A British institution which has played host to the finest actors ever to grace the stage, the Old Vic is a national treasure. This 1,000-seat theatre in Lambeth boasts an interesting history spanning two centuries which is celebrated in a stunning stamp issue from Royal Mail.
The Dramatic History of the Old Vic
Originally opened as the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1818, what is now the Old Vic was renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1833. It was rebuilt in 1871 and reopened as the Royal Victoria Palace before being taken over by Emma Cons in 1880 and becoming the Royal Victoria Hall. By this time the theatre was already known as the Old Vic and the name stuck.
In 1963 the Old Vic became the moniker of a repertory company which formed the basis of the National Theatre of Great Britain when it was established in 1963 under the legendary Lawrence Olivier. The company remained at the Old Vic until the controversial new theatre was constructed on the South Bank in 1976. The Prospect Theatre Company then took up residence at the historic Old Vic until it was disbanded in 1980.
Tragedy, Comedy and Awards
The Old Vic then experienced a dramatic series of ups and downs. The low point was surely Peter O’Toole’s old-school Macbeth in 1980, which had the audience roaring with laughter – not great during a Shakespearean tragedy! However, Simon Callow’s production of Carmen Jones wowed audiences and won a best musical Olivier in 1991.
The theatre has been purchased and renovated by Canadian businessman Ed Mirvish in 1982. Mirvish spent £5 million on restoring the building to its former glory and he gave the resident directors Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall free-reign artistically. Unfortunately, the pair delivered many critically acclaimed productions which failed to yield the impressive box office returns that they merited. Mirvish allegedly said to Miller: “If ever you feel the urge to make a profit, don’t fight it.”
Saving the Old Vic
Eventually, Mirvish decided to cut his losses and sell the Old Vic. The building was attracting the interest of developers who wanted to turn it into a bingo hall or lap-dancing club. Happily, its grade II listing prevented any radical change of use.
Entrance Sally Greene, then operator of the Criterion and Richmond theatres, who established a charitable trust which purchased the Old Vic for half the original asking price. The Theatre was saved from an unfortunate demise but Greene’s choice of director was later to plunge the Old Vic into controversy once more.
Green was instrumental in persuading Kevin Spacey to become artistic director. His outstanding commercial acumen and ability to attract sponsorship ensured that the Old Vic remained open and financially secure. He delivered a series of highly acclaimed productions but his tenure ended after several serious accusations of misconduct were made. The less said about that here, the better.
Intrigue and Great Art
These days, you won’t see people sleeping overnight on the pavement outside the theatre to gain tickets for a performance as in Olivier’s day. But the Old Vic remains a powerhouse in the capital. Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Albert Finney, Lynn Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, Frank Finlay, Judy Dench and many more leading lights have graced its stage over the years. There will be yet more amazing productions in future year which introduce new generations of iconic actors.
The theatre was built for the princely sum of £12,000, sold in the 90’s for £3.5 million and has been the scene of drama, intrigue and great art for 200 years. Notable for bringing the best of British theatre to the common people, The Old Vic has remained true to its values, showcasing British talent and setting trends. It situated south of the river, a lengthy stroll from the glamorous West End but is still often the hottest ticket in town.
Have you visited the Old Vic? Do you have a great memory to share with us? The Old Vic is a building but it is the actors and audiences which have transformed it into an iconic venue.
The Old Vic Stamp Issue
Surely one of the most important venues in the history of live performance, the Old Vic celebrates its bicentenary this year. Most of our finest actors have performed there and this issue showcases eight of them. The stamps celebrate legendary performances and productions from 1960 to the present day.
1st Class The Dance of Death, 1967 by August Strindber starring Laurence Olivier
1st Class King Lear, 2016 by William Shakespeare starring Glenda Jackson
£1.25 Hamlet, 1975 by William Shakespeare starring Albert Finney
£1.25 Hedda Gabler, 1970 by Henrik Ibsen starring Maggie Smith
£1.45 No Man’s Land, 1975 by Harold Pinter Starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson
£1.45 Carmen Jones, 1991 by Oscar Hammerstein II Starring Sharon Benson
£1.55 Romeo and Juliet, 1960 by William Shakespeare starring Judi Dench and John Stride
£1.55 Henry V, 1955 by William Shakespeare starring Richard Burton
This impressive and striking issue also features a first day cover, presentation pack and stamp cards. Don’t miss it!