The original theatre was built in 1818 and was called the Royal Coburg. The name changed to the Royal Victoria in 1833 and this was soon shortened to the Old Vic. The thatre has been refurbished/rebuilt a number of times since opening and now has a Grade II* listing because of the Georgian exterior.
Lilian Baylis founded The Old Vic Company here in 1914 with the initial aim of presenting Shakespeare's plays at 'popular prices' and many of the great names in British theatre have performed on the stage here as part of this company - Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to name just a few. In 1940 the war forced the theatre to close and the following year the theatre suffered bomb damage and only managed to re-open after being completely renovated and partially reconstructed under the oversight of the architect Douglas W Rowntree. The theatre re-opened on Tuesday 14 November 1950 with William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft as 'Viola' and the first performance was preceded by a short speech from Dame Edith Evans. Repertory seasons continued to be presented here by the Old Vic Company, which also toured the regions extensively, up until its last performance here on Saturday 15 June 1963 of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. At the conclusion Dame Sybil Thorndike, one of the few survivors of the Lilian Baylis' original 1914 company, gave a short speech which both praised what Lilian Baylis' Company had been able to achieve, but also looked forward to the new role of the Old Vic Theatre as being the first home of Laurence Olivier's newly established 'National Theatre': "We've waited a long, long time and now - the last country in Europe - we've got one. Nobody's to think of this as a sad event at all. Nostalgia, get away!" she exclaimed to the packed audience at the conclusion of her speech.
Four months later, on Tuesday 22 October 1963, the first production of the National Theatre was presented here. That opening production was a star-studded version of Shakespeare's Hamlet with a cast that included Peter O'Toole in the title role, Robert Stephens as 'Horatio', Michael Redgrave as 'Claudius', Rosemary Harris as 'Ophelia' and Derek Jacobi as 'Laertes'. As one newspaper commented at the time: "One hundred and sixty-five years after the original idea of its establishment, Britain`s National Theatre last night opened its doors to the public for the first time. This is the way in which the occasion will be recorded when the history of the theatre comes to be written; but from the viewpoint of last night's audience it would have been an advantage to forget about the National altogether and respond to the event simply as an unusually starry Old Vic production. Not that the evening was unremarkable. The production itself - the uncut Hamlet running from 6.30pm until after ll.00pm - was a fitting inauguration to a company with high aims. Nor is the theatre building as it was at the close of the last Old Vic season. The stage has been remodelled again, and there is now a fearsome electric curtain which swishes up to the flies with the crescendo of an espresso machine."
Although the National Theatre had been expected to stay here for only for a few years while their new building was being built on the South Bank, they actually ended up staying for more than 12 years. Their farewell performance on Saturday 28 February 1976 was of Val May's Tribute to the Lady which celebrated the life and works of Lilian Baylis who managed the Old Vic for a quarter of a century, and paved the way for the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet, and the National Theatre. The cast included Albert Finney as the 'Narrator' along with Peggy Ashcroft, Denis Quilley, Anna Carteret, Angela Lansbury and Frank Finlay.
Following the departure of the National Theatre, the future of the theatre was somewhat uncertain. Glenda Jackson helped set up Bullfinch Productions which presented John Webster's The White Devil here in July 1976 starring Glenda Jackson, Jonathan Pryce, Frances de la Tour and Miriam Margoyles. Other productions from different producers were presented over the following months until Prospect Theatre Company, which up to then had been a touring compnay, took up residency here under the artistic directorship of Toby Robertson. Their opening production on Wednesday 4 May 1977 was George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan starring Eileen Atkins in the title role. But relying on grants from both the Greater London Council and the Arts Council, the Company was regularly fraught with financial difficulties. Despite introducing a very successful season ticket scheme in 1980, increasing audience attendance from 48% to 68%, the announcement in December 1980 by the Art Council that they would not be continuing the Company's £300,000 annual grant, meant that the Company, now headed by Timothy West as Artistic Director, felt they had no option but to go into liquidation in May 1981. Following this, the theatre itself, which was owned by a separate trust, was used as rehearsal space and to film the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed production of Nicholas Nickleby for television. The theatre was then put up for sale and was bought for just over half-a-million pounds by the Canadian businessman and theatrical impresario Ed Mirvish who then set about spending round £2.5 million restoring the building.
Productions here during the time of the Mirvishes ownership included the musical Carmen Jones which was here in the early 1990s as well as an unsuccessful revival of the musical Hair. During 1996 Sir Peter Hall set up a repertory company which presented a season of 10 plays with performances 7 days a week and 10 performances a week. But then the theatre was put up for sale by the Mirvish family and a charitable trust - The Old Vic Theatre Trust - headed by Sally Greene, was set up in 1998 to buy the building and 'save' it as a working theatre. In January 2002 it was reported that Matthew Warchus was appointed as the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre but then, just over a year later, in February 2003, the Old Vic Theatre Company was launched with Kevin Spacey as its Artisic Director. At that time Sally Greene, speaking on behalf of the Company, said that Matthew Warchus' title had only ever been 'associate director' of the theatre. Kevin Spacey's opening season began in September 2004 with the British Premiere of Maria Goos' play Cloaca followed by the traditional pantomime Aladdin which starred Sir Ian McKellen as 'Widow Twanky' - apparently fulfilling a lifelong dream to be in a panto! In May 2014 it was announced that Matthew Warchus, who had been an Associate Director here, would become the Old Vic Theatre's new Artistic Director in autumn 2015, following the departure of Kevin Spacey after 11 years.
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