Tangier's Gran Teatro Cervantes is not included in too many tourist guides to the Moroccan port city, but it can still be visited, either by contacting the Spanish consulate or simply by tipping the concierge at the gate, who will then obligingly show the visitor around the abandoned interior in what was once one of the most important theaters in Africa.
The electricity has long been cut off, but the concierge brings a lamp attached to a long cable connected to a supply in his tiny office. Thus begins a journey back through time as we enter the stalls. The halo of light settles on a sea of more than a thousand battered seats. Ahead we can dimly make out the stage, where faded sets are piled up, its parquet floor splintered into hundreds of fragments. From the ceiling, a faded red velvet curtain hangs precariously, tattered, dusty and seemingly about to fall at any moment.
Back stage, we make our way along narrow corridors past dressing rooms whose windows have been sealed with shutters, and back out and up to the areas leading to the boxes. Out in the vestibule, the toilets and the ticket office are in good repair, the tiles that remain represent scenes from Don Quixote, just visible in the dim light. The building's deterioration is not just due to the ravages of time; over the years, visitors have taken away souvenirs with them.
This December, the theater celebrates its 100th anniversary, although it has been closed for over two decades. It would probably have fallen down by now if Spain, which owns the building, had not spent some 300,000 euros seven years ago to carry out urgent repair work on the roof and to strengthen part of the structure.
During its heyday in the first three decades of the last century, most of the major actors, singers and performers from Spain and Europe performed here for the city's 27,000-strong Spanish community, among them opera stars Enrico Caruso, Tito Ruffo and Adelina Patti. Among the actors who appeared at the theater are María Guerrero and the legendary Margarita Xirgu. The Cervantes was also used for conferences and talks, attracting writers Benito Pérez Galdós and José María Pemán.
Until Morocco achieved independence in 1956, Tangier was administered by France, and the theater was the venue of choice for Francophone artistes. But it was also used by the Moroccan community, who came here to see Egyptian stars such as Youssef Wahbi and Fatima Ruchdi. The city had its own theater group, Al Hilal, and the theater was also roped into the Moroccan independence movement. The Gran Teatro Cervantes was also used as a cinema, and even for wrestling bouts. But by the 1960s, the theater was barely in use: the last event held there was photography show some 20 years ago.
It was built by a wealthy Spanish couple, Manuel Peña and Esperanza Orellana, who tasked architect Diego Giménez with its design and construction. They then managed the theater, staging plays there at a loss for 15 years until, in 1928 they sold it to the Spanish state, which remains the owner to this day, although it rents it to Tangier City Hall for the symbolic amount of one dirham a month. The problem with restoring the theater to its former splendor is that neither party is prepared to put up half of the estimated five million euros required. There are groups in Tangier working to save the theater, among them Sostener lo que se cae (Hold on to what is falling down). "The 100th anniversary is a good opportunity to draw attention to this," says Ahmed Benattia, the founder of the group. He says that the theater has a future as a "cultural center divided into small spaces for different uses," along the lines of Madrid's Matadero or the Antic Teatre in Barcelona, but that it should also house a theater school to maintain its thespian roots.
Simon-Pierre Hamelin, the owner of one of Tangier's best-known bookshops, the Librería de las Columnas, and the organizer of a literary festival in the city, also wants to see the Cervantes restored and stage plays once more. "On October 5 actors from Morocco, Spain, France, the United States and Britain - among them Kenneth Branagh - will come here to read fragments from the great works of theater," says Hamelin, adding: "That will be the beginning of the commemorations. We are going to try to raise private money to restore the theater and give it to the association Tánger Acción Cultural! We hope this will encourage public institutions to step forward."
Cecilia Fernánez, the head of Tangier's branch of Instituto Cervantes, Spain's international arts and language-teaching body, is pessimistic about Spain and Morocco reaching an agreement on funding the repair work. "Before the crisis, when there was plenty of money about, nobody seemed interested in saving the theater. And now that there isn't any money, everybody is coming up with ideas. If money were to be found for this, it would have to be a project that was economically viable, as well as practical," she says, adding that this would almost certainly mean Spain handing the theater over to Morocco to manage what would be the country's largest arts center.