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Old Vic

Rudolph Cabanel

alias Royal Coburg Theatre, Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, Royal Victorian Theatre
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)1818 | opening
It opened in May 1818 with a melodramatic spectacle, Trial by Battle; or, Heaven Defend the Right, written and produced by William Barrympre.
(detail)1871 | alteration
Altered to the design by J. T. Robinson.
(detail)1880 | Alteration
Altered to the design by Elijah Hoole.
(detail)1888 | alteration
Altered to the design by Elijah Hoole.
(detail)1927 | alteration
The theatre was renovated to the plans of architect F.G.M. Chancellor out of Frank Matcham’s office in 1927. The seating capacity was 1,454, in stalls, dress circle and balcony. The dress circle and balcony are in a horse-shoe shape, supported by iron pillars. The stage is 30 feet deep. (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/30783)
(detail)1941 | fire
The theatre was damaged by German bombs, and remained closed until repairs were carried out in December 1950 to the plans of architect Douglas W. Rowntree.



Old Vic Theatre  in the Waterloo Road is famous for its Shakespeare productions. It was originally the Royal Coburg, so named in honour of Princess Charlotte's husband, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who laid the foundation-stone in 1816. It opened in May 1818 with a melodramatic spectacle, Trial by Battle; or, Heaven Defend the Right, written and produced by William Barrympre. It soon attracted a local audience with melodramas of the most sensational kind, but its plays were apparently well-staged, and many actors enshrined in the Toy Theatre appeared there. The interior was handsomely decorated, one of the most interesting features being the famous curtain installed in 1820-1, which consisted of sixty-three pieces of looking-glass and reflected the whole house. Its weight put too great a strain on the roof and it had to be removed.
In 1833 the theatre, in which Edmund Kean had appeared two years previously, was redecorated and reopened as the Royal Victoria, being named after Princess (later Queen) Victoria. The opening production was a revival of Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan. The theatre was soon nicknamed the Old Vic, and gradually sank to the level of a Blood-Tub. In 1871 it was sold by auction and became the New Victoria Palace. It finally closed in the early part of 1880. Emma Cons, a social reformer and the first woman member of the L.C.C., then bought the freehold and reopened the building on 27 Dec. 1880 as a temperance amusement-hall, naming it the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. It was intended as a cheap and decent place for family entertainment at reasonable prices, and in spite of considerable misgivings it prospered. From 1881 to 1883 William Poel was its manager, and the project was greatly helped by Samuel Morley, after whom Morley College, which occupied part of the building, was named. In 1900 the first opera was produced there (Balfe's 'The Bohemian Girl') and scenes from Shakespeare supplemented the usual vocal and orchestral concerts. In 1912 Emma Cons's management, and in 1914 the first regular Shakespeare season was given. Under Sen Greet, and with the devoted cooperation of such actors as Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike, the theatre survived the First World War to become the only permanent home of Shakespeare in London. In 1923, it celebrated the tercentenary of the publication of the First Folio by a performance of Troilus and Cressida, thus completing the cycle of all Shakespeare's plays under the management of Lilian Baylis. A succession of excellent actors and directors assured the success of the Old Vic far beyond the confines of its own territory, a success only momentarily checked by the death of Lilian Baylis in 1937. Among her outstanding contributions to the theatre of her time had been the appointment of Ninette de Valois as ballet-mistress, which resulted in the foundation of the Royal Ballet Company, and the reopening of Sadler's Wells. The Old Vic, which had been partly demolished and reconstructed in 1927, was badly damaged by enemy action on 19 May 1941 and had to be closed, but its work continued, on tour or at the New Theatre in London. In 1950 it was repaired and redecorated, and it reopened on 14 Nov. 1950 with Twelfth Night. From 1953 to 1958 a 'five-year plan' resulted in the presentation of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio, beginning with Hamlet and ending with Henry VIII. On 15 June 1963 the Old Vic finally closed with a performance of Measure for Measure, and the company was disbanded. On 22 Oct. the building, which had so long served as an unofficial national theatre for the performance of Shakespeare and other classics, reopened after extensive alteration as temporary home of the newly established National Theatre.


In: Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The concise Oxford companion to the theatre. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.   ISBN 0-19-281102-9. p. 390



Author: Hartnoll Phyllis

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