Mareel was originally to open next month. Weather delays has put that back, but Pete Bevington was given exclusive access to the steel clad building taking shape on the Lerwick shoreline. Here’s what he thought of it:
THE OPENING date may still be a matter for the bookies, but one thing is for sure – when Shetland’s new cinema and music venue opens it is going to be a very busy place.
Now that local firm DITT are reaching the final stages of the first construction phase, Mareel is beginning to look like the arts centre it will eventually become by the end of this year.
Step inside the building site that it still is, imagine beyond the pipes and wires and grey slab walls, and you get a feeling of how exciting a place it is going to be.
It is a building of boxes, the three main ones being acoustically protected so well that when Bruce Willis blows up a 3D skyscraper in the cinema, the audience enjoying a live performance of Chopin’s Minute Waltz a few yards away won’t hear him.
Nor will the students producing a demo tape for a trio of fiddlers in the recording studio as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands music course, featuring the only Pro Tools Academy in the north of Scotland – sign up now before all 16 places are taken.
Alongside these three boxes will be a long café/bar open from 8am til late serving snacks and drinks in a comfy zone featuring free wi-fi and space for up to 80 people to enjoy impromptu club nights for folkies, jazzers or lovers of comedy.
The first thing that hits you is the height of the space. The foyer that opens on Mareel’s landward side stretches way, way up above your head, and way above the heads of those already standing on its balcony.
Designers Gareth Hoskins Architects had a lot of entertainment to squeeze into a relatively small footprint. They have managed to do so by looking upwards.
That means the 161 people packed in to the cinema 1 (or the 37 in Cinema 2) for the final Harry Potter movie when it appears will be on quite a steep slope; that way short people won’t be bothered by the tall man in front.
Likewise an audience who might watch a live performance from Covent Garden, streamed via the fibre optic cable into the main auditorium, will be well elevated in the retractable seats they occupy. There will be seats for 341 people at a concert, including 85 upstairs.
Take those seats away and there will be room for 700 people to fill the fully-sprung dancefloor for the next live performance by Mumford & Sons when they return to sample Shetland spirit in all its glory.
With 177 individual events being planned every year alongside the four daily screenings in the main cinema, plus extra shows in the smaller second cinema, Mareel will be an extremely busy place.
“We’ll have to be busy,” said head of operations Richard Wemyss, who took on the job of preparing to run the building at the beginning of the year.
“Mareel will need to make money because there will be no running subsidy. We have to make it work commercially, as a social enterprise.”
The business plan, he said, is under constant review. “It’s been scrutinised by so many people and it’s constantly being looked at, so the confidence is there that it’s going to be a success. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be a success.”
A lot of thought has gone into packing as much variety as possible into this relatively compact space.
For example there will be specialist film screenings for older folk, for mothers and toddlers and for schools. The building’s design allows more than a single event in one evening - a crowd of 14 year old disco dancers could stream out of one door, while a bunch of leather jacketed heavy metal fans stream in through the other.
Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons is confident the venue will do well. He says cinema audiences around the country are growing again, while demand for live music is also on the up.
“There are more touring acts than ever before because live music seems to be what people are looking for at the moment,” he said.
It will be an attractive place to perform, not just because of its harbour location, but because of the state of the art technology built into the space.
“Artists will be able to capture live content through the recording studio and then download it into their next album, or put out a live track on their website.
“With the fibre optic link music can be sent anywhere in the world, so we’re seeing things like performances having their sound engineered somewhere completely different. That’s something X Factor do.
“We’ll be able to stream live concerts from the Met in New York, or have musicians performing simultaneously in Mareel and, say, The Sage in Newcastle. We’ve even been exploring ideas around holding sessions with traditional musicians in Shetland and somewhere like Nova Scotia playing at the same time.”
Modern communications technology is opening up all kinds of new areas, which will not be lost on the younger generation. One plan is to use the building for internet gaming competitions on the big screen.
There are more spaces within the complex – a dance space, a teaching space with an audio visual editing suite, dressing rooms, offices, storage space for everything from Shetland Arts’ Steinway grand piano, currently stored at Lerwick Town hall, to popcorn and natchos for the movie goers.
Groups are already signing up to use Mareel with plans for monthly jazz sessions, a local promoter is planning a club night, a regular programme of classical concerts is in the pipeline and the young promoters group have their own ideas for pushing live music to the fore. Someone has asked to record an album in the recording studio already, and folk are even booking it for their weddings.
Mareel will raise its profile in the world of cinema when the Shetland movie Between Weathers records its soundtrack and completes post production work on the premises before launching itself as the must-see Scottish movie of the year.
Meanwhile the builders are still screwing panels to walls and fixing wires to ceilings, and resolving the problems caused by the weather and the economy.
The poor winter delayed deliveries of materials from the mainland, a Glasgow roofing contractor went bust before the work was completed and there are more local complications too.
Several large sections of very expensive glass have been brought to Shetland to install in the building’s front wall to create “a sculpture of living light”, based around the Mirrie Dancers project from 2009.
Site manager Leejay Butcher explained that there is only one crane in Shetland large enough to lift these glass sections, and that crane is being monopolised by the oil industry at Sullom Voe right now.
“We had a window to use it the other week, but it wasn’t weather for swinging large pieces of expensive glass around,” he said.
It’s a complicated project involving five or six specialist contractors, but Butcher seems calm about the way it is going. “The tricky aspect has been the weather which really hasn’t been kind to us, but the first fix is more or less done now.”
The naysayers will no doubt keep warning of calamity ahead, of white elephants and worse, but at the moment it’s steady at the tiller for the last piece in the jigsaw of oil funded facilities that help to make Shetland such an attractive place to live for young and old alike.