The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry – Past, Present and Future

A talk by Hannah Barker
On Tuesday 13
th February 2018

A disappointingly small audience attended for this very lively and fascinating presentation, which got off to a difficult start because of the lack of success connecting the speaker’s laptop to the projector. This meant that the audience had to view her excellent photographs on the laptop itself. Despite this handicap, we were given a thoroughly engaging account of the history of the Belgrade, named after funding donated from the then Yugoslav government back in the 50s. This was a different era, when the local council and it seemed the majority of Coventry’s population were enthusiastically behind the project, seeing the benefits deriving from a thriving live theatre. And in the early days, the Belgrade welcomed through its portals a whole galaxy of men and women of the theatre who went on to become star names including Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellan.

The Belgrade’s reputation was however solidified by their Theatre in Education project, by which they worked with local schools to promote the educational potential of role play and other dramatic techniques in children’s development, whilst at the same time encouraging their interest in live theatre. The project became nationally well-known and this reviewer well remembers two members of the company coming to Hull University in the mid-60s to explain their work.

The 70s and 80s marked something of a decline in the Belgrade’s fortunes, when the public expenditure crises led to the withdrawal of much of the local government funding that regional theatres had come to rely upon for their viability. Various marketing techniques were used to overcome these difficulties, but the net result was an inevitable concentration upon the need for “bums on seats” and reliance on the tried and tested productions rather than the innovative approach of earlier years. The requirement for such a policy was accentuated by the rise of the Warwick Arts Centre. Having a ready made “intellectual” audience on the spot enabled the latter to attract highly regarded touring companies putting on plays beyond the scope of the Belgrade. This I remains the case, although the Belgrade can still excite its local audience from time to time with strong, relevant productions, such as “One Night in November” , a powerful play based upon the bombing of Coventry in November 1940. So successful was it that it has had 2 repeat runs.

The Belgrade continues to occupy an important role in the cultural life of Coventry. Testament to its determination to survive and thrive is the major refurbishment it has recently undertaken, in line with Coventry’s own modern makeover of the City Centre.

So what of the future? Undoubtedly the most exciting development is the announcement of Coventry being named as the City of Culture 2021. This gives the Belgrade a huge opportunity to be at the centre of a year of cultural events, and our speaker was unsurprisingly upbeat at the prospect. Indeed, the City has already been in close contact with Hull, which had such a successful year as City of Culture 2017, and the hope is that Coventry, including The Belgrade, will make a 2021 a turning point in its position both within the West Midlands and beyond.

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