The Old Vic is one of the oldest theatres in London, built in 1818, and is also well-known. Frequently referred to as “the actors’ theatre”, with influential performing artists of the last hundred years having acted on its stage, influential Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Alec Guiness, Vivien Leigh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, Maggie Smith, Kevin Spacey, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndyke.
The Theatre was constructed on former marshland that was Lambeth Marsh and it took many years to build due to a serious lack of money. The Foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Princess Charlotte of Wales in September 1816, hence the Old Vic began life as The Royal Coburg, guaranteeing the nobility and the gentry “entirely new entertainment”.
On the opening night 0n Monday 11th May 1818, Melodrama, an Asiatic ballet and a Harlequinade were the evenings entertainment. There followed later on in 1831 Edmund Kean’s plays Richard III, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear in a six-night appointment. 1833 saw the theatre re-opened ‘for the encouragement of Native Dramatic Talent’, and re-named The Royal Victoria, in honour of Princess Victoria. Afterwards, in 1871, the theatre once again re-opens and this time as The New Victoria. In the 1870s it was twice put up for sale by auction, before closing down.The Victorian social reformist Emma Cons, opens the theatre in 1880, as The Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall, with the word ‘theatre’ being dropped purportedly because of its ‘impure associations’. Philanthropist Samuel Morley prevented the theatre from closing down in 1884 and renamed it The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern.
Shakespeare productions make their introduction at the theatre in 1914, under the direction of Ben Greet. Then, from 1920-25 under the direction of Robert Atkins all 36 Shakespeare plays in the First Folio are performed. In 1925 West End Star Edith Evans joins the company.
From 1929-31 John Gielgud’s Hamlet and Richard II established him as the new Shakespearean star. In 1932 Peggy Ashcroft joins the company to play Juliet, Miranda, Portia and Rosalind.
In 1936 Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier join the company. Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans perform in As you like it. In 1941 the theatre is badly damaged by German bombs.
After renovations, the theatre opens one more in 1950 with a performance of Twelfth Night. Judi Dench joins for the first of four seasons in 1957. Her roles include Hermia, Ophelia, and Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. In 1960, John Stride and Judi Dench starred in Romeo and Juliet.
The brilliant Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith star in Othello in 1964. Unfortunately, in 1963 The Old Vic company dissolved, and under the artistic direction of Lord Olivier, the new National Theatre Company was established at the Old Vic until its own residence was opened on the South Bank in 1976.
Over the following thirteen years company regulars include Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Geraldine McEwan, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.
In 1977 the theatre was leased to visiting companies with the first production being The White Devil, starring Glenda Jackson. The theatre is put up for sale in 1982 and bought by Canadian businessman Ed Mirvish who restored it to its former glory.
During 1998 the Mirvish family wish to sell the theatre. There are proposals for changing it into a themed pub, a bingo hall or a lap-dancing club. In response to political pressure and public demand, the theatre is taken over by The Old Vic Theatre Trust in 2000, and a registered charity set up by Sally Greene. The facade of the building is founded on an 1830 engraving while the auditorium is styled on the designs of 1871.
With The Old Vic now back to its former glory the theatre continues to produce spectacular shows.
Old Vic Theatre
The Cut, Lambeth, London SE1 8NB