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Old Vic

Thomas Patey

alias Theatre Royal
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Important events

(detail)1766 | construction


Thomas Patey |main architect
J Ralph Edwards |architect
Peter Moro |architect


The architect was James Paty, who was said to have taken as his model Wren's Drury Lane Theatre. The two theatres do indeed resemble each other not only in the general plan but in the use of tall pilasters linking both tiers of boxes. At Drury Lane these went right round the theatre, at Bristol they are confined to the boxes flanking the stage. We know the names of all the craftsmen who worked on it —carpenter, mason, smith, tiler, painter and upholsterer. The scenery was the work of John French, formerly of Covent Garden, and a pupil of Philip de Loutherberg. The floor of the auditorium, known in France as the parterre and in England, and hereafter in this chapter, as the pit, was provided with benches and surrounded by two tiers of boxes. The nine lower, or dress, boxes, were each named after an English dramatist (Shakespeare in the middle) and held 267 people. The upper boxes were confined to the sides of the theatre, three on each side, holding 104 people, the space in the centre being left as an open gallery. The flat proscenium arch was supported on paired columns framing the doors by which the actors entered and above those were additional boxes, holding eleven people each. The stage itself formerly projected one bay further than it does now, and the fact that it has been set back has meant that one pair of pilasters lack the bottom of their pedestals. Both these features—proscenium doors and projecting stage—were typical of English theatre design. At the back of the stage is a large arched recess in the wall, probably to accommodate the extremity of very ambitious perspective sets. The painted scenery flats, of which part of one set survives, ran back and forth on grooves. Other relics of this early period still in existence include the elaborate system of winches and trapdoors which used to be under the stage and the 'thunder run', a wooden trough above the auditorium down which iron balls were rolled to imitate thunder. In 1800 the roof was raised and a new tier of seats, the present gallery, built above the upper boxes. The pretty plaster ceiling dates from this time and some of the original benches of the gallery are still in situ. The colour scheme then was stone-colour for the walls, with panels in pale green, and cornices and capitals picked out in gold. Most of what we see now is Victorian, but the earlier 1800 decor seems to be largely intact underneath. The stage and staircases have been rebuilt and most of the box divisions removed. Originally without a facade at all, it was given one in 1903, but this has recently been demolished.


In: Tidworth, Simon : Theatres: An Illustrated History. London 1973 p. 121 - 122



Author: Simon Tidworth

Additional information

2016 - Celebrated 250th Anniversary during Shakespeare 400, showing its delayed 1766 opening can be explained by Shakespeare 150.
2009-2012 - Andrzej Blonski Architects built alternative new versions of its 1766 stage front main acting area.  The final choice does not extend as far into the auditorium as the 1766 stage front, to allow gallery spectators a full view of performers.  
TODAY - As a theatre space, this professional three-galleried playhouse precisely matches the dimensions of the three-galleried Shakespeare's Rose, excavated 1989 by Museum of London Archaeology.  Bristol's main acting area now almost precisely matches the main acting area at Shakespeare's Rose because both have "audience on three sides [of comparable acting spaces]... with the greater proportion to the front", as Iain Mackintosh Architecture, Actor and Audience (1993) clearly identifies as a key "continuity of character" in England's most inspiring theatres "over the last 400 years."   The other continual characteristics of England's most inspiring theatres "over the last 400 years" include being"small scale," often (not always) galleried, "uncomfortable" & "densely packed."   These characteristics create performance spaces most likely to facilitate inspiring, imaginative professional play performances.  See:  https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=Imaginative+Genius&*  and http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/

Mark A. Howell - 08.03. 2017

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