Wanted: a Don Quixote to save Madrid's `Globe theatre'

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THE EARLY 17th century theatre near Madrid is unique. Its historical importance is comparable to that of the Globe theatre in London. And yet, it is now under threat from regional authorities who, according to international experts, are ignorant and contemptuous of the building's priceless heritage.

The Cervantes theatre in Alcala de Henares, which two enthusiasts have spent 18 years restoring, dates from 1601 and is Europe's first popular open-air commercial theatre. Unlike Shakespeare's Globe, which had to be rebuilt from scratch, the theatre in the birthplace of Spain's greatest writer was revealed by painstakingly peeling away layer upon layer of accumulated theatre history.

"The building is a remarkable microcosm of 400 years of theatrical history, a treasure trove of which we are deeply envious," said Patrick Spottiswoode, Director of Education at the Globe theatre in London. "Now I fear the integrity and the soul of the theatre have been endangered. It's a public disgrace."

The Globe and Cervantes theatres have in recent years formed close links and planned a pioneering programme of joint work on Golden Age drama. This month, however, the heritage director of the Madrid regional government, Jose Miguel Rueda, informed the directors of the Cervantes theatre - dubbed "the two young Wanamakers", in homage to the man whose dogged determination led to the reconstruction of the Globe - that they were to be sidelined and the Cervantes theatre would be run by the regional authorities.

John Varey, president of the Cervantes theatre executive committee for 18 years, says the discovery of the theatre's historic importance "transformed my life". He said he was "heartbroken", after a meeting with regional officials in Madrid, at which the committee members were treated "as if we had been dragged off the street". The authorities announced that the theatre would be treated as just another venue in a string of regional theatres. "They missed the point - that this is a Golden Age theatre that marks a unique and glorious moment in Spanish drama," said Professor Varey.

Following a request last year from the Mayor of Alcala, the Cervantes team submitted a 160-page report, including plans for a museum, educational exchanges, the operation of the building's two superimposed theatres - from the 17th and 19th centuries - and the cinema. "When we met the Madrid regional authorities it was obvious they hadn't read it," Prof Varey says.

Juan Sanz and Miguel Angel Coso were young drama students when they first stepped inside the crumbling former cinema in their home town 18 years ago. "Our first discovery was evidence of a Romantic theatre built in 1831 with a rare elliptical auditorium. But then we began to think that beneath this lay a much earlier corral theatre," says Mr Coso.

Historical allusions to a corral de comedias - an open-air theatre in the courtyard of the surrounding houses beside Alcala's ancient marketplace - set the two men on a quest whose success owed much to Spain's centuries- long devotion to paperwork. "We found a document showing that a carpenter, Francisco Sanchez, obtained the town hall's permission to build an open- air theatre on the site and paid a tax to ensure his was the only one."

It remained in use for 370 years, suffering periodic closure down the centuries because of plague, mourning for a dead king, or following complaints from the university that students were frittering away their time at plays. Documents record complaints of rowdy behaviour, shouting and brawling during performances and, in 1767, the unruly hurling of "oranges, sweets, apples and chestnuts". Leather wine bottles were banned, smoking confined to corridors and sometimes the army had to restore order.

Excavation beneath rubble and later additions revealed the original cobbled floor for the groundlings, a balcony area for women, tiered side benches for men and private boxes for the well-to-do, two of which remain, and which are accessible from adjoining houses that the theatre planned to buy.

Today the "two Wanamakers" are in despair. Mr Coso argues: "They are trying to discredit us, to drive a wedge between us and the international experts who back us, and after 18 years devoting our lives to this project, Mr Rueda dismissed our plans as `improvised'. They've put us against the wall and frankly, we are almost ready to give up."

But Prof Varey wants to fight. "They've subjected us to a campaign of denigration to hand the theatre over to bureaucrats who don't understand anything. But after all our work I'm not going to let this theatre be sidelined and see its historical significance destroyed."