Theatre discovery sets scene for dramatic display

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One of the pleasures keenly anticipated by actors after a lengthy run is the ritual of "striking the set" - an orgy of destruction when props are used for footballs and the flats (the walls of plywood which have served as the interior represented on the stage for the duration of the play's run) are taken apart.

But a recent find of a pile of dusty canvases in the basement of His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen show that actors have not always been prey to these urges.

For decades these colourful and elaborate backcloths lay forgotten but a clearout of the cellar before a redevelopment project has uncovered more than 40 of the sheets.Their survival is unusual and David Wilmore, a theatre historian, is now negotiating with His Majesty's Theatre to arrange an exhibition of the backcloths along with the Theatres Trust.

"This is a unique discovery," Mr Wilmore said. "backcloths were essentially ephemeral and often scrumpled up and thrown out after use. This collection of scenery probably dates back quite a bit to before World War One and it's the biggest single collection we have discovered.

"The pieces we have studied so far are absolutely extraordinary in terms of quality of painting and it's a miracle how they have survived virtually intact."

Many of the cloths, which are about 36ft high and 24ft wide, are thought to have been brought from the King's Theatre in Dundee by the owner, Sir Robert Arthur.

While some backcloths are still made today they are rare and directors tend to opt for emblematic representation such as the suspended neon lights used by Sir Richard Eyre in Guys and Dolls to suggest a busy street scene. Most of the backcloths found at His Majesty's Theatre were painted for specific shows, but others, such as a 3D image of Loch Lomond, could have been used for any performance requiring a background water scene.

"We are trying to match specific productions to individual backcloths using the theatre records," Andrea Watt, spokeswoman for the theatre, said. "The long term plan is to have an exhibition somewhere in the UK, but we would need something like an aircraft hangar to display them all."

Opened in 1906 and designed by Frank Matcham, His Majesty's Theatre is built entirely of granite and can seat an audience of up to 1,500. Feted as one of Britain's most beautiful theatres, it has played host to a variety of world famous performers including the D'Oyly Carte, Harry Lauder, Sean Connery, John Mills, Sybil Thorndike, Ivor Novello, Robert Donat and Charlton Heston.

A spokesman for the Theatres Trust said: "Some of these exhibits ranging from Trafalgar Square at night to Loch Lomond in the middle of summer are fantastic, especially the Loch Lomond one which has a three-dimensional effect made up from two cloths.

"It's designed to allow light through so as to create a reflection and a rippling effect on the lake which makes it unique. This is a very important discovery which could add a lot to the preservation of British theatre heritage."