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The Most Famous Theatre in the World?

Last week, actor-turned-director Kevin Spacey confirmed that he'd been lured away from Hollywood by his love for London's Old Vic. What is so enthralling about this historic theatre? We look back at an astonishing artistic legacy.

By • West End


Some Old Vic Fast Facts

Can the Old Vic legitimately claim to be "the most famous theatre in the world"? That is, of course, a subjective definition, but a glance through its extraordinary history does make a forceful case.

  • The Old Vic was first opened during the Regency, in 1818, and is the only theatre in London from that time still in business.

  • It has provided a dramatic home for many of the greatest actors of the last 150 years, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton and many more.

  • Through Lilian Baylis and then the Old Vic Company, the Old Vic was largely responsible for re-establishing Shakespeare as a popular playwright.

  • It provided much of the impetus behind the establishment of the Royal National Theatre, whose home it was for its first 13 years.

  • It was the home of the first English 'grand' opera company, and the Old Vic-Sadlers Wells Opera and Ballet Companies provided the foundation for the Royal Ballet and the English National Opera.

  • The Old Vic appears in the journals of Queen Victoria and the journalism of Charles Dickens; in the dramatic criticism of William Hazlitt and the music criticism of George Bernard Shaw....


    But Let's Begin at the Beginning

    The Theatre was founded over 180 years ago as the Royal Coburg Theatre, under the patronage of the Prince of Saxe Coburg and funded by Joseph Glossop, the son of a wealthy Soho merchant.

    Its audience was loud and vibrant. Edmund Kean, the great tragedian, played Richard III, Othello and King Lear in it in 1831. Himself a little worse the wear for drink, he told his audience that "I have acted in every theatre of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Scotland, I have acted throughout the United States of American, but in my life, I have never acted to such a set of ignorant unmitigated brutes as I have before me."

    In 1833, the owners of the Coburg renamed the theatre 'The Royal Victoria Theatre' after Princess, later Queen, Victoria, who had recently become heir to the throne.

    Charles Dickens, who knew the theatre well, wrote of visits to it by 'Joe Whelks of the New Cut, Lambeth' in his own magazine Household Words: "...and Joe will unravel a story through all its entanglements, and sit there as long after midnight as you have anything left to show him... whatever changes of fashion the drama knows elsewhere, it is always fashionable in the New Cut."

    In London Labour and the London Poor, Dickens wrote of the theatre: "To the centre of the road, and all round the door, the mob is a ferment of excitement and no sooner is a money-taker at his post than the most frightful rush takes place, everyone heaving with his shoulders at the back of the person immediately in front of him... to anyone unaccustomed to being pressed flat it would be impossible to enter with the mob. To see the sight in the gallery, it is best to wait until the first piece is over. The ham-sandwich men and pig-trotter women will give you notice when the time is come, for with the first clatter of the descending footsteps, they commence their cries..."

    Aunt Emma & Lilian Baylis

    Emma Cons, a leading Victorian social reformer, bought the theatre in 1880 and re-opened it as The Royal Victoria Hall And Coffee Tavern - 'a cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines'. Her programme included concerts, lectures and plays, and eventually a backstage college of its own, its students taking the title 'OVS' - 'Old Vic Student'.

    She died in 1912, after 32 years in command of the Old Vic. The theatre passed to her niece, Lilian Baylis, who had worked with her aunt for many years. Lilian was herself something of a performer - she had been applauded in South Africa, at the age of 17, for her 'skipping rope dance whilst playing the banjo' and she also taught dancing to the young Mark Twain.

    Baylis saw her own greatest achievement as the production of every play in Shakespeare's First Folio between 1914 and 1923, at prices which most of the public could afford - and against all professional advice. Troilus and Cressida, the last play in the cycle, was performed on 23 November 1923 before the Princess Royal (the late Queen Mother) with a copy of the First Folio under glass in the orchestra pit.

    In 1918 the Old Vic celebrated its 100th birthday with Queen Mary and the Princess Royal. Baylis pointed out two pictures in the foyer to the Queen, one of Emma Cons and a slightly smaller one of King George V: "Not quite so large as Aunt Emma's because your dear husband has not done so much for the Old Vic". In 1924 King George V and Queen Mary became patrons of the theatre.

    The Great Actors' Theatre

    John Gielgud led the first Old Vic Company in 1929, emphasising the revolutionary aims of the theatre's annual report that year: "The Old Vic is pre-eminently the place for artistic experiment, even if some eggshells of prejudice have to be smashed in the process".

    In 1933 the legendary impresario Tyrone Guthrie took over management of the Old Vic, working with Lilian Baylis. He brought Charles Laughton, fresh from his success in Hollywood, to lead the Company, with Flora Robson his leading lady. Baylis told Laughton after one performance: "I'm sure you did your best. And I'm sure that one day you may be quite a good Macbeth".

    Baylis was also responsible for rebuilding the Sadlers Wells Theatre (built originally in the mid-13th century, and derelict since 1914), which she re-opened in 1931, with an opening performance of Twelfth Night with John Gielgud. In the same year, the Old Vic-Sadlers Wells Ballet company was formed, led by Ninette be Valois, with her assistant Frederic Ashton and leading dancer Alicia Markova (and later Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn). For four years, the two theatres alternated between drama, opera and ballet, until, in 1935, opera and ballet moved to Sadlers Wells, drama remaining at the Old Vic.

    Lilian Baylis died in November 1937 at the age of 63, having devoted almost 40 years of her life to the Old Vic, which carried on under the directorship of Tyrone Guthrie.

    The Old Vic Company

    In 1940, Gielgud led the Old Vic Company in a season just a few months long with King Lear including Fay Compton, Jessica Tandy and Jack Hawkins, directed by Harley Granville-Barker, and then The Tempest, which was the last production at the Old Vic for a decade.

    The Old Vic was badly damaged in the Blitz, although Old Vic Companies continued to tour, in particular to the North West and the mining areas of South Wales. In 1941 the Old Vic established itself at the Liverpool Playhouse. In 1944 Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier were released from the Navy to lead a new Old Vic Company, performing at other venues, particularly the New Theatre for the next six years.

    Rehearsals began to the sound of the first 'doodlebug' flying bombs exploding on London. Following VE Day, the Company played in Hamburg, Belsen, the Comedie Française in Paris, in New York and then again in Paris.

    The Old Vic building was finally re-opened in December 1950 by King George V, Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret. Between 1953 and 1958 the Old Vic repeated its feat of the 1920s in producing the whole cycle of Shakespeare's First Folio.

    The Old Vic Company provided the theatre with some great new names in the 1960s. Judi Dench came to it in 1957 straight from drama school and stayed for four seasons, appearing in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Romeo and Juliet in 1960 with John Stride. Maggie Smith joined from a background in revue. The final season of The Old Vic Company in 1962 included Leo McKern in Peer Gynt.

    The National Years

    A national theatre in all but name, the Old Vic became so in reality when, in October 1963, it again re-opened as the home of the new National Theatre with a performance of Hamlet with Peter O'Toole. This cast also included Michael Redgrave, Rosemary Harris, Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi, John Stride, Frank Finlay, Colin Blakely and Lynn Redgrave.

    For the next 13 years, regular casts at the Old Vic under the leadership of the National's first Director, Laurence Olivier, and then Peter Hall, included Albert Finney, Joan Plowright, Colin Blakely, Geraldine McEwan, Frank Finlay, Lynn Redgrave, Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi and Antony Hopkins. A huge range of productions in these 13 years included the first major production of a Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    Hall took over as Director in 1973 with productions including: John Gabriel Borkman with Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller; Happy Days with Ashcroft, No Man's Land with Richardson and Gielgud; and Hamlet with Albert Finney.

    The National's last performance before moving to its new home in 1976 was Tribute to the Lady (Lilian Baylis that is). Peggy Ashcroft (appearing as Baylis), Gielgud and Richardson were on stage; Sybil Thorndike (by then 93) in the audience. In her curtain speech, Ashcroft repeated Baylis' threat to come back and haunt the Old Vic should her an her aunt Emma Cons' work ever be put at risk.

    Mirvishes Make the Most of It

    The first Old Vic production following the departure of the National was The White Devil with Glenda Jackson. The following year, the Old Vic became the home of the Prospect Theatre Company, directed by Timothy West, with productions including Hamlet with Derek Jacobi, Antony and Cleopatra with Alec McCowen and Dorothy Tutin, and St Joan with Eileen Atkins.

    The finances of the theatre remained precarious, and it was put up for sale in 1982. It was bought by 'Honest Ed' Mirvish, who had made his fortune in the creation of the legendary department store in Toronto and who, in 1963, had bought the city's Royal Alexandra Theatre, restoring it to its former glory.

    Mirvish spent £2.5 million renovating the Old Vic. (While the work was going on, he hung a giant sign from the scaffolding declaring: "Lilian Baylis, you're going to love this. Honest Ed".) The facade of the building is now a splendid interpretation of an engraving of 1830, and the auditorium itself true to the designs of 1871.

    Between 1987 and 1990, Jonathan Miller served as the Old Vic's Artistic Director and directed no less than 17 productions, collecting five Olivier Awards, including one for Candide as Best Musical. In 1997, Peter Hall's triumphantly revived classic repertory season included Becket's Waiting for Godot with Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard. In the 16 years of ownership by the Mirvish family, the Old Vic staged an astonishing 80 productions, mainly classical and new drama.

    The Old Vic Theatre Trust

    When The Old Vic was put up for sale in 1997, potential bidders proposed turning the building into a bingo hall, a shopping mall, even a lap-dancing club. A dramatic, last-minute reprieve saw the Old Vic spared its final curtain by the creation of a charitable trust, committed to ensuring the theatre's viable dramatic future at the highest artistic level.

    Under the ownership of the Old Vic Theatre Trust, productions have been acted, directed and produced by some of theatre's leading practitioners, including Kevin Spacey in the Almeida revival of The Iceman Cometh (directed by Howard Davies), Peter O'Toole reviving his role in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (directed by Ned Sherrin) and, now at the beginning of 2003, Sir Derek Jacobi in The Tempest (directed by Michael Grandage).

    Last week, the Trust announced the formation of a new Old Vic Theatre Company, under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey, which will launch its first season in autumn 2004. For further information on the future of the Old Vic, including the full text of Spacey's appointment statement, click here.

    (The above is an edited version of "The Story of the Old Vic". To find out more about the Old Vic Theatre Trust, visit the Old Vic website.)


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