Since the Old Vic emerged in 1818 on its location on the corner of both The Cut and Waterloo Road it has gone through many different incarnations, whilst suffering from, and in some cases being blessed with, some of the same restrictions, actors and set-backs as many other London theatres. From its early days as the Royal Coburg Theatre to its time as the home of William Shakespeare, it would eventually emerge, following the horrors of the Blitz, as the home of the National Theatre, having previously been one of the homes of Sadler’s Wells as well. Today it is known as the theatre run by Artistic Director Kevin Spacey, the Hollywood actor that took on the role in 2003.
Whilst many West End theatres were designed by architects such as W G R Sprague or Bertie Crew, the Old Vic’s architect was the German-born Rudolph Cabanel of Aachen, whose work was mostly based in London. He worked for James King, Daniel Dunn and John Thomas Serres, the people responsible for founding the venue and of all of them, Thomas Serres remains the best known as he was an artist that worked as the maritime painter of George III. So with the nearby Savoy Palace torn down, the new venue would emerge from its ashes as a brand new venue for the London theatre scene.
The venue was granted the title of the Royal Coburg Theatre (becoming the Old Vic by the end of the 19th century) and like many of the era was the victim of restrictions thanks to its status as a minor theatre, prohibiting it from presenting dramas. Over the century it would eventually welcome many different companies, including an early one from Lilian Baylis, who presented many Shakespearean productions. It was then the joint-home of the work of Sadler’s Wells and following the Blitz was closed down, only to re-open as the home of the National Theatre.
Its most famous claim to fame currently is its Artistic Director Kevin Spacey, who has carried out the role since 2003. The Hollywood actor is best known for his roles in movies like “American Beauty”, “The Usual Suspects” and “Superman Returns”. But his role at the Old Vic has ensured that his fans are very familiar with his stage work, which has included appearances in shows such as “Speed-the-Plow” and “Inherit the Wind” for the venue.
The Old Vic has regularly housed various different shows with its opening productions in the early 19th century taking the forms of “Midnight Revalry”, “Trial by Battle or Heaven Defend the Right” and “Alzora and Nerine”, three productions that demonstrated variety even as the venue emerged. And it was this tradition of variety that would carry it through to modern times, firstly with its status as a Shakespearean venue under the auspices of Lilian Baylis, then as a venue to witness ballet as one of the homes of Sadler’s Wells and eventually as a location to witness serious drama.
Since Kevin Spacey took over as the Artistic Director of the Old Vic there have been various well known productions to emerge from the venue, some of which also starred him or were directed by him. In 2009 the venue marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of the Species” and as part of its then-current season presented Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s “Inherit the Wind”. Based on the famous ‘monkey trial’ it tells the story of a teacher in Tennessee who decides to teach his students the theory of evolution in 1925. As it is banned to do so, he soon finds himself on trial.
Even more recently the Old Vic has presented shows in the West End such as “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” at the Vaudeville Theatre with Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum. He returned to the company following his appearance in “Speed-the-Plow” alongside Spacey earlier in the last decade and played the male-half of a struggling couple in 1970s New York who break-down is the culmination of the pressures of living in the Big Apple. It ran at the Vaudeville back in 2010.
With “The Origin of the Species” celebrated in 2009, it was then the time to celebrate Sir Terence Rattigan in 2011, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday in June if not for his death in 1977. Across the capital many of his shows were announced and at the Old Vic this took the form of “Cause Celebre”, the story of a 1930s trial that saw a woman receive great condemnation not just for murder but for her affair with a teenage chauffeur.
So the Old Vic continues to provide a home to some compelling productions and as time goes on this is likely to remain the case. After all, it is now a Grade II* Listed Building and that means it will be protected well into the future, where it present shows new and old for more and more generations of theatregoers.
Further Facts about the Old Vic Theatre
• Famous names to work for, or appear at, the Old Vic Theatre include Kevin Spacey, Jeff Goldblum, Arthur Lloyd and Laurence Olivier, among others.
• The venue was the home of the National Theatre until its own space at Southbank was opened in the 1970s.
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