Copenhagen has a new urban icon. One that not only adds drama to the city’s skyline but also sets the stage for a long-awaited revival of contemporary theatre in Denmark.
By Theresa Valbæk
An enduring wish came true when, in February of this year, the Royal Danish Theatre inaugurated its new playhouse. Finally, audiences in Denmark can enjoy contemporary drama in a state-of-the-art purpose-built venue. The Royal Danish Playhouse is designed by two of the nation’s most celebrated architects and the building itself has already been lauded by design critics.
The playhouse is not only home to the dramatic arts, but its grand foyer and wooden jetty promenade also open the city to the harbour, offering spectacular views of the new opera house.
With 650 and 200 seats respectively in the two main auditoriums and 100 seats in the Studio Stage, the new playhouse offers customised venues for every kind of dramatic performance, from the spectacular to the intimate. State-of-the-art onstage, offstage and backstage, the entire complex offers 20,000 m2 of enjoyment and entertainment.
The playhouse will be home to the Royal Danish Theatre as well as occasional performances by the Royal Danish Ballet. In addition, the playhouse will host talks and debates, children’s activities and art house concerts.
The monumental design was created by Danish architects Boje Lundgaard and Lene Tranberg, who in May 2003 were granted the commission by the Danish Ministry of Culture following an open international competition. Unfortunately, Boje Lundgaard (1943-2004), who died at the age of 60, did not live to see the completion of his playhouse design.
The building is composed by three striking architectural features: the promenade, the main auditorium corpus and the stage tower. Access to the foyer takes theatregoers along an oak promenade, which juts into the harbour on raised slanted piles. The copper-clad stage tower will gradually oxidize to join the city’s historic skyline of copper-clad wonders. In the evening, architectural ambiance lighting renders the top floor in splendid glowing hues.
A monolith of black glazed tiles, the playhouse offers itself as a veritable matrix of high drama that orientates the city towards the sea and wider horizon; a home of grand emotion, subtle embrace, and wild comedy.
In the 1880s, as intimate naturalism replaced the tradition of declamatory drama, it became increasingly apparent that the grand Old Stage of the Royal Danish Theatre, located on Kongens Nytorv, could no longer be the home of contemporary drama. In the decades to follow, a number of imaginative plans were unveiled for an annexed stage suitable for modern chamber plays and dramatic realism.
Following prolonged political wrangling, the New Stage was finally constructed next to the Old Stage and inaugurated in 1931. It was designed as a combined concert hall and theatrical stage for the Royal Danish Theatre and the then newly-established national broadcasting corporation, which soon outgrew its limited share of the premises. In 1940, a new custom-designed broadcasting house was inaugurated elsewhere in the city, in Frederiksberg.
The New Stage was from its inception more a concert hall than a theatrical stage and lacked basic stage facilities. Over the years, the Royal Danish Theatre therefore established a number of auxiliary venues located throughout the city. In 1998, a disused power station in Adelgade was remodelled and served as a three-stage venue until the 2007 season. Finally, in May 2001, a broad political majority in the Danish parliament backed an initiative to establish a new Royal Danish Playhouse by the Copenhagen harbourfront, close to major sights such as the Royal Palace and Nyhavn – and within a 10-minute walking distance from the Royal Danish Theatre’s Old Stage.
The Copenhagen Improvement Society has joined the ranks of design critics and offered its recognition of the architectural merit of the playhouse in the form of a diploma. In their citation they state: “The playhouse offers a resolved location by the city’s harbourside, featuring a large promenade platform soon to become a very popular downtown attraction, which will help bring new life to a formerly somewhat sedate part of town.”
The diploma was awarded to the Royal Danish Theatre and architects Lundgaard & Tranberg jointly.