King’s Theatre revamp reveals stunning mural

John Byrne's spectacular King's Theatre mural. Picture: Greg Macvean
John Byrne's spectacular King's Theatre mural. Picture: Greg Macvean
Have your say

IT took celebrated artist John Byrne just ten minutes to agree to take on the ambitious project at the King’s Theatre.

He had a design for imposing the 85 square metre domed roof ten days later. And incredibly the stunning mural, which is unveiled today, was completed in the space of only five weeks.

The ceiling before John Byrne set to work. Picture: Jane Barlow

The ceiling before John Byrne set to work. Picture: Jane Barlow

The completed work, the fourth design to grace the ceiling since the theatre’s opening in 1906, is Byrne’s biggest piece of work.

The 73-year-old artist, who has a home nearby, said it was one commission he could not refuse.

He said: “I’d been so excited that I’d started working straight away.

“I’m not really one for sitting around pondering what I’m going to do, I just get on with it and think while I’m working. Don’t wait for inspiration – inspiration is for amateurs!”

The unveiling of the All the World’s a Stage mural marks the end of the first phase of a massive refurbishment of the King’s, affectionately known as the Old Lady of Leven Street. The work, costing £125,000, has been paid for via private donations and contributions from theatre-goers to a “development fund”.

Rachel Simmonds, of Edinburgh architect Smith Scott Mullan Associates, which managed the project, said it was surprisingly easy to get Byrne on board. She said: “I also teach at Edinburgh College of Art and a colleague of mine knows John Byrne’s daughter, Celie.

“I asked if she would mind passing a request on about whether he would consider creating a new mural for us. Ten minutes later I got an e-mail back from John himself saying: ‘I’m in!’”

Byrne, as well known for his paintings as he is for award-winning plays such as The Slab Boys and TV drama Tutti Frutti, was simply asked to come up with a concept that “captured the atmosphere of the theatre”.

Ms Simmonds added: “John Byrne is unique in the sense that he straddles the worlds of theatre and visual art, making him perfect for this particular commission.

“We were confident he would produce a mural which would encapsulate the excitement of being taken to another place by the theatre.”

The previous trompe l’oeil image, which appears to be open to the sky, was created in 1985. It had been partially covered over with plaster in order to make the ceiling safe and left to dry out for six months. It replaced a 50s design which, itself, covered the 1906 original.

The dazzling finished product took a five-person team, including Byrne, artist Kevin O’Leary, whom Byrne knew from his work as a scene painter at the Royal Lyceum, and Rachel, five weeks to complete.

Due to the fact the building is listed, the team found themselves working at the top of a 100ft high scaffolding that had to be left freestanding, causing it to occasionally sway as they worked.

Ms Simmonds said: “Strange as it sounds it wasn’t scary, you knew it wasn’t going to fall. The dome is actually a lot deeper than you would think looking up from the ground, so I actually found myself forgetting how high up we were. It was like being in a little room.”

The completed celestial scene, which depicts a red-haired woman draped in a star-patterned cloth pushing the moon through the sky, while being pursued by a harlequin figure carrying the sun, includes several references to the theatre world, including one of Shakepeare’s best known quotes.

Byrne said: “It’s the quote from Jaques’ famous monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like it, which begins ‘All the world’s a stage . . .’ “I could have probably found something more obscure, but I didn’t want people puzzling over it. The King’s has always been about theatre for the whole community, it’s not elitist, so I didn’t want the mural to be either.”

Fittingly, the first audience to see the dome’s latest incarnation will be those attending the opening night of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis this Saturday.

Duncan Hendry, chief executive of the Festival City Theatres Trust, said he was confident they would like what they see.

He said: “I really think people will be wowed by it, it’s a fantastic work. We can’t thank John and the rest of the team enough for their stellar achievement.

“There was no-one more appropriate to provide such a beautiful and thought-provoking design and I’m sure that audiences will enjoy his work for many years to come.”

It all adds up to a masterpiece

10 days between Byrne being asked to do mural and King’s staff going to studio to see his vision;

5 painters;

10 hour days;

5 full weeks;

350 hours of work;

85 sq m – size of the dome.


The unveiling of the mural marks the end of the first phase of a major refurbishment at

the King’s.

Last August the beloved theatre reopened after a £2.6m revamp which saw many changes designed to make the audience’s experience more pleasurable, including a comfort cooling system installed on the roof, with ventilation running throughout the building.

New carpets were laid from the stalls to the dress circle and walls and cornices were re-papered, repainted and re-polished, highlighting many of the building’s stunning original features.

A reduction in seating capacity and the addition of removable chairs also means patrons can now stretch out more. The next phase of the refurb, scheduled to begin next summer, will see the backstage area of the building brought bang up to date, with improved facilities for performers.