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The Old Vic

Lilian Baylis, black and white photograph, around 1930

Lilian Baylis, black and white photograph, around 1930

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.

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