Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The rise and fall of the Mercury Theatre

For a quarter of a century, the Mercury Theatre was the leading theatrical company in Auckland and one of the largest, most professionally run and most important performing arts organisations in the country (see an earlier post on 23 April 2013). A dozen or more shows were performed every year at this venue, ranging from children's pantomimes to cutting-edge drama.

The Auckland Theatre Trust was formed in 1966 to raise funds for the establishment of a professional theatre company in Auckland. An old playhouse in France Street (off Karangahape Road), built in 1910 and later used as a cinema, was extensively refitted to serve as the company's headquarters and principal venue. The Mercury Theatre opened in 1968 with a production of J. M. Barrie's comedy, 'The admirable Crichton'. During the next few decades, the company attracted some of New Zealand's top acting talents (such as Roy Billing, Pam Ferris, Lee Grant, George Henare, Michael Hurst, Ian Mune and Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and finest directors (such as Raymond Hawthorne, Jonathan Hardy, Paul Minifie and Mervyn Thompson).
 
Ref: 4-3408B, Mercury Theatre, c.1928, Si George Grey Special Collections
The company put on classic plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan and Chekhov, as well as contemporary works from Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Athol Fugard, Pam Gems, Christopher Hampton, David Hare and Tom Stoppard. Popular musicals also featured, including 'Chicago', 'The fiddler on the roof', 'Porgy and Bess', 'The sound of music', 'South Pacific' and 'West side story,' as well as full-scale operas, like 'The barber of Seville', 'Don Giovanni', 'Gounod's Faust', 'Madame Butterfly' and 'Turandot'.

The theatre also featured the work of Roger Hall, Bruce Mason, Greg McGee, Carolyn Burns, Renee Taylor, Anthony McCarten, Stephen Sinclair, Vincent O'Sullivan, Maurice Shadbolt and other New Zealand playwrights.

Ref: 7-C1933, selection of items from the Mercury Theatre records, 1966-1992, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Although the Mercury drew large crowds, the costs of maintaining a full-sized company and mounting lavish productions were very high. In 1992, much to the disappointment of Auckland's theatre going public, the company finally closed. The final production was an adaptation of 'The Wind in the Willows', written by Alan Bennett with music and songs by Jeremy Sams.

Some archival material was deposited with the library in 1988 and the collection was greatly expanded after the company's closure. Liquidators gave a small librarian team,, less than twenty-four hours to rescue the Mercury's voluminous records from the France Street premises.

Ref: 4-3408, Mercury Theatre, c.1928, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Filling about 500 boxes, the Mercury Theatre archive includes administration files, invoices, production accounts, front-of-house reports and statistics, costume hire agreements, press clippings, photographs, audio recordings, films and videos, scripts, musical scores, production plans, programmes and posters. It is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in theatrical organisation or in the history of the performing arts in New Zealand. These archival records are cared for in the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Central City Library.

You can search for these records in the Manuscripts Online database, which holds details on the papers, theatre archives and scrapbooks of the theatre. Whilst the Ephemera Index databases has the information on the theatr's programmes, flyers and tickets (to search both databases, simply enter Mercury Theatre into the search box).  The main library catalogue also holds a number of heritage resources relating to the theatre.

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