Embassy to ‘destroy’ jewel in British Crown, claim Players

By Darius Munro [email protected]

In an open letter The Lisbon Players theatre group has expressed its grievances towards the British government and Embassy in Lisbon, regarding its forthcoming eviction from Estrela Hall, the building it has used to stage performances since 1947.

The British Government has been the nominal owner of the Estrela site, part of which is the Hall, which it has decided to sell to “a cosmetic plastic surgeon for €3.2 million”, claim the Players, adding that they received a letter in June from the British government announcing the impending sale and including eviction notices to occupants.

This decision to sell is in accordance with the Foreign Office’s policy to discard of ‘non-core’ property, the Embassy told the Algarve Resident.

Ownership of the building has a long and complex history. Originally, the land where the theatre now stands was a gift from the Portuguese Crown, under Queen Maria I in the late 18th century, for the foreign communities of Portugal.

In the letter, The Lisbon Players claim the British Government made themselves owners in 2009, using “usucapião (a Portuguese legal term that basically means squatters rights)”, and that the original owners of the Hall were the British Protestant School Fund. However, in 1944, when the British Hospital and the Royal British Club were fully active stakeholders they requested the British Government to become the owners.

The Lisbon Players would have been unable to partake in such a decision as they began operating in Estrela Hall in 1947. Thus, in 2010, when the Players took the British Government to court contesting the ownership of the site, the judgement established the Government as legal owners of the land and therefore the right to sell the estate.

The Lisbon Players said: “Her Majesty’s Embassy in Lisbon is in the process of signing a property deal that would mean the end of a theatre company with a 66-year history that has been part of the Lisbon scene for as long as anyone can remember.

“The theatre has a reputation for quality productions, a varied repertoire and dynamic programming. Performing in English, the company has attracted an international mix along with its British core – in the audience, onstage and backstage.

“The Lisbon Players is vehemently contesting the British Government’s action, affirming that there is no reason why the theatre should not be excluded from the deal, which includes four other extensive properties.”

Moreover, according to the British Embassy the majority of stakeholders agreed to sell the properties. However, the other stakeholders are made up of the Royal British Club, the Jewish Cemetery, the ex-British parsonage, which has been abandoned since 2003, and the ex-British Hospital which has been abandoned since 2009.

Therefore, the Lisbon Players believe that they are the most relevant stakeholders as they are the only ones that remain in “full and on-going” operation of the building.

They believe that this, in conjunction with the fact that they have undertaken the upkeep, renovation and conservation of the theatre building at their own expense, gives them “certain rights”, which prevent the British Government from being able to evict them with a “three months’ notice”.

Additionally, according to The Lisbon Players, the government’s plans to sell the property have been underway since 2005 and that even in the initial negotiations, they “never agreed to the sale of the building” and “frequently suggested other alternatives that would allow the British Government to ‘dispose of unwanted assets’ while maintaining the Lisbon Players in Estrela Hall”.

The British Embassy informed the Algarve Resident that the stakeholders agreed that the “whole site” would be sold and that this requires “vacant possession”.

In addition, it said that the Players were not only given time to find an alternative location but that it had done its best to help find alternative premises for them to practise their art.

With regards to the moral and cultural facet of this case, the Players argue that they not only uphold “the spirit of the original trust”, but also, with their longevity and experience, deliver an “irreplaceable place in the cultural life of the city of Lisbon”. They also claim that the sale of the site for a plastic surgery clinic cannot uphold the terms of the original trust.

Nonetheless, the Embassy claims that the “FCO recognises the importance of English-language cultural organisations overseas and the contributions they make to the community” and that the British Government will “realise nothing” from the sale. “…it was agreed among the stakeholders that they (the Players) would receive 2.8% of shared net proceeds,” said the Embassy.

Furthermore it claims that the FCO cannot bypass its responsibilities to the British taxpayer and the other stakeholders.