Lisbon Players’ plan rejected by the British Government

A solution that would have preserved an English theatre operating in the heart of Lisbon since 1947 and allowed a multi-million Euro redevelopment plan to go ahead was rejected by the British Government.

The Government, through the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, decided in 2004 to sell the Lisbon Estrela site as part of its policy to divest itself of land that was “no longer needed”.

The Lisbon Players are currently fighting a legal battle in the Portuguese courts over disputed ownership of the theatre site under Direito de Usucapião or Squatters Rights.

In view of what the Lisbon Players term the “hazy and anomalous position” regarding ownership of the land and Estrela Hall theatre building, the British Government in 2000, represented by the then ambassador to Portugal Sir John Holmes, suggested possible solutions to the “problem of the Estrela site”.

One of these solutions was the legal transfer of the various properties, including Estrela Hall, to the stakeholders or users of the various parcels of land and buildings.

This solution was put forward by the honorary lawyer attached to the British Government, Dr Paulo Lowndes Marques.

The meeting was minuted and the Lisbon Players’ representative at the meeting consulted the theatre committee which “unanimously agreed to the solution”.

Another solution had been the option of including a theatre of a similar size within the new development site.

“In 2004, the British Government unilaterally changed its policy and decided to try and sell the land on which the stakeholders (British Hospital, Lisbon Players, Jewish Cemetery, Royal British Club and the Parsonage) had claims, for commercial development,” say the Lisbon Players.

It has been revealed that meetings were called at the Embassy to which the stakeholders were invited and asked to sign a document “relinquishing any claim to the land in return for a token reimbursement”.

It was a document that the Lisbon Players consistently refused to sign. These meetings were not minuted.

The British Embassy in Lisbon has stated that it made efforts to assist the Lisbon Players in finding alternative premises but that the Lisbon Players “failed to pursue this with any vigour”.

Jonathan Weightman, spokesman for the Lisbon Players, admitted there was talk of “finding alternative premises” but that the meetings were “informal and unminuted” and that there was “no formal recorded or written agreement”.

In letters from the Lisbon Players, dated 2008, to the British Ambassador Alex Ellis the theatre group suggested the option of “detaching the small Estrela Hall patch of land from the sales agreement, ceding the theatre building legally to the English Theatre Association (Associação de Teatro Inglês), as had always been the British Government’s plan in the past, and going ahead with the development on the remainder of the site”.

In the same letter, reference is made to possible financial problems being faced by St George’s Church as it states: “….this would still raise some cash for the church; (and) it would fulfil the British Government’s plan of not ‘holding land it does not need’”.

The Lisbon Players’ management has organised an online petition where concerned members of the public and supporters can register their support at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-the-lisbon-players.html.

The case continued at a Lisbon court yesterday (Thursday) after the Algarve Resident went to press.

Chris Graeme