Another iconic venue of Mauritius apart from the other famous buildings in the city of Port Louis is certainly the OLD Plaza Theatre in Rose Hill. Found on the Royal Road near the town centre, the Plaza Theatre is considered as the Municipal Town Hall, a Theatre, a Cinema, a Wedding Hall, and a very good recreational area, especially in the green area in front of the theatre.
History of the Plaza Theatre
The Plaza theatre forms part of a municipal complex that the local authorities decided to erect in 1927 following a petition from the inhabitants requesting the construction of ‘a theatre worthy of the growing importance’ of the locality. In those days, only one place could accommodate the companies that came each year to Mauritius to perform operas or operettas, namely the Port-Louis theatre. Consequently, when performing outside of the capital, the companies were obliged to accept the rather narrow stages of unsuitable cinema halls. At the same time, given the ongoing development of the town, the local authorities were eager to have a permanent headquarters and space for offices.
A national competition led to the choice of the present structure, i.e. three bodies surrounded by stone-built stairs, linked but independent one from the other, with one aisle for municipal offices, another forming a wide hall where balls and banquets could be organized, and the main central body for the theatre auditorium.
An ambitious project successfully achieved
From the very start, the project –ambitious to start with – was even more ambitious as regards the size and dimensions of the theatre itself and the fact is that it remains nowadays one of the most beautiful in the south-west of the Indian Ocean. Built in the Italian style and thus enjoying excellent acoustics, it can host up to 1500 spectators with its 54 boxes, 450 first class seats, 422 second class seats, 426 third class seats and the standing gallery for 100 more spectators.
The stage zone (a turning stage since the 1980s) for the artists and the stagehands is as wide as the spectator’s zone and makes it possible to maximize the show both in depth and in height. Thanks to the expert advice of a French producer Louis Tharaud who was then living in Rose Hill, important building errors regarding the stage were avoided.
The inauguration on the 27th May 1933
The intention was to have an opera or an operetta – directed by the expert Louis Tharaud – to inaugurate the building, which took 5 years to be completed. But financial realities precluded the possibility of performing an opera. The inauguration thus took the form of a musical, in the form of a film! Inspired by Oscar Strauss’s A waltz dream, this comedy called The smiling lieutenant had been produced in 1932 with prestigious actors: the peerless Maurice Chevalier, exuberant Myriam Hopkins and ever charming Claudette Colbert!
And before theatre groups began to use the stage regularly, the running of the theatre was entrusted to a film company who used it as a cinema under the name of…Plaza.
The Plaza: an essential part of local theatre life
The first company to perform on the Plaza stage was in 1934, when a local company, the Mauritius Dramatic Club, started to perform English plays from the English-speaking repertoire with Shakespearian dramas, comedies and detective stories. It was not long before live shows in different languages were also performed, even if works in French and English predominated: classical plays, dramas, comedies, operettas, operas, variety theatre, ballets, traditional dances (in particular, Indian), festivals, bodybuilding shows, fashion shows, magic shows, conferences …
Those shows were produced by foreign companies in addition to local groups. Each performance would be announced by three bangs preceding the opening of the traditional red curtain and eagerly anticipated by the audience. The first Mauritian plays to be produced were, in the 1950s, Mirages and Iscariote by Arthur Martial, then La Verrue by André Masson and Judas by Malcolm de Chazal in 1960.
As years went by, a high level of expertise was acquired backstage. Under the direction of a stage designer, Serge Constantin, who was also a painter and trained at the best art schools in London and Paris, stagehands, lighting specialists and designers all contributed to the enchantment of the spectators.
This text is inspired by G. André Decotter’s book entitled Le Plaza : un demi-siècle de vie théâtrale
Text Source (mixed): Opera Mauritius
Interestingly, and as mentioned briefly above, the complex forms part of the whole municipal council of Rose Hill and also includes a public library on the left side, together with the municipal offices and the Max Boulle Art Gallery. The back part, also forgotten or unmentioned by most, was occupied by the old fire station of Rose Hill, together with a nice kiosk and little garden (couples playground?).
Unfortunately, the stand of time has also aged the building and maintenance hasn’t been able to keep pace with the ageing effect (negligence mostly). Today the theatre has lost its glory of the time and the new generation doesn’t know what this building really is; just an old town hall. Apart from a symbol of the past, the building is no longer used, since years, and renovation is still being rumored. When? Only God knows.
On the other side of the Plaza Theatre, near opposite, the Mont Martre Church also stands as one of the tallest buildings in the area, visible from very far!