Wednesday 25 November 2009

Saville Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2 (now Odeon Covent Garden)

The Odeon Covent Garden wasn't an Odeon and has never been in Covent Garden: when it was built in 1931 it was the Saville Theatre in the parish of St Giles in the Fields. It became a cinema in 1970.
The dramatic Art Deco facade by T.P. Bennett has a frieze depicting Drama through the Ages, made in cast stone by Gilbert Bayes, one of the best sculptors of the period. He was responsible for the amazing merfirefighters on the London Fire Brigade HQ and lots of sculptured details for housing estates provided so the poor would have things of beauty as well as the rich.
It's difficult to interpret this pageant. Some seem to be simple historical scenes, others portrayals of actors of the early 20th century in famous roles.
On the main strip on the Shaftesbury Avenue side, Bayes starts in Medieval times with a man carrying a staff, which I think makes him the Lord Chamberlain, who in the 1930s was the official censor of plays in London and Westminster. The first Lord Chamberlain was appointed in 1485, which would fit in with the costume. Bayes was clearly concerned with the role of the Lord Chamberlain in censoring plays, as will become apparent later.
Next to him is a Minstrel, singing a roundelay to the lute.
A monk and a burgher represent the Chester Players. The Chester Mystery Plays were a distant memory in the 1930s, having been banned as Popish under Elizabeth I. Today's revivals started in the 1950s.
St George was a stock figure in medieval 'miracle' plays, which purported to tell the stories of the saints but were more usually based on pagan legends repackaged in Christian form. He kneels before an angel who crowns him with a laurel wreath. Behind him stands a winged boy holding arrows, the princess he saved, who holds the head of his horse, and a rather diminutive but aggressive-looking dragon.
On the other side of the main entrance (note how sympathetically the awning cuts off the feet of some of the figures) is a Greek Chorus, members of which hold the masks of Tragedy and Comedy. The kneeling figure at the front is holding a third mask of Staring Pensively Hoping One Looks Deep.They are led by the choryphaeus, holding a mirror.
The frieze takes a bit of a detour into popular entertainment at this point, with the arrival of Gladiators.
More later.

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