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The Old Vic Theatre at 200: a rich history peppered with periods of crisis

The Old Vic theatre in London
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The iconic institution has helped launch the careers of some of the UK’s most distinguished actors, with numerous successful shows to its credit. As it celebrates its 200th birthday, Nick Smurthwaite looks into the past, present and future of this bastion of British theatre, which continues to be a hub of creativity despite its share of ups and downs

Plain sailing for 200 years at the forefront of British theatre was never an option. Any theatre as venerable and vibrant as London’s Old Vic is bound to have had its ups and downs, but the Waterloo-based venue has had more than its fair share – from bankruptcy to bailiffs and bombing during the Second World War. What is regrettable is that arguably its worst ever crisis should have cast a major shadow over this, its bicentenary year.

The revelation in 2017 that Kevin Spacey, the Old Vic’s artistic director from 2004 to 2015, faced 20 claims of alleged inappropriate conduct – 14 of which were serious enough that complainants were advised to contact the police – left the capital’s theatre community reeling, and the wider world agog.

The accusations formed part of a scandal that began when Spacey was accused by actor Anthony Rapp, who claimed that Spacey made a sexual advance on him in 1986, when Rapp was 14. This then spread to a series of allegations against Spacey about alleged incidents during his time running the Old Vic. Initially, Spacey attempted to deflect attention by coming out publicly for the first time, while the long-serving Old Vic hierarchy denied all knowledge of his alleged misdeeds.

Sally Greene, founding trustee since 1998 and former chief executive, of whom more later, said she was “shocked and appalled” by the revelations, about which she insisted she was unaware. In due course, the executive issued fulsome apologies to all those affected and promised a full inquiry.

Coming so soon after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it seemed that here was yet another charismatic Hollywood figure whose predatory sexual behaviour had been enabled by his untouchable celebrity status and the silent collusion of would-be whistleblowers.

Writing in The Stage, associate editor Lyn Gardner said: “Too often, behaviour that would not be tolerated elsewhere is accepted on the grounds that the person behaving badly is a creative genius who runs a widely admired building or directs brilliant productions.”

In the Old Vic’s report, drawn up by a law firm appointed to investigate allegations on the theatre’s behalf, it states that “the theatre was in a unique position of having a Hollywood star at the helm around whom existed a cult of personality”. The investigation found that Spacey’s “stardom and status may have prevented people, and in particular junior staff or young actors, from feeling that they could speak up or raise a hand for help”.

Beginnings as the Royal Coburg

Had Spacey been around in 1818 when the Old Vic – or the Royal Coburg as it was originally named – first opened, he would almost certainly have got away with the conduct he is accused of and kept his reputation intact. History is brimming with powerful men behaving badly who were never properly called to account.

The theatre popped up at the same time as Waterloo Bridge, which, it was thought at the time, would encourage West Enders to stroll across the Thames for their entertainment. The Royal Coburg cost £12,000 to build, had a capacity of 3,800, and was named after an obscure German prince who happened to be married to Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent. It was a form of patronage by proxy, and a way of attracting the great and the good through its doors. Sadly, Charlotte died in childbirth at 21, before the Coburg had even opened.

In 1818, the best seats would have been in two tiers of boxes where the dress circle is now. There were no stalls, only a pit with wooden benches, and a gallery – known as ‘the gods’ – accessible via a separate stone staircase. Tickets for the gallery cost one shilling, as opposed to four shillings for a seat in a posh box.

One of the Royal Coburg’s state-of-the-art novelties was its looking-glass curtain, made up of 63 mirrors joined together within a huge gilt frame, lowered prior to the performance so that the audience could thrill to the sight of its own reflection.

Only the so-called patent theatres of Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Haymarket were allowed by law to present Shakespeare, so the new leaseholder of the Coburg, actor-manager George Davidge, had to find ingenious ways of circumventing this ruling. He kicked off with an abridged version of Richard III with musical interludes, which promptly landed the theatre with a fine of £50, followed by The King and His Three Daughters aka King Lear, and a bastardised Hamlet that culminated in the marriage of the Prince and Ophelia.

The most celebrated tragedian of the time, Edmund Kean, was retained by Davidge at enormous expense in 1831 to play Othello, Lear and Richard III – not all on the same night – in bold defiance of the patent law. Legend has it that after one performance of Othello, blind drunk and displeased that Iago had garnered more applause, Kean stepped forward and addressed the audience: “I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I see before me.”

Renamed the Royal Victoria in 1833, the theatre received a visit from the future queen, then aged 14, that year. She wrote in her diary: “It is a very clean and pretty little theatre, and the box we were in was very comfortable.”

As Terry Coleman points out in his excellent history of the Old Vic, published by Faber in 2014, it is odd that Princess Victoria considered the theatre “little”, since its capacity was then equal to Drury Lane’s. The Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 did away with the old distinction between patent theatres and so-called ‘minor’ theatres, so the Royal Victoria was suddenly free to produce as much Shakespeare as it wished, although the box office usually did better with melodrama and light operetta. Not long afterwards, the box office received an even bigger boost when Waterloo Station opened, bringing punters in from all over London and the south-east.

The perennial quest for box office bonanzas often led Victorian theatre managers to popular works of fiction, notably the works of Charles Dickens, usually produced without his permission. Luckily for theatres like the Old Vic, which pirated his work with impunity, Dickens adored the theatre and was more likely to be flattered than affronted.

Having fallen into disrepair, the Royal Victoria’s auditorium was essentially rebuilt in 1871, retaining the outer shell and attractive front elevation we can see today. Ironically, despite being rather grandly rebranded the Royal Victoria Palace, it became commonly known around this time as ‘the Old Vic’, a nickname that stuck.

Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis

The first of three formidable women to be associated with the Old Vic over the years, Emma Cons, appeared on the scene in 1880 when the Coffee Tavern Music Hall Company, devoted to good deeds and temperance, took a lease on what they renamed the Royal Victoria Hall. Cons’ mission was to dispense “wholesome food and innocent entertainment for the moral benefit of the lower orders”. She also vowed to tame the venue’s reputation for rowdiness and brawling.

October 30, 1929 – the Duchess of York was mobbed as she arrived at the famous ‘Old Vic Theatre to unveil a memorial tablet to Emma Cons

Cons, who steered the Old Vic through the next 32 years, was a Christian social reformer and philanthropist with friends in high places. She dubbed the Vic “the people’s palace” and had no interest in producing theatre, let alone Shakespeare. Even opera was ruled out because she had only applied for a music-hall licence. She kept the prices low and the entertainment simple.

However, her niece, Lilian Baylis, who started working with Cons at the theatre in her early 20s, had different ideas. After her aunt’s death in 1912, Baylis secured a licence to produce Shakespeare. Between 1914 and 1923 she put on all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in succession, something no other theatre in the world had done before. Baylis was also credited with launching the classical acting careers of, among others, Edith Evans, John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, who went on to become theatrical titans in their own right.

For the next 30 years, the bossy and God-fearing Baylis devoted herself to the Old Vic, reinventing it as the home of Shakespeare even though she’d never read a Shakespeare play in her life. She had no truck with star actors or self-importance. At 25, Gielgud had already made his mark in the West End when he went to see her about playing Romeo and Richard II. “We’d love to have you, dear, but we can’t afford star actors here,” she told him before offering him both roles at a cut-down rate.

Nevertheless, Gielgud’s appearances at the Old Vic between 1929 and 1931, culminating in a universally acclaimed Hamlet, caused a stir in the press and among the Vic’s predominantly young audience. Here was a star actor in the making.

Clearly, Baylis had a gift for spotting talent and luring it to the Old Vic. Though not as young as Gielgud, 32-year-old Tyrone Guthrie’s star was also in the ascendant when Baylis offered him the job of resident producer – what we’d call artistic director – in 1933. His brief was to maintain and build on the theatre’s reputation for Shakespeare. It was Guthrie who first spotted Laurence Olivier’s potential as a Shakespearean actor of note. Before 1936, Olivier was known as an up-and-coming film star, so Baylis was sceptical at first about his classical credentials. His debut as Hamlet in 1937 allayed any fears she may have had. He said later of Baylis: “The smell of a leading man to Lilian was like oats to a racehorse.”

In 1963 the National Theatre finally opens under Olivier at the Old Vic with Peter O’Toole as Hamlet (click to enlarge)

In this first dazzling debut, Olivier couldn’t have known that 25 years on, he would be moving into the Old Vic as director of the National Theatre. He’d already proved himself as a director, actor and producer during the war years when the Old Vic Company produced a legendary season at the old New Theatre (now the Noel Coward) in St Martin’s Lane, which the critic Michael Billington has called “one of the high water marks of modern British theatre”. Now came the challenge of realising the long-held dream of creating a national theatre.

The establishment and early years of the National Theatre, with its myriad crises and triumphs, is deserving of a separate article in itself, but suffice to say that the 18 key executives and creatives – post-war British theatre’s elite – managed to make it all happen from their base of several army surplus Nissen huts situated round the corner from the Old Vic, bolted together to make them stable. Grand it wasn’t, at least not ‘backstage’. When the National moved into its controversial new building on the South Bank, the Old Vic began a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, from the low point of Peter O’Toole’s old-school Macbeth in 1980, which had the audience quaking not with terror but with laughter, to the high point of Simon Callow’s production of Carmen Jones, which won a best musical Olivier in 1991.

Ed Mirvish and Sally Greene

The most significant person in the Old Vic’s history during this period was an elderly Canadian businessman and retailer called Ed Mirvish, nicknamed ‘Honest Ed’, who ran a very successful bargain store in Toronto. In 1982, he successfully bid for the Old Vic and proceeded to spend £5 million restoring the Grade II-listed building to its former glory. Mirvish and his business partner son David already owned Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, and he proved to be a blessing for the Old Vic, giving successive resident directors Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall an artistic free hand. Though both men won many critical plaudits, their box office records were not as impressive. Mirvish was alleged to have said to Miller: “If ever you feel the urge to make a profit, don’t fight it.”

‘Honest Ed’ Mirvish, centre, with construction chief Roger Downing and architect Nicholas Thompson after the Old Vic’s 1980s refurbishment

By the late 1990s, the Mirvishes had decided to cut their losses and concentrate on Toronto. There was talk of the building being sold off as a bingo hall or a lap-dancing club, but its Grade II listing (upgraded to Grade II* in 1998) put paid to any radical change of use.

Thanks partly to the intervention of the then culture secretary, Chris Smith, in 1998, and with the collusion of her friend Stephen Daldry, Greene, then operator of the Criterion and Richmond theatres, was able to use her powers of persuasion to form a charitable trust, which offered the Mirvishes £3.5 million for the building, half the asking price. Wishing the building to continue as a theatre, and impressed by Greene’s resolve, the Mirvishes accepted the offer.

Greene recalls: “I stepped in to save the Old Vic, a woman in the historically male-dominated world of theatre. I revitalised the theatre, forming a charitable trust which I asked Lord Bernstein to chair. Within four months we had raised £1.5 million towards the purchase price of £3.5 million. Over the next two years, we raised a further £2.5 million to transfer ownership of the theatre from the Mirvishes into a charitable trust. I am immensely proud of what we have achieved.”

It was another five years before Greene was able to persuade Hollywood actor Spacey, always a keen theatre actor, to take on the role of artistic director. His tenure, as we all know, has now been tainted by accusations of misconduct, but after a shaky start his commercial judgement at least proved to be sound, and his ability to attract commercial sponsorship unmatched.

His own appearances in The Iceman Cometh, Richard III and The Philadelphia Story were also highly praised by the critics, and in 2008 he was given an Evening Standard Special Award for turning a venerable, failing theatre into an artistic powerhouse, an award that was later followed by special recognition at the Olivier Awards. Now the actor is facing multiple police investigations into assault charges – including three in London – and is no longer employable in the industry.

Following accusations that a failure of governance led to incidents going unreported, director Daldry, one of the original Old Vic trustees, resigned from the trust after 20 years’ service. A number of changes were also made to the theatre’s governance structure, and while Greene was retained as a ‘founding trustee’, she lost her title of chief executive. She had earlier acted quickly to distance herself from Spacey, claiming that her role as chief executive of the theatre had not included “the day-to-day management” of the theatre.

While many questions remain unanswered – and due process needs to be followed from a legal point of view when it comes to the accusations against Spacey – the Old Vic is understandably anxious to move forward and has taken what Greene describes as “significant steps to ensure a safe and supportive environment” for the future. Its newly introduced Guardians scheme aims to protect employees at all levels from abuse or harassment.

Executive director Kate Varah calls it “an incredibly positive outcome”. She adds: “2017 was a year of highs and lows. There were many moments of celebration, with the most critically acclaimed and financially successful season of shows to date and more audiences coming through our doors than ever before as, three years in, Matthew’s [Warchus] artistic vision really began to embed and resonate with audiences. The later part of the year was a challenging time for the theatre itself, and the industry as a whole. We took the allegations very seriously and took significant steps to support those affected. In the following period of healing and restoration, we have used our experience to inform and innovate a new way of working.”

There is also a five-year plan for improvements to the building, estimated to cost £16 million, which will see upgrades to the auditorium, the roof, front of house, disabled access and the ladies’ loos, as well as a new annexe adjacent to the theatre that will house offices, a cafe bar and a bespoke education centre. Funding dependent, the entire works will continue in phases until around 2022. As yet, the theatre’s commercial sponsors and supporters – many of whom came on board during the Spacey years – appear to have stuck with the Old Vic.

As Varah observes: “We were particularly moved by and will always be grateful to our supporters during this time. Their trust in our management of the situation was testament to the very close working relationship that we have with them. Our supporters know they are essential to us. They don’t just pay for one-off projects – they turn the lights on, they put the work on our stage, they open our doors. It is often said that they are part of our family; but the true value of that kind of relationship only really becomes apparent when it is tested.”

Matthew Warchus: ‘I don’t have Spacey’s star power – all I have to offer are productions’

In Warchus, Spacey’s successor as artistic director, the Old Vic clearly has a gifted director and honourable cheerleader who is doing everything possible, along with Varah, to restore the theatre’s tarnished reputation. Few would argue with Warchus’ sentiment that the Old Vic occupies a unique place in the hearts of innumerable London theatregoers – and the last few years’ artistic highs have been matched with recognition at the Olivier Awards – first for Groundhog Day and this year for Girl from the North Country. Though there have been failures of care and governance, the focus was mostly on Spacey himself and a historic structure, not the building.

All enduring institutions are greater than the people who presume to run them.

Old Vic highlights

• Hamlet (1937)
• The Tempest (1940)
• Romeo and Juliet (1960)
• Othello (1964)
• Hay Fever (1966)
• Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967)
• The Dance of Death (1967)
• No Man’s Land (1975)
• Candide (1988)
• Carmen Jones (1991)
• Amadeus (1998)
• Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1999)
• Aladdin (2004)
• Hamlet (2004)
• The Norman Conquests (2008)
• Richard III (2011)
• Hedda Gabler (2012)
• Fortune’s Fool (2013)
• High Society (2015)
• Jekyll and Hyde (2016)
• Glenda Jackson’s King Lear (2016)
• Girl From the North Country (2017)

For more information on the Old Vic, visit oldvictheatre.com

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