The Old Vic
Lilian Baylis' Old Vic provided the starting point for the formation of Britain's national ballet, opera and theatre companies and for the careers of stars such as Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft and Flora Robson.
Baylis was one of the greatest pioneers in the history of British Theatre. She came to England from South Africa to help her aunt, Emma Cons, run the Old Vic Theatre in putting on popular temperance concerts for the working class, offering an alternative to the pub. She then took over its management after her aunt's death in 1912.
At first she ran the hall according to her aunt's ideas: Thursday was music night with ballad concerts, opera tableaux, and oratorio, Saturday was variety, Tuesday lectures, Friday temperance lectures and on Monday and Wednesday the theatre was let to other societies.
By 1914 Lilian had gained a theatre licence and began to produce plays. In the early years of the Old Vic audiences were often sparse and conditions in the theatre were poor. Sybil Thorndike recalled playing Macbeth to a house of less than a dozen. The floor was sprinkled with sawdust, the seats were wooden benches, there were no proper dressing rooms, the scenery still worked on the groove principle and there was no proper lighting system.
While Baylis was also committed to staging affordable theatre, she saw no reason why the inhabitants of Waterloo shouldn't enjoy Shakespeare, opera and ballet. Under her management, every Shakespeare play was produced between 1913 and 1923 and she staged operas and ballets at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells. Her work laid the foundation for both the National Theatre and the English National Opera.
In 1928 she employed Ninette de Valois who created the ballet company that would eventually become the Royal Ballet.
In 1924 Lilian Baylis was awarded an honorary Master's degree from Oxford University (only the second woman to receive one) and in 1929, she became a Companion of Honour, an honour awarded for service to the nation.
In 1920 Robert Atkins was appointed Shakespearean director. In five years he consolidated the work of the Shakespearean company and established it as a valid and recognisable company. It was during this time that the Old Vic produced every play in the Shakespeare First Folio achieving a then unique record.
1925 Atkins was succeeded by Andrew Leigh. Under him, the first of the West End stars crossed Waterloo Bridge for the opportunity to learn the craft of playing Shakespeare. Within the next few years a new generation of actors were to pass through the Vic - the giants of 20th century acting. Among them were John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Flora Robson and Emlyn Williams.
The audience of ordinary people drawn from a new lower middle class - clerks, typists and shop-workers, was a very important part of the particular Vic atmosphere. This was a new era of popular education that was aided by the growth of radio, popular science and the newly founded Penguin Press.
The London City Council school matinees were also an important part of life at the Vic and through them many schoolchildren got their first taste of Shakespeare. In 1933 director Tyrone Guthrie seized the opportunity to make radical changes. It was he who finally split the companies into separate theatres. The opera and ballet company went to Sadler's Wells and the Shakespeare company stayed at the Old Vic. Guthrie expanded the programme to include work other than by Shakespeare and generally raised production standards.
In the 1930s the Old Vic became England's leading theatre and a training ground for a generation of successful actors and directors. The 1944 to 1945 season of the Old Vic company was one of the richest periods of great acting in the 20th century with Olivier's Richard III and Richardson's Falstaff and Cyrano de Bergerac. When the company returned to the Old Vic in the 1950s a new generation started to emerge, including Claire Bloom and Judi Dench.
Having been the nearest thing to a National Theatre in Britain it finally became the temporary home for the new National Theatre Company in 1963 under the direction of Laurence Olivier. Since then the Old Vic has seen off various funding crises and is still committed to innovation, supporting the work of up and coming actors, director and writers. In 2003 Kevin Spacey was appointed artistic director.
The Country Wife
Horner, the central character in the comedy, The Country Wife, is a sexually voracious man about London who pretends he is impotent. Mrs Squaeamish, Lady Fidget and Margery Pinchwife, are three of his conquests, though it is Margery who is the Country Wife of the title.
Gallants (men about town), fops (foolishly effete gentlemen) and cuckolds (men whose wives have cheated on them) were nothing new to English comedy at the Restoration it was probably a combination of the character of Horner and Margery's country ways introduced into London society, that made the play different.
Here are Ernest Thesiger, Ursula Jeans and Freda Jackson (the maid) from Tyrone Guthrie's 1936 Old Vic production of the play. It was a huge success, starring Michael Redgrave (who was at that time new to the London stage,) as Horner, and Edith Evans as Lady Fidget.
Judi Dench as Isabella and Alec McCowen as Richard II
Judi Dench is one of the finest actresses working today. She is a familiar face from television and film, winning awards for her roles as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown and as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Her most recent appearances as M in the James Bond films have introduced her to a whole new audience.
However, it was as a classical stage actress that Dench first made her mark, in seasons with the Old Vic (having been cast as Ophelia in 1957, straight out of drama school), and at Stratford-upon-Avon with the then newly formed RSC. The range of her playing ability is extraordinary. She can play innocence, mischief, seduction, fury, anguish, or despair all with absolute truth. She can fill a theatre with the power of her performance, or turn a cinematic scene with the flicker of an eyelid.
Here she is seen as another queen, Isabella, in the 1960 Old Vic production of Richard II, with Alec McCowen (in the foreground) as the king. She put her distinctive voice to good use in their farewell scene which was 'poignantly played'.
Set model for Cyrano de Bergerac
This set model was designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch for the famous 1946 production of Edmond Rostand's sentimental, swashbuckling drama Cyrano de Bergerac. Played by the Old Vic company, it starred Ralph Richardson in one of his greatest performances and was directed with flamboyant gusto by Tyrone Guthrie.
The play is set in 17th century France with posturing, swashbuckling gallants. This model shows the scene for the first act, set in a French theatre, with the public auditorium contrasted with the stage glimpsed at the right side. It was the third production Moiseiwitsch had designed for the Old Vic and her first big hit, with almost every review full of praise for her vigorous and romantic work. The end of this first act was particularly effective, when, as one critic recalled, 'the moonlight fell like a silver sword across the threshold while Cyrano and his troop march to the Paris streets'.
Print of The Old Vic Theatre
Print of The Old Vic Theatre in 1931 from The Old Vic Saga by Harcourt Williams
Laurence Olivier as Richard III and Ralph Richardson as Richmond
Laurence Olivier is a towering figure of the British stage and screen. He was the first member of his profession to be elevated to a life peerage, as Baron Olivier of Brighton. Upon his death, he became only the third actor after David Garrick and Henry Irving to be interred in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.
This photograph shows Olivier in the role of Richard III in the 1944 Old Vic production, with Ralph Richardson as Richmond. He was a triumph. His interpretation of the role was committed to film in 1956, but although he was also an outstanding screen actor, it is impossible to record the effect of a live performance.
Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock
Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), photograph by Anthony Crickmay, National Theatre Company, Old Vic Theatre, London, England, 1970
Tabard made for Richard II
This costume was made for Prospect Theatre Company's 1968 production of Richard II starring 29 year-old Ian McKellen as the King. Its five week tour was such a success that a second tour starting at the Edinburgh Festival was followed by a sell-out London run. It established McKellen as a leading actor.
Prospect was a small company with a limited funds. The set for Richard II was basic, so designer Tim Goodchild spent most of his minuscule budget on costume. This golden tabard of King Richard's is typically late 1960s in design and making. Based on medieval heraldry, it looks suitably historical but is actually made up of a collage of modern materials and a lot of gold paint! The basic fabric is furnishing brocade highlighted with gold paint. The heraldic lions sit amid a riot of gold mesh, glass 'jewels', gold raffia, felt and fake leather. Coins and even metal beer-bottle tops enhance the richness. The gold lamé lining had to be partially covered with clear polythene to protect it as it dragged across the stage. Reviews pronounced it an 'uncontested triumph'.
John Stride and Judi Dench as Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960 starred John Stride as Romeo and 25 year old Judi Dench as Juliet. It was a popular but controversial production by the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who was to become famous for his non-traditional film versions of Shakespeare. It was his first professional Shakespeare production, as until then he had been directing operas at Covent Garden.
In Romeo and Juliet he made massive cuts to the text, and warned his cast that 'verse speakers would be prosecuted'. The actors were instructed to deliver their lines in the rhythms of modern speech with all its irregularities. The fights were long and audiences were surprised by their realism.
Critics and audiences were divided. Many spectators felt they had been cheated of the lyrical romanticism of the play. They wanted all the verse and they wanted it spoken in the traditional manner. Others loved the realism and rawness of the performance. The critic Kenneth Tynan said that Zeffirelli had 'worked a miracle' by making the characters into real people.
Charles Laughton and Flora Robson in Measure for Measure
Charles Laughton and Flora Robson in Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), sepia tone photograph, Old Vic Shakespeare Company, London, England, 1933
Sybil Thorndike and Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus
Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) and Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) in Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Old Vic Theatre, London, England, 1938
Old Vic green flyer
Lilian Baylis was Manager of the Old Vic, Sadler's Wells and the three separate drama, ballet and opera companies that performed in them. She was very anxious to keep costs to a minimum, including money for publicity. To their great embarrassment, anyone visiting her office was handed piles of these flyers to distribute wherever they went - libraries, buses, cafés and so on.
After 1931, when Baylis was managing the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells, all three companies alternated between the theatres. This caused massive confusion, with expectant audiences frequently turning up at the wrong place. Baylis' flyers were the only links that told people where to go. This flyer advertises a notable production of Shakespeare's Henry V. It starred Laurence Olivier who later made a famous film of the play. Planned tours are also detailed. All three companies were to become national institutions: the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Ballet, and the English National Opera.
Lilian Baylis in Wardrobe
Lilian Baylis was one of the greatest pioneers in the history of the British Theatre. She came to England from South Africa to help her aunt, Emma Cons, run the Old Vic Theatre in putting on popular temperance concerts for the working class, offering an alternative to the pub. She then took over its management after her aunt's death.
While Baylis was also committed to staging affordable theatre, she saw no reason why the inhabitants of Waterloo should not enjoy Shakespeare, opera and ballet. Under her management, every Shakespeare play was produced between 1913 and 1923 and she staged operas and ballets at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells. Her work laid the foundation for both the National Theatre and the English National Opera. In 1928 she employed Ninette de Valois who created the ballet company that would eventually become the Royal Ballet.
In 1924 Lilian Baylis (pictured here in Wardrobe - where costumes are made - in the centre with the spotted silk jacket) was awarded an honorary Master's degree from Oxford University (only the second woman to receive one) and in 1929, she became a Companion of Honour, an honour awarded for service to the nation.