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Raising the curtain

Refurbishing the Manoel Theatre, reputedly Europe’s third-oldest working theatre, was no mean feat for interior designer Michele O’Reilly and her team of artisans. She points out to Simonne Pace one fundamental difference between this project and previous commissions – this time she worked for a client who had the interests of the Maltese at heart.

The Manoel Theatre opened its season on October 11 with the debut of the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Two days before the opening, the theatre’s new wall lights and gold paint hadn’t yet arrived, but Michele O’Reilly and her team never gave up hope.

With this project, there was no room for delay, something that is inevitable with interior design in residential work

“I had our stevedore waiting on the docks to unload the consignment the moment the lights arrived in Malta and a team member flying to Rome to bring over the gold paint we needed,” she recounts.

The refurbishment project was commissioned by the theatre’s board of directors, “who had a very clear vision of what they were after”, according to the interior designer, whose name is synonymous with The House Shop.

She was contacted early last year and her initial brief was to revamp the VIP room on the theatre’s first tier, which serves to entertain dignitaries and guests during the interval of a performance.

Having graduated with a BA Honours degree in interior design in 1990, the young designer started her career in Los Angeles and London, where she gained invaluable experience in the residential market.

When her eldest son was born, Michele, who at the time worked for an interior design company in London, left to set up her own company, Baby & Co., which provided a nursery service to first-time pregnant mothers.

“This reinforced my belief that interior design is a multi-faceted discipline and is not only about creativity but more to do with organisation and project management,” she explained.

Michele submitted her designs for the new-look Manoel Theatre in 2010. As soon as her proposals were approved, she got down to organising the work at hand, aware of the fact that the theatre closed its doors for three months in July.

“This meant that there was no room for delay, something that is inevitable with interior design in residential work. The Manoel Theatre project was also different from all my previous private commissions because this time my client was a board of directors that represented the interests of the Maltese.”

The transformation of the Maria Ghirlando Hall on the first tier, known as the theatre’s Double Room, was a major one. But Michele had a “great team of skilled artisans behind her, who were extremely patient, very often having to work in confined and crammed spaces”.

The original coffered ceiling was carefully studied, cleaned and beautifully restored by conservationist Erika Falzon, while the newer ceiling, which had a dark, depressing brown palette, was painted in matching vert de terre (green earth) and lichen (greenish-grey) colours.

“I wanted to use a very high-quality paint to bring out the depth of the ceiling. So I chose Farrow and Ball of the UK – manufacturers of traditional wallpapers and paint, who use excellent pigments and natural ingredients – to give it a traditional finish.

“Unfortunately, this product is not supplied in Malta. But I was determined to bring over the paint on one of my London trips. Though not realising how heavy 20 litres of paint were to carry on a flight, I somehow managed.”

An innovative German company called Delius enabled Michele and her team to be able to customise the theatre’s curtain fabric by printing Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena’s coat-of-arms as a border along the bottom. The curtains were hung on impeccably finished wooden curtain poles with ornate gilt and porcelain pomegranate finials “to give the room an air of bespoke grandeur”.

The solid oak herringbone parquet floor was skilfully laid by a local sculptor who has been working at The House Shop for over 30 years. “The pièce de résistance was sourcing an antique altar, re-conditioning it and ultimately transforming it into a bar,” Michele explained.

This year saw the transformation of the theatre’s public areas into “spaces that are more fitting for our national theatre, which plays the role of a catalyst for growth and for the appreciation of the dramatic arts in Malta”.

Michele knew the drill very well by now. “We had only three months in which to work. Pressed for time, everyone went into overdrive and through a collective effort by a number of dedicated people, the result is a wonderful, dramatic change. The in-house team at the Manoel was fantastic and accommodating. Driven by a passion for the theatre, no task was too arduous for them.”

Cikki Robertson and Francesca Berger were the duo behind the careful hand-painting of all the boxes’ doors. Quite a number of paints were mixed until the right individual colour combination was achieved.

This task soon morphed into the painting of all the theatre’s doors, including the entrance hall, which was carefully restored “by a very patient man called Cosimo, who had an eye for colour and mixed his own paints”.

The entrance hall is also where Michael Trapani Galea’s creativity came into play.

The idea was to develop a subject befitting the architectural form of the theatre’s hallway, occupying the central lunette in its entirety.

The adaptation of de Vilhena’s coat-of-arms into a theatrical display of art with weaponry surrounding the family crest, depicted as spoils of war, also incorporates elements associated with the performing arts, ranging from masks to fruit and musical instruments of the period.

The theatre’s landing on the second floor got a wonderfully rich makeover with the restoration of an 18th-century Maltese sofa and armchairs, “which we re-upholstered in a fabric to match the interlinedcurtains”.

Finding a fabric with a gold thread, instead of any mustardy ­yellow material, was a hard task in itself, but Manuel Canovas’s collection, which is inspired by the spirit of the art of living and associated with 18th-century France, has a unique colour palette and a touch of originality.

Together with a Venetian gilt mirror, a 19th-century chandelier donated by Manoel Theatre chairman Michael Grech and an antique rug, “the idea was to create an elegant drawing room”.

Malta International Airport’s sponsorship financed the replacement of all the boxes’ chairs to Louis XV-style, balloon-backed, comfortable seating, “which we upholstered in another of Delius’s velvet green and gold fabrics”.

Feeling privileged to have worked on such a prestigious project, Michele knows for sure that many patrons felt very proud to have hosted the first talented guests to our national theatre, a theatre that rivals any other in ­Europe.

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