Britannia Panopticon Theatre

Britannia Panopticon Theatre

The halls are alive

Kirstin Innes finds out about an interactive exhibition in Scotland’s last surviving music hall which aims to put us back in touch with our past.

The area around Glasgow’s Trongate has pulled its socks up somewhat over the last decade, but tucked in among the upmarket restaurants catering for the Tron Theatre’s well-heeled audiences and glossy bars spilling over from the Merchant City is a crumbling old pleasure dome above an amusement arcade that most passers by wouldn’t give a second glance to.

This is the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall, opened in 1859, Scotland’s only surviving old time music hall; the most popular venue with the city’s workers at the height of the British Empire, when we built ships on the Clyde and exported ministers. Stan Laurel played his debut comic set at the Friday open mic night (they weren’t called open mic nights back then).

It’s this rich history that artist Minty Donald wants to put back in touch with Glasgow’s present-day citizens. Her exhibition Glimmers In Limbo is the culmination of her three-year research project into the ways we interact with our architectural heritage. ‘People invest spaces with their own personal emotions and experiences,’ says Donald. ‘I think that gets forgotten, sometimes. This space is very much part of Glasgow’s cultural history, and of the East End, and I want to let people re-engage with the structure; both with the history, and as a part of their modern city.’

Glimmers in Limbo is made up of three distinct parts. Most obvious will be a fruit machine-style animation in the windows of the Panopticon, beaming down lettering, neon and projections from the building’s past into the street. A collection of 600 shoeboxes sits on the seats of the auditorium, some filled with artefacts found in early explorations of the disused building, some left empty for people to fill with whatever they choose. Then there’s the Pianola Karaoke: Donald invited various Glasgow artists and musicians, including the Parsonage choir and Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, to arrange versions of songs they would like to sing in the space. These have been converted from digital files to old paper rolls for self-operating pianolas – the musicians will sing the songs themselves at the opening party, and they’ll be played throughout the exhibition as their lyrics are projected on the music hall’s stage and ceiling, a gesture to the ghosts of songs past.

Glimmers in Limbo is not the only event happening in the Panopticon. The Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust runs an idiosyncratic programme of burlesque shows, theatre, film screenings and experimental music throughout the summer (there’s no heating in the building, so it’s too cold in winter).

‘It’s fantastic, at the moment, with this bizarre variety of things happening,’ Donald muses, ‘but it’s not really sustainable. The building is in a really bad state of repair. If funds were to be raised it might all be restored, made into a beautiful new heritage centre, but stop being what it is at the moment. There’s a lovely line in the song [Glasgow artist] Ross Sinclair chose to sing at Pianola Karaoke: “There is a place that no one has seen/where it’s still possible to dream”. It’s from an Orange Juice song called “Wan Light”, and I just think that kind of sums the Panopticon up: “a place where you can dream”.’

Britannia Panopticon Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 18–Sat 27 Oct.

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