"The Nobility, Gentry and Public are respectfully
informed that the new and splendid theatre will open on
Whit Monday, the 11th May 1818, with entirely new
entertainment now preparing on a scale of magnitude and
great expense. The audience part of the theatre will be
lighted by a superb Central Lustre, while others of a
more costly description will shed a beautiful light over
the whole house"
First Night Playbill, Royal Coburg Theatre, 11 May 1818.
The Old Vic theatre was founded in 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre under the patronage of the Prince of Saxe Coburg and funded by Joseph Glossop. In 1833, the owners of the Coburg re-named the theatre The Royal Victorian Theatre after Princess, later Queen, Victoria, who had recently become heir to the throne.
Leading Victorian social reformer, Emma Cons, bought The Royal Victorian in 1880 and reopened 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. Eventually, a backstage college began, the students taking the title "OVS" or "Old Vic Student". Emma Cons died in 1912 and the theatre passed to her niece, Lilian Baylis, who had worked with her for many years.
Lilian then went on to produce every play in Shakespeare's First Folio between 1914 and 1923. She ensured that the entry were at a price which most of the public could afford. The last play in the cycle, Troilus and Cressida, was performed on 23rd November 1923 before the then 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. During their visit Lilian pointed out two pictures in the foyer to the Queen - one of Emma Cons and a slightly smaller one of King George V, saying :
"...[It's] not quite [as] large as Aunt Emma's because your
dear husband has not done Ruby Waxso much for The Old Vic".
The first Old Vic Company was lead by John Gielgud in 1929, and in 1933 Tyrone Guthrie took over management working with Lilian Baylis. Guthrie brought in Charles Laughton, fresh from Hollywood, to lead the Company with Flora Roson as his leading lady. During the same period Lilian Baylis was reponsible for rebuilding the Sadler's Wells Theatre, which she reopened in 1931 with an opening performance of Twelth Night with John Gielgud.
In 1931 The Old Vic - Sadler's Wells Ballet Company was formed (led by Ninette de Valois), for four years the two theatres alternated between drama, opera and ballet, until, in 1935, opera and ballet moved to Sadler's Wells (forming The English National Opera and The Royal Ballet respectively).
Having spent forty years of her life on The Old Vic, Lilian Baylis died in November 1937, at the age of 63. The theatre carried on under the Directorship of Tyrone Guthrie. For a year, in 1940, John Gielgud led The Old Vic Company in a short season with productions of King Lear and The Tempest - which were the last productions at the theatre for a decade, as The Old Vic was badly damaged in the Blitz. The companies continued to tour, in particular to the North West and the mining areas of South Wales in order to raise morale.
In 1941, The Old Vic established itself at the Liverpool playhouse and in 1944, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier were released from the Navy to lead a new Old Vic Company. The company performed at other venues, particularly The New Theatre for the next six years; where rehearsals began to the sound of the first doodlebug bombs exploding on London. Following VE Day, the Company played Hamburg, Belsen, New York and Paris.
The Old Vic building was finally re-opened in December 1950 by King George V, the then Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, then, between 1953 and 1958, The Old Vic repeated its feat of the 1920s in producing the whole cycle of Shakespeare's First Folio.
During the 1960s The Old Vic Company provided the theatre with some great new names, including Judi Dench, who came to the company in 1957 from drama school and stayed for four seasons and Maggie Smith, who joined from a background in revue. The Old Vic became the home of the new National Theatre in October 1963 with a performance of Hamlet with Peter O'Toole, Michael Redgrave, Rosemary Harris, Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi, John Stride, Frank Finlay, Colin Blakely and Lynn Redgrave marking the occasion.
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 from 1973) included Albert Finney, Joan Plowright, Colin Blakely, Geraldine McEwan, Frank Finlay, Lynn Redgrave, Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins. The huge range of productions in these 13 years included the first major production of a Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
The National Theatre's last performance before moving to its new home in 1976 was Tribute to the Lady (the lady being Lilian Baylis), starring Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. In her curtain speech, Peggy Ashcroft repeated Lilian Baylis' threat to come back and haunt The Old Vic should her (and her aunt, Emma Cons') work ever be put at risk.
The first Old Vic production following the departure of the National was The White Devil with Glenda Jackson. The following year, 1977, The Old Vic became the home of the Prospect Theatre Company, directed by Timothy West, with productions including Hamlet with Derek Jacobi and Anthony and Cleopatra with Alec McCowen.
The finances of the theatre were precarious and it was put up for sale in 1982. Bought by "Honest Ed" Mirvish who had previously bought and restored the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963. He spent £2.5 million renovating The Old Vic (in fact, 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 façade of the building is now a splendid interpretation of an engraving of 1830, and the auditorium itself true to the designs of 1871.
In the 16 years of ownership by the Mirvish family, The Old Vic staged an astonishing 80 productions mainly classical and new drama. Jonathan Miller served as The Old Vic's Artistic Director between 1987 and 1990 and directed no less than 17 productions, receiving five Olivier Awards, including one for Candide as Best Musical.
In 1998, a new charitable trust acquired the theatre. The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000 was established as a response to public and political pressure to save The Old Vic, after the Mirvish family decided to sell the building . There was an outcry when one bidder suggested changing this legendry building into a bingo hall. The Trust undertook to preserve The Old Vic Theatre by ensuring that the fabric of the building remains sound and to refurbish and recondition it. It also pledged to increase the level of production activity, increase audience satisfaction, access and develop significant relationships with education and community groups.