Bradfield College is an independent school situated in the Berkshire countryside. At the heart of the school is a 1,000 seat amphitheatre formed from a disused chalk quarry. Headmaster Dr Herbert Branston Gray started the Greek plays to save the school from bankruptcy. Since Antigone in 1890, the school has been staging a world-renowned Greek play every third year.
The students who act in the Greek tragedies receive no formal training in speaking ancient Greek, and have only nine months to learn the lines and direction, while keeping up with their other studies. The Greek Theatre closed in 2009 for restoration and, following a £1.3 million appeal, reopened with a performance of Antigone on 20th June 2014. In 2012 Studio Octopi were appointed to undertake the modernisation of the theatre with the intention to reopen in time for a performance in June 2014. The original ‘temple’ theatre building was condemned in 2009, so the College needed a new theatre building or Skene that would enable increased versatility of the theatre. From Studio Octopi’s first visit they were intent on preserving the wild and picturesque setting. Forming a new entrance to the theatre was key and this naturally informed the journey thereon in. Set out over the ruins of the previous entrance stair, the new Agora commands spectacular views over the auditorium. Leading off the granite terrace with the donors’ names engraved into it, a galvanized steel deck cantilevers out over the terraces below.
Punctuating the deck is one of the most elegant trees on the site. Tall and graceful, its presence signals the determination to keep nature at the forefront of the architectural proposals. Descending into the theatre the Grand Staircase effortlessly glides over the chalk cutting below. Each step is lit from a linear LED mounted to the underside of the tread above. At dusk the LEDs provide a spectacular floating stair suspended over the chalk and undergrowth below. The walkway is 85m long and spans almost the full 270 degrees of the theatre terraces. Off the Walkway there are five staircases to distribute the audience down onto the existing concrete aisle steps to their seats. As well as circulation, the Walkway offers a peripatetic vantage point during performances. The galvanized mesh balustrade panels bolted to the edge of the Walkway concrete each have a leaning plate on top, a place to contemplate the performance from. Halfway along the Walkway, centred to the Skene, is the Control Hut. From here the permanent house lighting and temporary performance lighting is controlled. The Hut is constructed entirely from galvanized louvered panels and cantilevered from the Walkway. To the front, a 4.3m wide hinged panel rises on gas struts to provide uninterrupted views of the stage. The 10mm thick galvanized steel plate roof has one of five performance lighting rigs mounted on top. The Skene function and siting is based on the traditional Greek theatre layout and has been designed to provide support for temporary scenery on the stage. The building is clad in cedar shingles and to the sliding doors at the front, cedar batons. Internally the structure is entirely standardised and exposed, providing opportunity for a cost-effective but honest and striking workspace. The front elevation is designed to be fully openable at ground floor (with a series of sliding doors) and partially at first floor (with a series of hinged double doors). The cantilever structure at first floor level enables the loggia to be fully opened-up (12m clear span) with no structural elements to constrain the theatrical use of the space.
The Bradfield Greek Theatre continues to feel part of a larger English garden, wild and intoxicating. At the height of summer, the theatre takes on a truly unique appearance, as the light drops the theatre lights take over, and the magic of outdoor performance comes alive.
Architect: Studio Octopi
Image: Philip Vile