The Municipal Theatre of Tunis regains former lustre

Sunday 21/05/2017
A remaining gem of colonial architecture. A file picture shows Tunisians posing for a selfie in front of the Municipal Theatre of Tunis. (AFP)

Tunis - From the façade of the Municipal Theatre of Tu­nis, the Olympian deity Apollo, surrounded by the muses of drama and po­etry, oversees people walking along Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Located at the heart of downtown Tunis, the theatre reopened on April 26 af­ter being closed for renovation for more than a year.
For years, the Municipal Theatre, one of Tunis’s few remaining gems of colonial architecture, provided visitors with a variety of cultural programmes.
Created by French architect Jean-Emile Resplandy, the theatre follows the 19th-century Art Nou­veau style. It was inaugurated on November 20, 1902, and was called the Municipal Casino of Tunis. “Manon,” an opéra comique by Ju­les Massenet, was presented on the opening night and attracted a large audience.
“This architectural masterpiece has marked the lives of Tunisian people since the beginning of the 20th century,” said Zoubeir Mouhli, the president of the Association for the Safeguarding of the Medina of Tunis. He noted that the theatre was the only one to have survived from the capital’s original three.
“After the recent renovation, the theatre remained identical to its original model, which is unique,” Mouhli said.
The building’s interior is deco­rated with gold and red colours. In 1909, the theatre was rebuilt to ac­commodate more than 1,300 spec­tators. Covering more than 1,500 sq. metres, the Municipal Theatre has four levels. The main stage, which is 12 metres deep and 20.75 metres long, was designed to ensure better sight lines for spectators. The ceil­ing is in the form of a dome and is marked with multiple ornaments.
The theatre’s recent renovation was made possible by the Munici­pality of Tunis, the Association for the Safeguarding of the Medina of Tunis and other private institu­tions.
“We tried to reverse the damages of time and restore the splendour of the monument,” said Amel Ben Meddeb, a Tunisian architect and member of the Association for the Safeguarding of the Medina of Tu­nis.
The façade, which displays or­naments of plants and flowers as well as a sculpted representation of Apollo, was created by French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Belloc.
“Everything, from the basement to the balcony was renovated,” said actor and theatre director Zouhair Raies, who added that walls and sculptures were repainted in the original colours.
In addition to sculpted repre­sentations of angels, the stage fea­tures a replica of the Sidi Mehrez mosque.
“Many of the details were high­lighted during the renovation pro­cess. The representations lost their lustre with time and some of the colours faded. We wanted to bring these elements to light and remind our visitors of this monument’s beauty,” Raies said.
The theatre has hosted many international conferences and per­formances by national theatrical companies.
Soon after its inauguration, the theatre hosted operas by Wag­ner, Verdi, Massenet and Charles Lecoq. French tragedies and com­edies, such as Victorien Sardou’s “Madame Sans-Gêne” were show­cased.
After independence, well-known musical acts performed on the theatre’s stage, including Youssef Wahbi, Paul Meurisse and Georges Abiadh.
The stage of the theatre turned out to be a launching pad for many famous careers.
“A lot of nostalgia can be felt when I speak about the Munici­pal Theatre,” said Raies. “In 1986 when I was a student, I performed for the first time in the play titled ‘Dangerous Report.’”
In the 1980s, the Municipal Theatre was at risk of being de­molished because of a commercial centre that opened next door but the public mobilised in opposition
“People united to save the last remaining theatre in downtown Tunis,” Mouhli said. “That was one of the few moments when people joined efforts to conserve a monu­ment.”
Raies described the effort as “unprecedented” and “heroic.”
“Actors, intellectuals and Tu­nisians from all walks of life pro­tested against the likely demoli­tion and they didn’t yield until the theatre was preserved,” Raies said.
The Municipal Theatre of Tunis is used for cultural events, such as the Carthage Theatre Days and the Festival of the Medina during Ram­adan. The Tunisian Symphonic Or­chestra inaugurated a new cultural season soon after the theatre’s reo­pening.