It’s a nickname, Old Vic, and it’s been around for a long time, since at least 1880. It stands for Royal Victoria Theatre. But that wasn’t its first name. Just like the Royal family, the theatre had a Germanic name – Royal Coburg Theatre.
Designed in 1818 by Rudolph Cabanel, a German architect, the theatre isn’t in the West End. It stands close to Waterloo Station, south of the Thames. One of the founders, John Thomas Serres (a maritime painter with royal influence), secured the patronage of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, hence the original name. Without a patent licence, it was unable to put on serious plays. However, under a new owner, in 1824 it unleashed six Shakespeare plays on its regular audience with the help of actor Edmund Kean. Kean was a committed Shakespeare actor (‘the perfect tragedian’) and contracted to the Drury Lane theatre. He led a somewhat adulterous, tumultuous, eccentric life. When he reappeared in at Drury Lane in 1825, he was pelted with fruit, not for his acting, but because his wife had left him. Supposedly his last words were ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard.’
Bringing Shakespeare to the masses at the Old Vic didn’t soften Kean’s taste for drama – during his curtain call, he condemned his audience as ‘ignorant, unmitigated brutes’. So, six plays was sufficient.
That brutish audience had to suffer the consequences. What followed were violent melodramas about the evils of drink, written by a teetotaller dramatist, Douglas Jerrold. He was a journalist and radical, who wrote plays about the corrupt pressgangs that operated during the Napoleonic wars, and he also wrote for Punch, a humorous publication with liberal tones. One of his articles was about the Great Exhibition of 1851, which he described as ‘the palace of very crystal.’ It caught on, and the Crystal Palace is still known by that name. When Jerrold died, Charles Dickens was one of his pall-bearers.
Back to the Old Vic, which changed to the Royal Victoria Theatre on the arrival of the new queen. Melodrama stuck around for a while. Sadly in 1858 sixteen people were crushed to death trying to evacuate the theatre after an actor’s clothes caught fire. This was before safety curtains. Rebuilt in 1871, the theatre adopted another name, Royal Victoria Palace. A subtle change to reflect its new life as a music hall in the style of Alhambra, which is a French music hall model – Folies Bergere – involving cabaret, operettas and gymnastics. The venture failed.
So, along comes Emma Cons, who reopened it as a coffee house and music hall combined – Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall, although by now, it was simply the Old Vic. Another little digression. Emma Cons was a reformer and advocate of women’s suffrage. She campaigned for cheaper tickets for the working class so they could see Shakespeare plays. The Old Vic was for cheap entertainment and strictly no alcohol. Jerrold would have approved. Penny lectures by eminent scientists were given in the hall every Tuesday and became the foundation of Morley College, an adult education institute. Eventually the college was run separately to the theatre and moved to a different site in the 1920s.
The Old Vic wasn’t left behind though. It was part of a pioneering radio broadcast of La Traviata by the BBC, using transmitters in London, Manchester and Glasgow.
After Emma Cons died, the theatre focused more on Shakespeare and continued to broadcast radio.
In 1929, Sir John Gielgud established the Old Vic Company. Emma’s niece, Lilian Baylis, championed much of what went on at the Old Vic; she also managed Sadler’s Wells. For several years, both ballet and drama rotated between the two theatres.
During the war, the Old Vic was damaged during the Blitz. The company toured until the theatre reopened in 1950. A new theatre company, the National Theatre Company, was established by Laurence Olivier in 1976, and it stayed at the Old Vic until it moved to the National Theatre complex on the Southbank. Another company, Prospect Theatre, attempted to fill the void, but it struggled with funding with all the attention now shifted to the NT and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The company disbanded in 1981.
The Old Vic reopened, fully restored, in 1987 with a string of grand artistic directors and actors – Jonathan Miller, Sir Peter Halls, Ben Kingsley… Kevin Spacey.
In 2018 the Old Vic began the Guardians Network to help provide a confidential support network to report unwanted behaviour and culture at work. The network has extended beyond the theatre world into other work places.
The theatre continues to thrive. Its frontage simple, neat. It stands alone, quite unlike the squished theatres of the West End. Almost regal, I think.
Its motto is ‘Dare always Dare’. Nicely apt.