TUCKED away in the UWA arts building, passed by students every day and a favourite perch for peacocks, is a symbol of world theatre.
The New Fortune Theatre has a storied past; it was the first replica Shakespearean theatre built in the Southern Hemisphere, with Laurence Olivier and Sybil Thorndike just two of the theatre icons who made sure to send telegrams upon its opening in 1964.
Winthrop Professor in English and Cultural Studies at UWA Bob White said the stage drew a number of overseas visitors keen to experience an authentic reconstruction of London’s 1600s Fortune Playhouse.
“In Perth, it’s not particularly well known but internationally it’s really well known amongst scholars and historians,” he said.
Prof White, together with Ciara Rawnsley, is one of the editors of The New Fortune Theatre: That Vast Open Stage, featuring essays on the theatre’s romantic origins and the significance of the stage.
The outdoor theatre was the brainchild of Professor Allan Edwards, appointed Chair of English at UWA in 1941.
“When they made the arts building, Allan Edwards realised this was the right shape and size (for a Fortune Theatre replica). He sort of smuggled it in; the architect didn’t know what it was,” Prof White said.
The first production of Hamlet at the New Fortune Theatre opened to a full house on January 29, 1964.
“It was a big international event, the world was watching,” Prof White said.
The theatre went on to host the premiere of Dorothy Hewett’s Chapel Perilous, numerous Shakespearean productions, and the 1993 premiere of David Williams’ Beautiful Mutants, an avant-garde production featuring a pit filled with water and flames sparkling over the stage.
A garden has just opened behind the stage; again, a call back to the original Fortune Theatre, and featuring a number of plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.
It is this attention to detail that continues to draw theatre-lovers and historians to the New Fortune.
“International companies want to come; there are ongoing negotiations with the Globe in London to see what it’s like to perform on an authentic stage,” Prof White said.
The New Fortune Theatre: That Vast Open Stage is out now from UWA Publishing, with the book a product of Prof White and Dr Rawnsley’s work with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions 1100-1800.