parkinson designed both the Octagon and the Dolphin (1976) theatres from concrete block. The documents were virtually devoid of dimensions, relying almost entirely on block coursing and a relentless efficiency of design that embraced the traditional construction technique of blockwork, only slightly modifying it to become elegant enough for a university theatre. Doors and windows were consistent to enable the elimination of a schedule, and the entire specification was reputedly only one A3 sheet of notes.

In Parkinson’s theatrical agenda this level of parsimony allowed the mute box to take on the distinction and romance of the theatre production; the architecture forming simply the enclosure for the particularity of program.

The theatre has the red terracotta roof characteristic of UWA buildings. Despite the modernist design of the theatre, Parkinson contextualised the building within the UWA campus architecture. The Hackett Memorial Buildings (1932) had established a distinctive design repertoire of pitched terracotta roofs, limestone walls, buff-hued local stone, colonnades and porches that was reinterpreted by later generations.

The Octagon Theatre in 1969
Aerial image of UWA Crawley campus

The Institute of Architects, WA Chapter, awarded Hill & Parkinson a Bronze Medal in 1969 for the Octagon Theatre in the category of Public Building Cultural. Apparently, Parkinson was so smitten with the project that he built himself a tiny ‘Rectangle Theatre’ in his backyard!

His other works include Churchlands Teachers College (1972), Hayman Theatre (Curtin University, 1977), major restorations to His Majesty’s Theatre (1977-1982), The Hole in the Wall Theatre (1984) in Subiaco and many other commercial and residential properties.

Initially the policy remained that the University theatres were intended primarily of internal use (ie, University use) but eventually they were opened for use to outsiders.

Since opening in 1969, the Octagon has been a major venue for the annual Festival of Perth (now Perth International Arts Festival) and has staged major works of drama and music by some of the world’s leading companies. Artists that have played the venue include Steven Berkoff, Kerry Armstrong, Paco Pena, Michael Kieran Harvey, Marianne Faithful, Bob Geldof, Henry Rollins, Eddie Izzard, Sean Hughes and Sir David Attenborough.

The Octagon was the third theatre to be built with the famous Guthrie thrust stage and bowl-shaped auditorium. The first two were the Canadian Shakespeare Festival Theatre (now Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada) in 1953 and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (Minnesota, US) in 1963, replaced in 2006 with a new theatre complex designed by Jean Nouvel which maintained the thrust stage.

Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971)

English director Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971) brought the thrust stage to its greatest prominence. In 1936 after an outdoor performance at Elsinore of the Old Vic Company’s Hamlet was “rained-off” and quickly restaged in a ballroom, Guthrie began to realise that the thrust stage had a dynamic of thrilling potential. After the war, his work at the Edinburgh Festival was followed by the creation of the “Guthrie” thrust stages at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and in Sheffield, England. His influence was to be profound, although his original vision was almost inevitably modified and compromised.

Puffles and Honey at the Guthrie Theatre in 2016

Guthrie had an aversion to excessive scenic or lighting effects – he believed in text, actor and costume taking the stage. But few of his followers held such a puritanical view. And Guthrie, too, was a man of his time. He was influenced by the then-current antipathy to multiple balconies. His theatres either had a single balcony around their perimeter or (in his final return to his “ideal” form in Sheffield) no balcony at all. Years were to pass before the rediscovery of the multi-level courtyard form, in the Young Vic and the Cottesloe (the National’s third space), that proved that vertical encirclement has a powerful role to play in creating theatricality and intimacy.

In February 1971, the Festival of Perth re-staged Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s Old Tote production of Sophocles’ play, King Oedipus (with Ronald Falk and Ron Haddrick) and of William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (with Patricia Kennedy, Malcolm Phillips and Robin Ramsay).

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