Southampton University’s Nuffield Theatre was officially opened on March 2nd 1964 by Dame Sybil Thorndike. The first lady of the English stage, who had spent her childhood in Southampton, quipped that she was “the oldest old girl on the stage of the newest theatre in Britain” and she proudly declared that it was the first theatre in the country to be built as part of a university.
The building of the theatre was made possible following a grant of £130,000 by the Nuffield Foundation. It was designed by Sir Basil Spence OM RA who worked closely with Sir Richard Southern as consultant for the interior design and layout of the theatre – Southern remained to be the first Director of Drama at the University. According to the History of the University of Southampton, by A. Temple Patterson (1962) there was an “eager expectation that the theatre… will become a unifying force between the sciences and the arts by engaging the activities of members of all faculties, and will play an important part in drawing closer the University, the town and the region.”
The national and local press heralded the opening of Southampton’s “first genuine theatre”– the city had no regular playhouse at that time – so the Nuffield would serve both ‘Town and Gown’. A flexible, multi-purpose venue, it was designed to function as a lecture hall, cinema, concert hall and theatre for both open-stage and proscenium productions. The newspaper reports played up the technical brilliance of the new facilities: the forestage could be raised and lowered in two sections to provide an orchestra pit; and there was an electrically adjustable paint-frame and a cloth cyclorama which, according to The Times, unfurled around the back wall “like a sail being hoisted”; and as for the striking modern exterior: “It rears above them like a two-humped monster – a pair of vertically-seamed copper-clad towers, already known locally as ‘the gas-holder’ and ‘the armadillo’ ”; fortunately, however, “The austerity of the interior is relieved by purple carpeting, bright purple seats, and a magenta curtain” (The Times, 6 January 1964).
The early theatre programmes were equally bold to chime with this startling ‘60s colour scheme:
The first play to be performed at the theatre was certainly traditional: the nation was celebrating Shakespeare’s quarter-centenary and so it was fitting that a professional company from Salisbury Playhouse opened both the new theatre, and the Southampton Arts Festival, with performances of Twelfth Night. Reviews were mixed but the future was clearly bright for the Nuffield.