THEATRE / Sack the cherubs, ditch the vines: 'Honest Ed' Mirvish, the discount-store keeper, made his fortune and began to indulge himself in his his hobby. The result is the magnificent Princess of Wales theatre in Toronto. Naseem Khan reports

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The Independent Culture
TO BUILD a new theatre in this day and age smacks of an act of faith. To build one of the biggest on its continent, to scour the world for craftspeople and materials, to commission not one but 18 murals (the largest commission since Chagall laid his brush to the Paris Opera) smacks of either fantasy or lunacy. The Princess of Wales Theatre, due to open next month, defeats superlatives.

It is situated in downtown Toronto, in what was once a disaster area, according to its co-owner Ed Mirvish. Mirvish, a gravel-voiced, laid-back octogenarian, made his fortune as Honest Ed the discount storekeeper. Chance led him into theatre; his involvement burgeoned. This year sees not only the opening of the Princess of Wales, but marks 30 years of his ownership of the nearby Alexandra Theatre and 10 years at the Old Vic in London. 'It's an expensive hobby,' he says equably, 'But I developed an affection for it.'

Mirvish enjoys the role of homespun folk-hero in Toronto. His vast store is garlanded with placards advertising his quirkiness and commercial sense. 'When 'Ed' dies,' announces one, 'he would like a catered funeral with accordion players and a buffet table with a replica of 'Honest Ed' on it made of potato salad.'

So it is hardly surprising that there are many locally who feel the Princess of Wales should have been called the Mirvish Theatre. But though the theatre is shot through with Mirvishism, the dominant look is that of the New York artist Frank Stella. Forget the occasional painting or discreet mural of other places. This is art with a vengeance: 90ft-long murals adorn the foyer; more decorate the proscenium arch and dome ceiling. He has provided designs for the long, curved front of the balcony and the end seats of all rows, and a 4,504 sq ft external mural for the fly tower.

Ed Mirvish's son, David, is the quiet guiding force behind the aesthetics of the new theatre. An art dealer, David Mirvish had had a long and close working relationship with Stella and felt he was the natural choice: 'He is equal to Miro and Picasso in his ability to work with a range of ideas.' He was quite sure of what he wanted. 'You tend to go into modern theatres and they're all very handsome, but you don't know which city you're in. They lack personality. In fact, a public building is the opportunity for all sorts of performance.'

Stella's performance in the Princess of Wales is virtuoso. Now in its closing stages, it takes in three distinct approaches and techniques. There are the hand-painted murals on surfaces like the ceiling of the auditorium, painted from photographs of Stella collages. Then there are the sculptured reliefs, most notably for the long balcony: 'We want new shapes, not cherubs and vines,' David Mirvish stipulated. Thirdly, there are the areas to which Stella most warms - the large flat foyer areas on which 'pixel murals' have been fixed. These have been made by a laser camera scanning colour transparencies of Stella's three-dimensional collages. The camera converts them into four- colour reproductions (via four squirting paint-guns) on a flat canvas which can be up to twice the size of the original. Stella describes the resulting trompe l'oeil effect as 'explosive'.

Although the techniques vary, the style coheres. Bright and assertive, it employs a series of vivid abstract shapes. Other sets of images emerged as the commission progressed: smoke rings built into three-dimensional images, amoeboid shapes. 'I was striving for visual vitality. I tried to make shapes that were alive and visually arresting. Because it's public, you have to keep it moving. You have to go for energy and movement. Not be too tricky. That doesn't mean you can't have subtlety. But you do have to avoid being academic. You don't get too involved in variations.'

For Mirvish however, the project is bigger than Stella, influential though his work is. For the whole of the Princess of Wales is replete with artistic detail. The mosaic floor has been created with stones brought from Florence. It has been laid by four old Italian-Canadians, some of the handful left who still possess the skill. 'In a way, we've done a modern building with old world craftsmen,' says David Mirvish. The cloakrooms have soothing tiling specially made in Venice. A certain kind of milky glass found only in Japan has been requisitioned for the lifts. A new kind of pearlised paint has been specially created by a team of young designers. The stage is deep (it was created with Miss Saigon in mind); the stalls surprisingly close. ('Everything is customised except the urinals,' said the PR man proudly.)

It is, from top (120ft high) to bottom, a grand gesture. Whether it will adhere to Ed Mirvish's own formula for success is doubtful: 'Fulfil a need. Go against the trend. Keep it simple,' he advised. 'The theatre is a fantasy,' said his son, with characteristic quiet sobriety. 'It makes no sense whatsoever.'

What is certain is that the new 2,000-seater Princess of Wales will liven up part of Toronto. 'It takes driven people to make a city interesting,' says Mirvish Junior, looking back almost wistfully on argosies of tiling, glass and canvases, and on the creation of what must surely be the biggest art-work of the decade.

(Photograph omitted)