May 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of The Old Vic in London. The National Theatre and University of Bristol Theatre Collection are both marking this anniversary with exhibitions. Erin Lee – Head of Archives at the National Theatre, and Jill Sullivan – Archives Assistant at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection tell us more.

The National Theatre at The Old Vic 1963-1976

Led by Sir Laurence Olivier the National Theatre Company spent its first 13 years at The Old Vic, establishing a company of young and emerging actors, playwrights, designers and movement directors. This 13-year period witnessed a number of seminal moments in British theatre history and the theatre practitioners involved would go on to have a significant impact not only on British theatre but on the development of 20th century theatre as a whole.

Key productions include the premieres of Beckett’s Play (1964), Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967), Shaffer’s Equus (1973) and Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1975). Innovative stage designers Jocelyn Herbert, Czech scenic artist Josef Svoboda, and Italian Piero Gheradhi reaffirmed the transformation taking place at The Old Vic. The pan-European approach to design was also encouraged in the development of movement direction with Austrian movement director Litz Pisk and French director Claude Chagrin.

The company of young and emerging theatre practitioners which included John Dexter, Peter Hall, Albert Finney, Ian Mckellen, Maggie Smith and Billie Whitelaw, rehearsed and created work in the Nissen Huts on Aquinas Street and The Old Vic Annexe. The Annexe, located next to The Old Vic and currently used as the NT’s Studio, was the first purpose-built theatre workshop in the country when completed in 1958.

This exhibition celebrating The Old Vic’s bicentenary, highlights an extraordinary and innovative period in the theatre’s history and practice as theatre makers. The NT and Old Vic have commissioned sound artist Jesc Bunyard to create an artwork for the exhibition, inspired by archive materials. The exhibition is free and will run in the Lyttelton Lounge at the National Theatre until June.

University of Bristol Theatre Collection OV200

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection is one of the world’s largest archives of British theatre history and live art. One of our major collections is The Old Vic (London) Archive, which is on loan to us from the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation and which contains items that date from the theatre’s opening in 1818 to the end of the Mirvish management in 1997 and range from nineteenth-century playbills to administrative records for The Old Vic Theatre Trust, Sadler’s Wells, Morley College and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation.

In 1818, the Royal Cobourg Theatre (as it was then) was classed as one of the ‘illegitimate theatres’ as it did not have a licence to perform the drama. Instead, burlettas and visual effects were staged to attract audiences. Alongside early playbills promoting spectacular melodramas (Trial by Battle and Manfredi, The Mysterious Hermit!) the theatre installed a ‘looking-glass curtain’, an extravagant attraction installed in 1821 at huge expense. Weighing five tons and comprising sixty-three mirrors in a gold frame, it was suspended from the roof placed at the back of the stage and reflected the watching audience. The novelty was relatively short-lived however, and the mirrors eventually had to be removed due to fears the weight would cause the building to collapse.

The Old Vic Archive also contains materials relating to the two most significant women in the theatre’s history, Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis. Alongside personal items, such as Lilian Baylis’s distinctive horn-rimmed glasses, the archive charts their influence on the development of the theatre. Emma Cons’ concerns regarding suitable entertainment for the working classes, is reflected in the programmes of ballad concerts, penny readings and lectures at the temperance Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern (as renamed in 1880). These programmes also contain advertisements for the associated Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women, established in 1889. Lilian Baylis’s management of The Old Vic from 1912 and successful application for a theatre licence marked the start of the theatre becoming regarded as the home of Shakespeare in London by the 1920s and as the site where her collaborative work with Ninette de Valois established the Vic-Wells opera and ballet seasons.

The Theatre Collection is marking OV200 with a display that charts this influential history, drawing on The Old Vic Archive as well as other holdings in the Collection. Items range from a fragment of the original looking-glass curtain of 1821 to photographs of the Vic-Wells Ballet in the 1930s, with a particular focus on the work of Lilian Baylis and Emma Cons.

The OV200 display is complemented by a display curated by University of Bristol History of Art MA students: In Character: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh 1937-1973 draws on items in the Collection which reveal the relationship between the iconic actors, character and costume through a display of photographs, illustrations and costume pieces.

Both displays are currently running in the Theatre Collection foyers until the autumn, Tuesday to Friday 9.30-4.45. Entrance is free. If you would like to visit the Theatre Collection to research The Old Vic or other collections, please email us at


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