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History plays a big part on the make-up of Malta. There are many things on the island that have been around for centuries and the national theatre is no exception. Not only is it reputedly the third oldest working theatre in Europe but it also has a fair bit of class and elegance about it. For the Manoel Theatre was created in Valletta by the legendary Knights of Malta and money was no object.
It is a beautiful gem of a building and worth seeking out. You don’t even have to book to see a performance because this building has enough heritage and oomph to qualify as a tourist attraction in its own right – even when it’s empty!
It’s all about quality and not quantity with the Manoel Theatre because as venues go, it's not that big! Just 623 people make up a full house but they are treated to three tiers of boxes, décor awash with 22-carat gold leaf and a stunning ceiling painted in trompe l’oiel style so it appears to be domed.
It was one of the island’s Grand Masters – the name for the head honcho of the Knights of St John – who commissioned and coughed up the cash for the project in 1731. His name was Manoel de Vilhena - hence the name - and his cunning plan was to provide some distraction for the naughty knights to keep them out of trouble.
Construction was complete in 10 months, an admirable effort when you consider the size and complexity of the building not to mention the era in which it was built. Above the main entrance was chiselled the theatre motto ‘ad honestam populi oblectationem’ (‘for the public’s honest entertainment’) and you can still see it to this day.
It was in January 1732 when the Manoel opened its doors for the first time, staging a performance of a classic Italian tragedy - Scipione Maffei’s ‘Merope’. The parts in the play were all performed by Malta Knights – presumably keeping out of trouble - while their chief architect, Francois Mondion, designed the sets.
Today’s theatre programme is year-round and includes orchestral concerts, drama and comedy performances, musicals, opera, children’s plays and, of course, an excellent festive pantomime (based on the fine British tradition).
There have also been some big names treading these ancient boards over the decades, including Steven Berkoff, Sir Yehudi Menuhin and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
Fairly recently the theatre has benefited from a lengthy and extensive revamp scheme and now, somewhat unusually, incorporates self-catering apartments on the second floor. These provide a surprisingly affordable accommodation option in a prime central Valletta location for only €23 per person per day.
Costume hire is another unique service offered by this particular theatre, which is brilliant for Hallowe’en, parties and carnivals. You should find something to fit the bill whatever the occasion as the costume department has more than 6,000 examples to choose from.
For those visiting when there’s no production on there’s a theatre museum that charts its very long history. Tours cost €4 per person and take place Monday to Friday every 45 minutes from 10.15am. The last one sets off at 3.30pm. You can also take a tour on Saturday when departures take place between 10.15am and 12.30pm. Contact details are below for more information.
Address: 115 Triq it-Teatru I-Antik, Valletta VLT 1426
Phone: +356 2124 6389
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