Although Australia’s first theatrical performance occurred in New South Wales in 1789, it was some time before a purpose-built theatre appeared. Robert Sidaway built a modest theatre in 1799 but major theatres did not appear until the 1830s, in Sydney and Hobart.
In 1833 the Theatre Royal opened in Sydney and by 1837 the Hobart Town Theatre was almost completed, reopening in 1839. The basis of this theatre survives as part of Hobart’s Theatre Royal, recognised internationally as an excellent example of a Victorian period theatre.
The first serious attempt to build a major theatre in Adelaide was in 1840, soon after the Sydney and Hobart ventures. On May 30, 1840, the South Australian Register reported that “Mr Solomon, of Currie Street, is about to make an important addition to the quarter of the Gilles Arcade, by the erection of a spacious and handsome edifice which he intends to fit up as a theatre.”
Prosperous merchants Vaiben and Emanuel Solomon were prepared to put £3000 into building a “new theatre and public rooms”. A prospectus was published in August 1840 to raise another £7000 for an extended scheme.
By November 1840, construction of the “large and neat pile of buildings” was well under way. The Queen’s Theatre opened on January 11, 1841, with John Lazar playing the lead role in Othello. Lazar, who was the theatre lessee, went through difficult times with the onset of the early 1840s depression and on November 28, 1842, the Queen’s Theatre held its last performance.
During those early years of theatre in Australia, Lazar divided his theatrical career between Sydney and Adelaide. Arriving in Sydney in 1837, he starred at and managed the Theatre Royal and the new Victoria Theatre until 1840, when he left for Adelaide. After abandoning the lease of the Queen’s Theatre in 1842 he returned to Sydney, laying the foundations there for operatic productions and local drama. In 1848 he returned to Adelaide to manage Coppin’s New Queen’s Theatre. Later, with Coppin, he opened the Royal Victoria Theatre.
Lazar was mayor of Adelaide between 1855 and 1858. He retired from council in 1859 and left South Australia in 1863. In 1865 he became town clerk of Dunedin in New Zealand. He died in New Zealand in 1879.
After 1842, the old Queen’s Theatre building was briefly used as a commercial exchange and as an extension of the adjoining Shakespeare Tavern. In 1843, negotiations between the government and Emanuel Solomon led to it being adapted for use as the Magistrates Court, Supreme Court and Police Court.
Stephen’s Almanac of 1847 indicates that apart from a division between the stage and the auditorium, the interior stayed much the same. The unusual court looked “altogether grand and unique”: “The stage is now the Supreme Court ... More appropriately still, a lower dungeon, which formerly served for ghosts and wizards to rise from, or sink into, in melodrama or pantomime is made a temporary prison for the rough and rugged old convicts from Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land, who form the staple of our criminals. The pit is our Police Court, and is still surrounded with tiers of boxes which occasionally, as if in memory of olden times, are tenanted by an inquisitive audience. What were once the lobbies are now the offices respectively of the Police Commissioner and his clerks. The Resident magistrate and the Official Assignee occupy the saloon, while the ladies’ cloak room is claimed by the Sheriff. Other apartments are used by the Judge, the Master of the Court, the Advocate General, the Deputy Registrar; while some are devoted to the purposes of a tavern keeper, whose larder and cellar provide well-spread tables for litigants, witnesses, and advocates.”
In 1846 George Coppin arrived in South Australia, which was then recovering from the depression. He converted a large billiard hall adjoining the former Queen’s Theatre for his own theatre. The New Queen’s Theatre opened in 1846. Although it had no physical impact on the present remains, it meant there was still a theatre venue in the area. It also led to the partnership between Coppin and John Lazar, both important to the development of theatre in Australia.
The New Queen’s Theatre closed in April 1850. By then the adjacent courts had been vacated. Coppin and Lazar remodelled and enlarged the old Queen’s Theatre building to form the Royal Victoria Theatre, which opened on December 23, 1850.
This theatre was described as a “tout ensemble” never yet equalled in the Australian colonies. There was a new facade to Gilles Arcade (still seen today), a pit modeled on the Princess’ Theatre in London, a dress circle with a ladies’ retiring room and saloon, a gallery able to hold 400 people, and an extensive stage department “for the production of gorgeous spectacles”. Six private boxes were attached to the dress circle. The entrance was from Gilles Arcade, while the entrance to the pit and gallery was from Waymouth Street.
This new venture was just as short lived as its predecessor. With the rush to the Victorian goldfields in 1851 patronage of the theatre dwindled. On November 10, 1851, the Royal Victoria closed.
Coppin’s role as “father of Australian theatre” has been disputed but he was certainly an energetic pioneer. Part of the second phase of theatre development in Australia, he introduced “starring tours of visiting celebrities”. An advertisement of his in late 1850 states that “Engagements are pending with some of the most ESTABLISHED FAVOURITES of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart town, who will shortly make their appearance in Adelaide.”
Coppin’s theatrical career spanned Sydney, Tasmania and Melbourne between 1843 and 1846, when he finally came to Adelaide. He was also involved with theatre at Port Adelaide, and at the Exchange Hotel and Auction Mart in Hindley Street. In 1851 he suffered severe financial losses so went to the Victorian goldfields, playing to miners in Geelong. He then left for England. He appeared at the Haymarket Theatre in London and in other theatres throughout the country.
By 1855 Coppin was back in Melbourne with his prefabricated “Olympic” theatre. He remained a prominent figure in the eastern colonies, especially in Melbourne. Apart from his connection with the theatre he was also a philanthropist, Grand Master of the first Grand Lodge of Freemasons in Victoria and a politician.
A testimonial on the Royal Victoria Theatre at the time of its proposed auction on November 29,1852, listed the theatre, Temple Tavern, old theatre attached, “the magnificent saloon”, casino, a dwelling-house, saloon and buildings, together with all the scenery, machinery, “splendid wardrobe” and lamp, as forming overall “one of the most elegant places of amusement existent in this or any of the neighbouring colonies”. Besides the £17,000 spent in its original construction, another £3000 had gone into redecorating and additions since the government’s lease was terminated.
After more alterations, the theatre reopened finally between 1859 and 1868. Between 1868 and 1872, publicans Johannes Schirmer and George Isaacs leased the property. From 1873 the City Mission occupied it before moving to Light Square in 1877.
In December 1877, Messrs Formby and Boase opened their horse and carriage bazaar in the former theatre and adjoining buildings. Stalls, a ring and offices were added within the auditorium and stage areas. The tiered seating around the walls remained so that prospective buyers could view the livestock.
Formby and Boase held some of Australia’s largest sales. Buyers came from all over the country. The bazaar became famous for the quality and size of its stock and for the facilities the shrewd conversion of the theatre provided. The ring was described as one of the biggest in Australia.
Around 1901, a large part of the theatre was demolished. The internal timber structure was sawn off at support points, and much of the stage area and rear were removed. The main wall of the Royal Victoria still faces Gilles Arcade, and behind this is the central part of the earlier Queen’s Theatre facade. The side walls of the auditorium are also still there. The remains of timber joists and bearers show the various levels of seating. An adjacent arch and northern wall of Formby’s stables is also visible. The stable wall retains its typical slit ventilators and rings for tying the animals in the stalls.
The Queen's Theatre is currently used as a performance space.