‘Audace, toujours de I’audace’: the Bicentenary of the Old Vic

‘Dare, always dare’ wrote Lilian Baylis, that great stalwart of the Old Vic. Her words must be the most fitting motto for the world-renowned theatre whose Bicentenary falls this month. A special season to celebrate its landmark anniversary includes a new Dickens adaptation, an Ayckbourn play, a new musical dance production, a Birthday street party and Open House, marching bands and various community activities.

Yet the survival of the Old Vic for over two centuries is little short of miraculous: if its spirit is daring, its continued existence has always been precarious in the extreme. It has borne a variety of names – The Royal Coburg Theatre, Royal Victoria Theatre, New Victoria Palace, Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. It has been sold and resold, refurbished, gutted and refurbished again. Neglected, bombed and fallen into disrepair, it has even been threatened with demolition. At the outset, it was built on the dubious wasteland of the Lambeth marshes. Managements, transient and money-grubbing, or else comprising those passionately committed figures who have made the Old Vic their life, have come and gone. It has been notorious for drunken, low-life audiences and then, in total contrast, become a temperance hall. It was claimed as the London home of Shakespeare and was the proving ground for many of our greatest actors. The National Theatre had its beginnings there and an adult education college grew up on its premises. And throughout its long history, the Old Vic has lurched through financial hardship and disaster, beset by that traditional curse of all theatres: money, money, money.

old vic1The theatre – The Coburg –was built near to the grand new Waterloo Bridge.  There were immediate difficulties with money, the projected cost of £4,000 becoming £12,000. The Waterloo Bridge Company, aware of the tolls it could collect from large audiences crossing the river, stepped in with funds. At last, in May 1818, the theatre opened offering melodrama and pantomime. The season was a success and the house underwent its first ever re-embellishment, showing off the famous, five tons looking-glass curtain. This comprised sixty-three mirrors in a gilt frame, which reflected the audience, but was so heavy that it damaged the roof and eventually had to be removed.

The Coburg went on to offer spectacular productions: an enormous ship ploughed through Arctic ice, while an Indian piece featured slaves, a real elephant, music and cannon fire. By 1824 a new impresario, George Davidge, had taken over the lease and the first attempts at Shakespeare – of a sort – were put on. As a minor theatre, The Coburg was constrained by ancient royal licences which forbade presentation of Shakespeare or any straight play.  To get round the law, a melodrama of Richard III was presented, which contained various musical interludes and which, to the chagrin of several actors hoping for a juicy part, starred a real horse called ‘White Surrey.’ Davidge pushed his luck further with the Three Caskets – an adapted Merchant of Venice – while Lear became The King and His Three Daughters. But in a bold coup the great and outrageous old vic2Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean was engaged to play Richard III, Lear and Othello over six nights. Kean’s appearance on June 27th 1831 is legendary, for this was the occasion on which, fancying that Iago had received greater applause than himself, he railed at the audience, calling them ‘a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes.’  Davidge had to appear before a Commons Select Committee to explain his flouting of the law. He got away with it: Shakespeare was to be preferred to the doggerel of melodrama. But again, money ran out, and the lease was sold.

The new owners redecorated the auditorium, built a new stage and re-named the theatre. But the entertainment at The Royal Victoria became even rougher and more raucous. It became known as the most notorious drinking den in town, where low-life patrons packed in, 3.000 at a time. Both Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley wrote of audiences teeming with all ‘the beggary and rascality of London…from…neighbouring gin palaces and thieves’ cellars.’  A false alarm in 1858 caused a panicked stampede from the theatre in which people were killed or badly trampled. There had been no outbreak of fire but the incident did nothing to rescue the Victoria’s reputation.

By 1870, the Victoria had become badly in need of repair. Sold to a limited company, it was marked for demolition. A new splendid theatre was to be created. But money again dictated events and the New Victoria Palace was built between the original side-walls and the original roof. But, while still The Palace, the theatre did not thrive and was put up for auction twice more in the 1870s.

A remarkable metamorphosis was at hand when a Company devoted to temperance took out the lease. A music and dancing licence was secured for what now became The Royal old vic3Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. A tavern it most certainly was not, for no alcoholic drink was served at the bar for the next fifty years. Under the Company secretary, Emma Cons, variety acts innocent of innuendo, indecency or vulgarity were put on. Their purpose was the moral improvement of the lower orders. Supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, and employing a clergyman as stage-manager who monitored the modestly-proper length of the lady performers’ skirts, the Royal Victoria was praised in the Birmingham Daily Post for its ‘civilisation of the roughs’ and for creating an ‘atmosphere of purity and truth which must cause rejoicing in Heaven.’

And then Lilian Baylis was invited to join the Victoria. She was a niece of Miss Cons and had had a remarkable early life touring South Africa with her parents’ concert party. She was a woman of parts: could sing, play various instruments and had taught dancing and music. She began work at the age of 24 and earned £1 a week, gradually assuming more managerial duties and taking over the lease on the death of her Aunt in 1912.

Miss Baylis’ real love was opera; she had already staged The Bohemian Girl, but one nightold vic4 a male voice spoke to her as she lay in bed. She had quite often had nocturnal dialogues with Jesus but this voice instructed her to produce his plays. It was Shakespeare’s. We know, of course, what great days were to come and how the arrival of the actor-manager Ben Greet was viewed as a further Act of God by Miss Baylis. Under Greet, the Old Vic Shakespeare Company was formed and performed the entire First Folio over the course of seven years. Hamlet was given in its entirety, a stint of five hours, and became an Old Vic tradition. The theatre could now properly be called that after Miss Baylis formally adopted the popular local nickname as its official title.

The Old Vic offered both classical drama and opera at moderate prices which meant that performers’ pay was low. When asked for a rise, Miss Baylis would reply, ‘Sorry, dear, God says no.’ But she had the knack of attracting talented young actors who then had the chance of playing a wide range of great Shakespearean roles. ‘God send me a good actor, and send him cheap’ was another classic Baylis saying. And God evidently obliged with the provision of some of our finest twentieth-century actors: Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft…..  These were among the greatest years of the Old Vic. When Miss Baylis died in 1937 she had secured Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier. At least one of them would have a marked effect on the future of theatre in Britain.

The Old Vic was bombed during the Blitz and restored in the 1950s. Again the money gremlins struck and a budget of £30, 636 had risen to £75,000 by the time the works were finished in 1957. By 1961 the idea of a National Theatre situated on the South Bank had been revived, and Olivier was asked to be its Director. But not yet: in the meantime, the new N.T. was to be housed in The Old Vic. Yet another rather unsatisfactory refurbishment took place but it was not until 1976 that the N.T. eventually moved to its new home. ‘It is the chief labour of my life’ said Olivier.

The closing night remembered Lilian Baylis in Tribute to the Lady, with Peggy Ashcroft repeating the Lady’s threat to come back and haunt them all should her work, or the theatre itself, ever be put at risk. The Old Vic changed hands again in 1982 and was restored by the Canadian entrepreneur ’Honest Ed’ Mirvish to the tune of £2.5 million – before being put on the market yet again. Plans to make it a pub, bingo hall or lap-dancing club caused wide outrage and protest. The ghost of Miss Baylis undoubtedly played its part.

The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000 acquired the building in 1998 and in 2003 Kevin Spacey was appointed Artistic Director. In his time there, Spacey mounted a series of screen projects, played Richard 11 and Richard III and numerous other parts. No other actor-director has received such consistent publicity as he did; the glamour of Hollywood clung to him and informed everything he attempted. ‘He’s done an incredible job’ was one comment when Spacey stepped down, ‘He’s totally revitalised the place.’

The present Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus, has a new vision for the Old Vic. A fuller programme comprises world premieres, revivals, dance, musicals and variety shows which build on the preceding 200 years of creative endeavour. ‘We hope to be a surprising, unpredictable, ground-breaking, rule-breaking, independent beacon of accessible, uplifting and unintimidating art.’ Is his new mission statement.

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Happy Birthday, Old Vic.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant


The Roundhouse: the best railway shed in town

‘It was the bunker for exploratory beliefs, in the form of plays, philosophical debate, poetry and marshal-amplified rock that quaked round the fat and lime-mortared drum like a constantly replayed pile-up on the M1’.

‘A Victorian train-shed built like a brick privy….’

‘A big, butch bothy…’

‘Surplus army coats, body odour…charred and onion-ringed comestibles from the dodgy concession stands, tinnitus…like angry wasps on helium…wedged in your ears.’


The Roundhouse / Camden

So the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm was variously described during its second great incarnation from 1964 to 1983. If the term ‘arts arena’  means a laboratory for thinking about and presenting arts from all cultures and disciplines,  in a way that energises connections between exhibition, performance, debate, festival, lecture and conference, then it was the first of its kind in this country. And it was the brainchild of an eminent English playwright.

sketchThe Roundhouse was a historic original, purpose- built in 1865 to service locomotives. A turn-table encircled by 24 cast iron columns dominated the interior, with an intricate cat’s cradle of thin interconnecting supports above. Though completely pragmatic in design, the interior had that stripped back, aesthetic beauty that some Victorian industrial architecture seems to acquire by accident. The symmetry and spareness of linked Doric columns around a central space evoked the design of classical theatre. Even in early etchings ,the interior has a sense of enigma and presence.


The building went on to function as a warehouse after becoming redundant as an engine shed, and fell into disuse just before World War 11. It was not to be re-opened until the early 1960s.

In London, post-war austerity had given way to a new wave of self-expression and liberation: there was a sense of disillusion with the existing order and the era of the Swinging Sixties was poised to begin. The anti-establishment feeling had already made its impact on the arts and the so-called angry young men’ of the mid-1950s – dissenting, radical and even anarchic in their views – were focusing on ‘gritty’ social realism. In the theatre, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a landmark play, sparking off a new genre – shocking and deeply distasteful to some – known as ‘kitchen sink drama.’  In both theatre and the novel there was a new emphasis on working class people and their disenchantment with an intelligentsia seen as largely upper-class and hopelessly out-of-touch.

weskerProminent among the new dramatists was Arnold Wesker. The commercial success of his ‘Trilogy’ of 1960 enabled him to put into action his liberal-radical ideas. The arts in Britain were ‘a mean joke’, he declared; culture should be freely available and accessible to all, not just to an elite.

His bold plan was to establish an inclusive arts centre which would provide a secure venue for performers. A permanent company of actors, a resident orchestra and jazz band were envisaged, along with provision for a wide variety of concerts, plays and other forms of artistic expression. There were, over a twenty year period, to be an art gallery, library, dance hall, work-shops, a youth club and a restaurant.But where to find a suitable space?

1855-original-fitandcrop-550x823Wesker’s recognition of the potential of the Roundhouse was inspired. A campaign to raise funds to refurbish it was launched and, re-named as Centre 42, it opened as a live entertainments venue in October 1966. The event was variously described as ‘epic’, ‘legendary’ and a ‘revolutionary event in English thinking and alternative music.’  An underground newspaper – International Times – was launched that evening and sugar lumps, handy for ingesting LSD, were allegedly handed out at the door. An unknown new group called Pink Floyd performed. They would be followed over the next few years by Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Clash and The Yardbirds.

brook_tempestThe Roundhouse was very far from the plush West End theatres where plays were usually performed.Its spare, graceful interior; the almost limitless potential of playing in a large circular space (no stuffy proscenium arch here) stimulated directors to experiment and innovate. Their treatment of Shakespeare was radical and the young director Peter Brook, already known for his convention-defying work, produced an account of The Tempest which provoked a critical storm. Tradition was swept aside in a house which had no seats and so blurred the line between audience and actors. Brook’s direction managed to include rape, sodomy and domination and the text was interspersed with mime, chanting and guttural noises. Some critics were baffled and begged to be told what it all meant; others declared that it was not Shakespeare at all but merely made occasional reference to the original.  But in general, the production was acknowledged as something extraordinary and it was conceded that experimentation was healthy and necessary.

In 1969, the maverick director Tony Richardson cast Nicol Williamson in his production of Hamlet. Williamson was the notorious bad boy of the theatre but his talent was not in doubt. John Osborne judged him to be ‘the greatest actor since Marlon Brando’ and Olivier was quoted as saying that Williamson was his ‘closest challenger’ as the leading man of English-language theatre.

hamletWilliamson‘s Prince was biting and hostile. Unlike the beautifully articulated oration of former actors, his voice snarled with a nasal twang somewhere between Brummie and Glaswegian. Many playgoers had not experienced theatre in the round, or such an alarming proximity to the actors. They had never seen saliva fly. This Hamlet was nobody’s fool but had assessed the corrupt Danish court with the most penetrating acuity:  the text was loaded with his loathing and blistering contempt. But, in contrast, his affection for Horatio showed him as warm and endearing, and the scene in Gertrude’s ‘closet’ was almost unbearably intimate: some felt like intrusive voyeurs and wanted to creep away in embarrassment. The bar, at the interval, was packed with people in passionate discussion of the play.

The performance was judged as ‘iconoclastic’, ‘touched by genius’and ‘a benchmark’.  Michael Billington called it the most exciting Hamlet for more than a decade, while the P.M. Harold Wilson described it at length in a meeting with the U.S. President, Richard Nixon. The role had been redefined.

Steven Berkoff’s Hamlet of 1980 followed. The director wanted to offer ‘simple uncluttered Shakespeare in the round’ but the audience was unprepared for a totally bare stage surrounded by actors in black, humming wind noises on the non-existent battlements of Elsinore. Props were minimal – there was even an absence of rapiers in the duel scene. But, after all, Shakespeare himself had set the trend, and the playwright turned out to be a member of the cast. Berkoff, in the leading role, wore a striped blue suit with punk-inspired accessories. Notices were unfavourable, however, and at least one reviewer was so negative that the inflammable Berkoff threatened to murder the man.

The Roundhouse went on to stage Catch My Soul, a rock musical based on Othello in which a blacked-up chorus line danced to Mexican music. It was unusual, but its impact was slight compared with the outrage and controversy caused by Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! Described in the tabloids as ‘The Nudest Show on Earth’, it contained ‘adult material’ and full-frontal nudity. The pro-censorship campaigner and battle-axe for ‘public decency’, Mary Whitehouse, claimed that the arts and the country in general were morally at risk from such a show. More moderate reviewers described it as ‘tasteful pornography for the thinking voyeur’.

We are used to all this today, but fifty years ago such productions were emphatically ground-breaking. No other venue had offered a programme where the works of Shakespeare, in particular, had been so deconstructed and reconstituted, so often violent and disturbingly surreal. They were, too, disrespectfully sandwiched between ear-splitting rock ‘n’roll gigs, where the audience circulated in a fog of cannabis smoke and alcohol.

In 1883, funds ran out and the Roundhouse fell silent. But its third incarnation was at hand: it was bought by a local businessman and remodelled as a performance space. A new wing was added and the underground area housed a ring of practice rooms, recording suites and digital resources. The great, circular main space, the iron columns and the rotunda remained untouched.

main-space-2-smallThe new Roundhouse reopened in 2006. Its programme today is multidisciplinary and multicultural, reflecting every nuance of present day arts. Could this have happened without the almost-twenty years when it was the most controversial venue in London? It had been an icon of cultural change, through the hippy era to punk and post-punk. It spoke to the Free Love movement, to women’s ‘libbers’, civil rights activists, striking miners and black and musicians blasting out subversive music. It shocked and outraged, overturned traditional thinking and blatantly challenged establishment perceptions of what a work of art should be.

Wesker could not have known how comprehensively his vision was to be realised, or with what uninhibited and full-blooded vigour the arts at the Roundhouse were to develop and flourish. He would approve of what his performance arena had become and what it had achieved. The work goes on.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

Shakespearean Popcorn: Snacking in the Playhouses of London

popcorn_jf10_310After a recent performance of Doctor Faustus, theatre producer Richard Jordan was an unhappy man. Writing in The Stage, he declared the West End audience to be:

‘Possibly the worst…I have ever encountered…Many of them… (were) talking, eating…often vocally commenting…There was also…an interval for bar and ice-cream sales – here was a Friday night commercial audience out for entertainment.’

With rising outrage, he continues:

‘A couple saw nothing wrong in producing…a box of … Chicken Nuggets and a large side of fries…Munching certainly seemed to be the order of the day. The couple to my left ate their way through a large tub of popcorn…while the couple on my right chomped through a packet of crisps. It was like listening to eating in Dolby stereo.’

References to ‘fast’ food and technology aside, Mr Jordan might almost have been in a 16th century playhouse.


We know from contemporary records that Elizabethan audiences could be unruly and raucous. In our century, recent excavations of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and, more comprehensively, the Rose, have uncovered a wealth of historical and archaeological information about the structure and organisation of the playhouses. The discovery of huge quantities of food detritus reveals what was eaten there and, to some extent, by whom.

By the 1590s, the commercial theatre as we know it, was firmly established in London. It was an innovation in mass entertainment as radical as television in the 1960s and, for the first time, dramatic productions took place in purpose-built, permanent and secure venues. London’s commercial life was thriving and an increased population meant large audiences and large takings, which sustained both actors and the fabric of the buildings .The new genre was assisted by the flowering of the talent of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

theatrePublic playhouses were usually circular or many-sided in shape, and open to the air. A roofed stage jutted out from the lowest of three galleries, with standing room in front of it. This cost a modest penny and accommodated the ‘groundlings’: Hamlet’s word, and uncomplimentary, since it referred to the small fry who feed on sludge at the bottom of streams and rivers. Superior positions in the galleries cost more while the ‘Lords’ Rooms’ were closer to the stage and catered for more prestigious playgoers.

This provision for all classes of society underlines the fundamentally commercial nature of the new theatres, some of which could accommodate up to three thousand people at a time. If theatre shows us to ourselves, then the new professional playwrights drew audiences by peopling their dramas not just with Kings and nobles, but with ‘ordinary’ folk: servants, door-keepers, porters, constables and young blades on the street. So do soap operas in our own century.

The playwright, Thomas Heywood, recorded:

‘Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration;  for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more than in London?’

The church and the authorities did not agree: a part of Southwark and its highway, Bankside, which ran beside the river, was already the site of inns, gambling dens, animal baiting rings and brothels. It was, however, outside the city limits and its laws. Not surprisingly, the building of the new theatres was only permitted in that area. They were generally regarded as dens of vice: actors had traditionally been seen as dubious individuals, but now cut-purses and prostitutes were attracted to mass audiences who were already held responsible for spreading the Plague. Heywood, having praised the theatre, also admitted, ‘Pay thy tuppence to a player (and) in (the) gallery mayest thou sit by a harlot.’

Julian Bowsher of the Museum of London Archaeology, the moving force for the playhouse excavations, describes the procedure for going to the play:

‘You entered through a main door and paid a one penny entrance fee to the ‘gatherer,’ who would have a little money box rather like a piggy bank with a bright green glaze on it and a slot through which to put a penny…they were smashed open when they were taken back stage.’

Thousands of fragments of these money boxes were found on site. But having entered the playhouse, the buying and consuming of food became a major part of the experience.

The importance of readily available snacks was made clear by one Thomas Platter (no pun intended) who wrote that ‘during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.’ Many theatres had tap rooms attached to them and, at the Rose Theatre, surviving accounts reveal that a grocer by the name of John Chomley purchased what we might now call a ‘catering franchise.’  Chomley’s house, at the south-west corner was ‘to keepe victualinge in’ to sell to theatre goers.

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Many samples collected on site indicate the consumption of native species: walnuts, hazels, almonds, elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, plum, pear, peach and cherry. That huge amounts of shellfish were eaten is evidenced by the remains of cockles, mussels, periwinkles, whelks and cuttlefish. It was the popcorn of the day. The standard dagger, carried by every man, was as much a tool as a weapon, and was used to winkle out the cheap shellfish. Oysters were a popular cheap treat and were associated with the groundlings.  Cheap food equalled cheap standing room and was identified with those at the bottom of the social scale.

A visitor to London, Paul Hentzner, recorded seeing apples, pears and nuts on sale according to season. The cores might be hurled at the stage by unruly audience members unimpressed by the play, and there are references to ‘pippins’ and nuts being used as missiles. With the opening of new trade routes, much fruit was imported into London and raisins, dates, currants, figs and prunes were popular. Oranges from southern Europe arrived in large quantities but were expensive and regarded as exotic. Numerous pips were found at the Rose excavations. While the privileged in London might afford to buy them, they had also reached other areas. I am indebted to my colleague Dr Jill Francis for informing me of accounts which show that oranges were given as gifts in the provinces, reiterating their status as luxury items. The seeds of marrow, pumpkin, squash and gourd represent relatively early evidence of contact with the New World.


Apart from ‘water-bearers’ in the playhouse yard, the only other beverage seems to have been ‘bottled ale.’ This made a loud fizzing noise when opened and, along with the continual cracking of nuts, formed what may have been a disturbing accompaniment to the play. ‘When (a playwright) hears his play hissed, hee would rather thinke bottle-Ale is opening’ wrote a sardonic commentator. Ale did, however, fulfil a practical purpose when, on the occasion of the burning down of the Globe Theatre, it was used to extinguish the burning breeches of an unwary man.

forkThe privileged, meanwhile, brought their own more glamorous food along with their own wine, glasses and cutlery. An iron fork found at the Rose excavations bore its owners initials inlaid in brass, and would have sported an elegant wooden handle. This was upmarket cutlery identified as a ‘sucket’ fork, used to spear sweetmeats such as marchpane (marzipan), sugar-bread and gingerbread – the equivalent of a box of quality chocolates today. Its owner must have been someone of sophisticated tastes and some social status for such an item would not have been associated with the groundlings.

The variety of foodstuffs available in the playhouses was remarkably wide. It was also organic, and packed with the antioxidants, vitamins and enzymes which we are encouraged to consume today. The mass-produced, ‘fast ’food of our own century, laden with artificial colouring and chemically-derived flavourings may, in nutritional terms, be far worse for our health.

Bring on the whelks!

Bettina Harris (Library Support Assistant)