200 Years of The Old Vic

PRE 1900


The Old Vic, as it is now known, first opens on 11 May 1818 at a cost of £12,000 with design by architect Rudolph Cabanel. Building work had commenced two years earlier after Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Princess Charlotte of Wales laid the foundation stone. Some of the material for the new theatre, named the Royal Coburg, is recycled from the original Savoy Palace on the Strand.


Installation of a looking-glass curtain on stage. Comprising 62 mirrored panels in a gilt frame and weighing five tonnes, the novelty curtain causes a stir, but it quickly proves a hazard and is dismantled.


Edmund Kean plays Richard III, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear during a six-night engagement. He tells a rowdy audience: ‘In my life I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I have before me’.


Theatre re-opens after refurbishment for the encouragement of ‘Native Dramatic Talent’. Renamed The Royal Victoria, in honour of Princess (later Queen) Victoria.


The Royal Victoria is recognised for bringing theatre to the ‘common people’. Charles Dickens notes: ‘Whatever changes of fashion the drama knows elsewhere, it is always fashionable in the New Cut.’


A false cry of fire causes a stampede in the theatre’s upper gallery, which leads to the death of 16 people.


The theatre is put up for auction and sold to new owners who commission an entire reconstruction of the interiors by architect Jethro T Robinson, resulting in the removal of the upper gallery. The Old Vic is today one of the only two surviving examples of Robinson’s work. Back in 1871, the theatre is rebranded and reopened as The New Victoria Palace in an attempt to shed earlier misfortunes but financial troubles persist and it is twice put up for sale during the decade.


Leading Victorian social reformer Emma Cons establishes the Coffee Tavern Movement in 1879, acquiring the leasehold for the theatre a year later. Reopening on Boxing Day as the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern – a ‘cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines’ – the word ‘theatre’ is dropped because of its impure associations.


Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women is founded at the theatre.


The freehold is bought by the charity, the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation. In Munich, Germany, the first performance of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is given with the playwright present.


Emma Cons’ niece Lilian Baylis, aged 23, is appointed acting manager.



Baylis promotes the idea of opera in English by staging The Bohemian Girl. The opera programme begins.


Emma Cons dies. Baylis takes over as manager and lessee, and obtains a theatre licence from the Lord Chamberlain.


The Old Vic Shakespeare Company is formed under director Ben Greet. Over the course of seven years, Baylis mounts the complete First Folio, the first undertaking of its kind by a theatre. Sybil Thorndike becomes a leading lady during the war years at the new home of Shakespeare in London.


The Royal Centenary Gala. Baylis says to Queen Mary: ‘Your dear husband’s picture isn’t as big as Aunt Emmie’s, but then he hasn’t done so much for The Old Vic.’


Edith Evans joins the company having been turned down years earlier. Baylis: ‘I was a fool… she didn’t look the leading lady type.’ Baylis adopts The Old Vic, a popular local nickname, as the theatre’s official title


John Gielgud’s Hamlet and Richard II establish him as exciting new Shakespearean star and he goes on to lead The Old Vic Company: ‘The Old Vic is pre-eminently the place for artistic experiment, even if some eggshells of prejudice have to be smashed in the process.’ Ralph Richardson joins the company.


Sadler’s Wells opens as Baylis’ second theatre. The two venues alternate drama, opera and ballet until 1934 when opera and ballet move to Sadler’s Wells. Peggy Ashcroft joins the company and stars in Caesar and Cleopatra.


Tyrone Guthrie has his first season as director, establishing an acting company including Charles Laughton, Flora Robson, Marius Goring and a young James Mason.


Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier join the company for the first time. Guthrie is appointed permanent director. Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans star in As You Like It.


Lilian Baylis dies on 25 November, the day of the dress rehearsal for Macbeth starring Laurence Olivier. He barely misses severe injury when a stage weight comes crashing down. The opening is postponed as the director and lead actress are involved in a car accident. The show begins late, prompting Baylis’ portrait to fall off the wall.


Alec Guinness stars in Hamlet.


Following closure of The Old Vic due to the Second World War, the company is relocated to the New Theatre and headquarters to Burnley. Several companies tour Shakespeare to mining and industrial areas, subsidised by the forerunner of the Arts Council. A direct bomb hits on 10 May, shortly before the Blitz ends, damaging The Old Vic.


The Joint Council of The Old Vic and National Theatre is established.



A performance of Twelfth Night on 14 November 1950 celebrates the reopening of the theatre. Guthrie returns to direct Donald Wolfit in Tamburlaine the Great.


Under director Michael Benthall the complete First Folio is staged for a second time, beginning with Hamlet. Richard Burton is cast in the lead role.


Judi Dench joins for the first of four seasons, with her parts including Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Romeo and Juliet. A private performance is given in the presence of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to mark the opening of The Old Vic annex.


John Stride and Judi Dench star in Romeo and Juliet.


Olivier is appointed first director of the National Theatre. The Old Vic governors agree to offer the theatre as its temporary home.


The Old Vic company disbands. The National opens with Hamlet, starring Peter O’Toole. Over the next 13 years company regulars include Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Geraldine McEwan, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.


Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith star in Othello.


Following a West End run, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler with Maggie Smith in the title role arrives at The Old Vic. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, Smith is praised for her ‘gripping’ performance although in response to some critics, she remarks: ‘I wish a woman could review the play. She would understand about Hedda.’ Money from recent surpluses, meanwhile, is used to finance the Young Vic, which serves the National as a studio theatre until 1974 when it becomes home to a separate company.


Diana Rigg stars in Jumpers.


Olivier has his last stage performance, in Trevor Griffiths’ The Party. He resigns as director of the National, and is succeeded by Peter Hall whose productions include John Gabriel Borkman and No Man’s Land with Richardson and Gielgud.


John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson star in No Man’s Land.


The National’s last performance before moving to the South Bank is Tribute to the Lady. Peggy Ashcroft plays Baylis, Gielgud and Richardson are among those taking part. In her curtain speech Ashcroft repeats Baylis’ threat to come back and haunt The Old Vic should her and her aunt Emma Cons’ work ever be put at risk.


The theatre is leased to visiting companies. The first production is The White Devil with Glenda Jackson.


It becomes the home of the Prospect Theatre Company. Productions include Hamlet with Derek Jacobi, Antony and Cleopatra with Alec McCowen and Dorothy Tutin and Saint Joan with Eileen Atkins.


The theatre is put up for sale through a sealed bid. Canadian entrepreneur Ed Mirvish outbids Andrew Lloyd Webber and spends £2.5 million restoring the building. The facade of the building is based on an 1830 engraving while the auditorium is modelled on the designs of 1871. The restoration goes on to win architectural awards.


Jonathan Miller directs 17 productions, collecting five Olivier Awards, including for the musical Candide.


Peter Hall returns with a classic repertory season includes Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Ben Kingsley.


The Mirvish family puts the theatre on the market. Suggestions for changing it into a themed pub, a bingo hall or a lap-dancing club provokes widespread outrage and protests. In response to public and political pressure, it’s acquired by The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000, a registered charity set up by Sally Greene.


The first production presented under the ownership of The Old Vic Theatre Trust – Amadeus directed by Peter Hall, starring David Suchet and Michael Sheen – is nominated for five Olivier Awards.



An announcement confirms that The Old Vic will once again become a producing house, with Kevin Spacey appointed as the first Artistic Director of the newly created Old Vic Theatre Company.


The Old Vic Theatre Company’s first season includes Maria Goos’ Cloaca directed by Kevin Spacey and Aladdin with Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey. Imogen Stubbs and Ben Whishaw star in Hamlet.


Kevin Spacey, Mary Stuart Masterson and Steven Weber star in National Anthems and Jennifer Ehle stars in The Philadelphia Story. In September, Spacey plays the title role in Trevor Nunn’s Richard II, with Ben Miles as Bolingbroke.


A new version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is staged; Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues directed by Robert Altman and Eugene O Neil’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, with Eve Best and Kevin Spacey, directed by Howard Davies feature in the season.


The season includes The Taming of The Shrew and Twelfth Night directed by Edward Hall with his all-male company Propeller; John Osborne’s The Entertainer, starring Robert Lindsay, directed by Sean Holmes; Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, directed by Peter Gill; a new play by Samuel Adamson, based on Pedro Almodóvar’s film All About My Mother, starring Lesley Manville, Diana Rigg and Mark Gatiss directed by Tom Cairns; and Stephen Fry’s new version of pantomime favourite Cinderella.


Shows include David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, starring Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Spacey and Laura Michelle Kelly, directed by Matthew Warchus; Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion starring Tim Piggot-Smith and Michelle Dockery, directed by Peter Hall; and Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, with Jessica Hynes and Stephen Mangan.


Productions of Joe Sutton’s Complicit, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth McGovern and David Suchet, directed by Kevin Spacey; Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Anna Mackmin; The Bridge Project: The Cherry Orchard & The Winter’s Tale, with Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke, directed by Sam Mendes; and Inherit the Wind starring Kevin Spacey and David Troughton, directed by Trevor Nunn feature in the season.


Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, starring Obi Abili, Anthony Head and Lesley Manville, directed by David Grindley; The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, starring Toby Stephens and Hattie Morahan, directed by Anna Mackmin; The Bridge Project: As You Like It & The Tempest, directed by Sam Mendes; Noel Coward’s Design for Living, starring Tom Burke, Lisa Dillon and Andrew Scott, directed by Anthony Page; and Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, in a translation by John Mortimer, starring Tom Hollander, directed by Richard Eyre.


In Terence Rattigan’s centenary year, Cause Celebre is staged starring Anne-Marie Duff, directed by Thea Sharrock. Kevin Spacey stars in Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes, for the final year of The Bridge Project; The Playboy of the Western World, featuring Ruth Negga and Robert Sheehan, directed by John Crowley; and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off directed by Lindsay Posner, starring Janie Dee, Robert Glenister and Celia Imrie are also staged.


Eve Best returns to The Old Vic in The Duchess of Malfi, directed by Jamie Lloyd. Other productions include Democracy by Michael Frayn, directed by Paul Miller; Hedda Gabler starring Sheridan Smith and Adrian Scarborough, directed by Anna Mackmin; and the first musical co-produced by The Old Vic Theatre Company, Kiss Me, Kate, under the direction of Trevor Nunn.


From 2009 – 2013, The Old Vic Tunnels run as a temporary event and performance space. Over this time, the venue earned a reputation as one of the most creative spaces in London. The Old Vic Tunnels saw indie phenomenon Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros create five nights of the Wild West on Mars; the legendary New York Dolls perform; a summer term from the National Youth Theatre; Ludovico Einaudi’s album launch; an underground New York streetscape evolve with screenings from Everyman Cinemas; the Lazarides Gallery’s annual art exhibition including a Michelin-starred pop-up restaurant; a summer fundraiser with Sir Tom Jones; and Old Vic New Voices’ award-winning community play Epidemic.


Henry Goodman stars in The Winslow Boy, directed by Lindsay Posner; Marianne Elliott directs Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich in Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams; Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones star in Much Ado About Nothing directed by Mark Rylance; and Ivan Turgenev’s rarely seen Fortune’s Fool makes its West End debut at The Old Vic, with Richard McCabe directed by Lucy Bailey.


Jon Robin Baitz’s award-winning Other Desert Cities premieres in the UK at The Old Vic; Lindsay Posner directs Sinéad Cusack, Peter Egan, Clare Higgins, Daniel Lapaine and Martha Plimpton; and Kevin Spacey stars in a limited run of David W Rintels’ single character play, Clarence Darrow directed by Thea Sharrock.

2015 and beyond


Artistic Director Matthew Warchus’ Season 1 opens in September 2015, marking a new beginning for The Old Vic. Featuring a fuller programme comprising world premieres, revivals, dance, musicals, variety and work for families the season included the world premiere of Tamsin Oglesby’s Future Conditional and Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.


Ralph Fiennes starred in the revival of The Master Builder; the world premiere of new musical Groundhog Day was the hit of the summer going on to win two Oliviers including Best New Musical before transferring to Broadway. The opening of Matthew Warchus’ Season 2 also saw Glenda Jackson return to the stage after a 25 year hiatus in the title role of King Lear.


Both Daniel Radcliffe in the 50th anniversary production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and John Boyega in Woyzeck made their Old Vic debuts; Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country played to sell-out audiences before transferring to the West End and winning two Olivier Awards; and the year closed with Rhys Ifans as Scrooge in the joyous A Christmas Carol.


This year saw The Old Vic turn 200 years old and to mark this celebration Season 3 presented entirely new work. For details of What’s On now click here.