200 Years of Advice

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When you have been around for almost two Centuries, there are a few pearls of wisdom that can be plucked from the archives for practical (and impractical) advice for the year ahead. As we look ahead to our bicentenary year, here are a few things that we have learnt.

1. Glass curtains are not practical

Whilst it may sound terrific to today’s selfie-loving audiences, the famous looking-glass curtain of 1821 was quickly dismantled due to its impracticality. Inspired by a Parisian theatre, the curtain consisted of 63 mirrors assembled in a guilt frame. It proved impossible to clean and soon become covered in finger marks, and the five-tonne weight threatened to bring the house down in the more literal sense.

2. Respect the patent

Until 1843, only the so-called patent theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, which held ancient royal licenses, could present Shakespeare or any straight play. The Old Vic (then the Royal Coburg) did not receive a theatre licence until 1912 and as such, was not permitted to perform straight Shakespeare. To get around the restrictions the Coburg presented Richard III with musical interludes, Lear became The King and his Three Daughters, and in Hamlet, neither he or Ophelia died, with the play ending with their marriage and coronation. One freely adapted version of Richard III starred the King’s horse, ‘White Surrey’, rather than the actor playing the King. They were soon found out, however (unsurprisingly), were fined £50 and had to appear before a Commons Select Committee. Luckily the law was abolished in 1843 and replaced with theatre licensing.

3. Avoid overcrowding

When The Royal Coburg opened in 1818, the theatre held 3,800 people. Today, the entire house holds 1,077. More people than would today fill the entire theatre used to be squeezed into the gallery. Unsurprisingly, conditions were precariously cramped and this came to a head at the incredibly popular Boxing Day performances. In 1848, two boys were crushed to death on the staircase in the rush to the gallery. 10 years later, an actor’s wig caught on fire and a second set his own costume on fire whilst trying to put it out. As the audiences tried to flee, 16 people lost their lives in the rush. A decade later, Boxing Day ticket prices were increased in the hope of avoiding any more a crush, but the incensed crowd refused to pay, crushing 11 year-old Peter Fleming on their way out. Over three decades, 19 people were lost in the Boxing Day crush.

4. A little refresh can go a long way

In its 200 years The Old Vic has undergone seven restorations, which as an average of one restoration every 28.5 years. Under the management of the famously frugal Lilian Baylis however, the theatre went 43 years without renovation. The curtains were made of faded red cotton, the audience were seated on hard benches and the floor of the auditorium was bare boards which were scattered with sawdust each week. The actresses had to change in corrugated iron boxes at the side of the stage and the only source of water came from a backstage tap. This was situated next to a gas ring where Lilian Baylis cooked her sausages before matinee performances. Luckily, The Old Vic is in a lot better shape today thanks to the extensive restoration in 1982 under Ed Mirvish, but as you might expect from a 200 year old listed building, there are always things to be improved. Which is why we’re embarking on some exciting plans to further improve our building for our 21st Century audiences.

5. Home is where the Company is

When the building was closed in 1940 amidst the Blitz of the Second World War, The Old Vic Company had to find themselves a new home for the next 10 years. Over the next decade, the Company was housed at the Victoria Theatre in Burnley, the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, the Theatre Royal in Bristol (which is now the Bristol Old Vic), the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) and embarked on tours of a newly liberated Europe and beyond. Meanwhile, post-war plans to widen Waterloo Road threatened the significantly bomb-damaged Old Vic. Thankfully, plans were postponed due to lack of funds, giving the governors of the Victoria Hall time to raise the £50,000 needed to restore the theatre and the Company returned for a performance of Twelfth Night on 13 Nov 1950. Whilst the building is and always has been iconic, the heart of The Old Vic continued to beat even when it (temporarily) had to find a new home.

6. Adaptability

The Old Vic may have started life as a theatre but over the past two centuries it has adapted with the tastes of the times. Theatre wasn’t performed for 32 years under Emma Cons’ management. An advocate for temperance, she transformed the theatre into a Coffee House and Temperance Tavern, programming only purified variety acts which included performing dogs, cats and goats, as well as operatic recitals and ballad concerts. Emma Cons also introduced the penny lectures which provided insightful talks at affordable prices for the predominantly working class area. In 1884 Samuel Morley, a textile millionaire, newspaper publisher and MP for Bristol took these Penny Lectures and developed them into a technical college for working men, Morley College, which was based in the theatre itself until it moved to its current premises in 1923. In 1901 Lilian Baylis introduced moving pictures with an ‘Exhibition of Animal Pictures’. Four years later, Monday night was film night, attracting audiences of two thousand. She also continued the operatic tradition started by Emma Cons and introduced ballet when she campaigned to save the then-derelict Sadler’s Wells. The Vic-Wells collaboration continued beyond the reinstatement of The Old Vic’s theatre license in 1912. Then in 1947, George Devine, Michael Saint-Denis and Glen Byam Shaw formed a theatre school in the rubble of the bomb-damaged theatre with students that included Joan Plowright. The Old Vic has been a repertory theatre, producing house and receiving house and it is this willingness (and necessity) to adapt that has helped keep The Old Vic going for 200 years.

7. Success comes in many forms

Peter O’Toole’s 1980 production of Macbeth has gone down in history as one of the most infamous and critically derided productions in theatrical history. But these were uncertain times for The Old Vic since The National theatre moved to its new premises on the Southbank in 1976. With the Company gone, the future and identity of The Old Vic was uncertain. O’Toole’s Macbeth was so slated by critics and audiences that it became a sell-out success – people had to see this production for themselves – and it became the first, and crucially important, financial success at The Old Vic since the departure of The National Theatre.

8. Theatre prevails

The last 200 years have been anything but easy for The Old Vic. But through all the challenges the theatre has faced, it is the theatre lovers who, above all else, have ensured its survival. Before Ed Mirvish stepped in to save the theatre in 1982 and the future of The Old Vic looked precariously uncertain, French actor and mime artist Jean Louis Barrault wrote an open letter to The Times:

‘Every evening at sunset, the spirit of English theatre awakes and, just over The Old Vic, hover the spirits of Shakespeare, the Elizabethans and the Restoration playwrights, whose links with today’s dramatic poets have never been severed… Today we emphasise our fraternal solidarity with English actors in their pleas that The Old Vic should not be closed. The soul is fragile without the body, and The Old Vic company forms, as it were, part of the body of English theatre. Such an act would not only be cruel, it would darken the glow of British theatre in the world at large, which we love, admire and need. We would like our English friends to know that we are with them in their request, the aim of which is only to serve the artistic genius of England.’

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