Lisbon English theatre group in court

Special Report by Chris Graeme [email protected]

Members of a popular amateur English theatre group were in court on Tuesday fighting for the survival of the theatre where they have been based for more than 60 years.

A Lisbon judge will eventually decide if the Lisbon Players or the British Government is the legal owner of Estrela Hall. The Government intends to sell the land on which the theatre stands for redevelopment.

The Players, who have been producing plays on the site uninterrupted since 1947, dispute the Government’s ownership of the building, which they have maintained and improved, without any outside help, for years.

Lawyers representing the group are basing their arguments on the grounds of ‘direito de usucapião’ or squatters rights, claiming that no one from either the British or Portuguese authorities ever formally questioned their rights to inhabit the building until 2008.

The building operates under a trust with the aim of “promoting the language and culture of Britain”, which the Lisbon Players believe they have fulfilled entirely.

Estrela Hall stands on the corner of Rua da Estrela and Rua Saraiva Carvalho in Lisbon’s Campo de Ourique/Estrela neighbourhood.

It is part of a plot of land originally granted by Queen Maria I to the foreign, but more specifically, the Protestant and Jewish communities, for the burial of their dead during the building of the Basilica da Estrela church in the late 18th century.

The site also includes the British and Jewish cemeteries, St. George’s Anglican Church, the former British Hospital, the Parsonage, and the Royal British Club.

The building’s ownership itself is disputed. It is known that it was built by the Protestant School Fund in 1904 and during the War was used as a cinema by the British Government.

Although plays had been performed on the site as far back as 1939, the Lisbon Players was formed there in 1947.

Speaking to the Algarve Resident after an adjournment on Tuesday afternoon, the Lisbon Players Artistic Director Jonathan Weightman said: “All of our witnesses were interviewed today but only one of the government’s. It’s impossible to predict the outcome but things are looking good and we believe that we have a strong case since we have been in the building for so long and have been entirely responsible for its upkeep.”

He added: “We believe that we have made more than a modest contribution to the cultural life of the city and the UK’s action will place severe pressure on the Players and its management intends to do all in its power to ensure the continued existence of the company and its important and historic home.”

The court heard from various witnesses how the Lisbon Players were financially self-supporting, operating solely from theatre ticket receipts, rents from workshops and other events, without receiving any subsidy or outside financial help from any formal organisation whatsoever.

One witness, Catarina Macedo, a pharmacist, said that “archive documents and photographs proved that the Lisbon Players had an unbroken and uncontested occupation of the site since 1947”.

She said it had always been a non-profit making organisation and all receipts had been ploughed back into the fabric of the building and used for putting on new productions. “The Lisbon Players administered the building and no rents were ever paid or requested,” she said.

She also said that, as far as she knew, neither the British Government nor the British Embassy in Lisbon had ever sent any representatives to them until 2000 after which “there had been several meetings”.

In one it was suggested that the Players should “strengthen their legal position with regards to Portuguese law in order to return to the building”.

The court also heard how in 2008 representatives from the real estate company CB Richard Ellis were invited to meetings with the Embassy over the theatre’s future and the Lisbon Players were told they “had to vacate the building” by March 2010.

In August 2008 the Lisbon Players filed a legal action against the British Government’s claim to the building.

Another witness, Felicity Serra, widow of Fado legend Amalia Rodrigues’ lyricist and friend Alain Oulman, told the court that the theatre had been “rented out to a casting agency for casting models and for competitions”.

She said: “All the people loved the theatre, everything that was raised was used to upkeep the building and works authorised by the Committee.”

A third witness, Susan Mary Willdig, said: “When I started coming here in 1997 the Lisbon Players were known as the owners of Estrela Hall. Yes, we all knew it as our place.”

When asked whose responsibility it was to upkeep the building, she replied: “In my time the need for works was a constant theme. It was my conviction that it was our responsibility. We were there, it was our house and if the urgent works hadn’t been carried out there was the risk of collapse.”

 The lawyer acting for the British Government declined to discuss ownership arguments with the Algarve Resident.   

The case continues on September 30.