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"All The World’s A Stage" - Feature on Old Vic and Hippodrome

29 August 2012

Article written by Steve Wright for VENUE -

BRISTOL OLD VIC, Britain’s oldest working theatre, throws open its doors again this month after an adventurous 18-month refurbishment of its beautiful auditorium and backstage areas.

The elegant Georgian playhouse has been renewed and equipped for the demands of 21st-century theatre-makers (and audiences) – and yet, excitingly, the changes have brought the theatre closer to its original 18th-century design.

During the refurbishment process, Bristol Old Vic and their building team have stripped away more recent layers of the building, discovering much about the use and atmosphere of the original Georgian theatre. Seating has been reconfigured to maximise capacity, sightlines and comfort and two new rehearsal rooms have been built to allow more new work to be created inside the building, while backstage, offices and dressing room areas have been redesigned and named after great figures from BOV’s past. Plans are already afoot, what’s more, to continue the refurbishment throughout the foyers and front of house areas in time for the Old Vic’s 250th anniversary in 2016.

“This theatre is renowned as the most beautiful playhouse in the country: it’s intimate, steeped in history, yet beautifully flexible to the processes of 21st century theatre-makers,” says the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris who, along with Executive Director Emma Stenning, has spearheaded the refurb since arriving in Bristol. “Throughout, this refurbishment has felt like a thrilling opportunity – and also a tremendous responsibility. It has been meticulously researched from every conceivable angle and yet, until we actually use it, it’s just a series of designs.”

The last surviving example of the 18th-century ‘horseshoe-shaped’ theatre, BOV was designed and built in 1766 by Bristol architect James Saunders, in an age when building standards meant that the average life-span of a theatre was 17 years – before fire or dilapidation intervened. Money to build the theatre came from a group of 50 citizens, each of whom invested £50 in the project: 47 of them later coughed up an extra £30 in order to get the thing finished (although historian Kathleen Barker suspects that some of the 50 evaded actually shelling out any cash until years after the building was open). The investors included councillors, two future MPs, and at least three Quakers – one of whom, Richard Champion, is thought, oddly enough, to have been the author of an anonymous diatribe against all things theatrical.

More recently, during the 70s, the theatre underwent a major refurbishment, but the money for the works ran out, and many parts of the building have remained unchanged since the 1940s. Parts of the building were in disrepair, and the long-promised new seats for the auditorium never arrived. Poor air conditioning, meanwhile, meant that the main house could be a sweltering place on a midsummer’s eve.

The current works began in 2001, when the trustees commissioned architect Andrzej Blonski to oversee the project. On their arrival in 2009, Morris and Stenning re-briefed Blonski to use BOV’s original Georgian designs as a starting point. There were no original plans or designs to work from, so a team of historians were appointed to advise and discover the peculiarities of the space, and the development and changes throughout the intervening centuries. The main aim was to rediscover the original shape of the auditorium, while also allowing the theatre to be equipped with all the necessary gadgetry of a modern theatre.

“The question asked of us was ‘how much of 1766 was left and how much had been changed in the intervening 240 years of near continual use?’,” explains conservation architect Peter Carey. “Much had been written about it, but no-one had had the opportunity to get up so close before. The discoveries were a revelation – and way beyond our expectations.”

One of the major changes to the theatre space is the position of the stage. Historians have long advised that Bristol Old Vic was designed to have a thrust stage, where the audience are on three sides, giving it the feel of an intimate indoor version of a Shakespearean amphitheatre. However, in 1881, in line with changing theatrical fashion, the stage was hacked back to the line of the proscenium arch. During recent excavation works, the original position of the stage was rediscovered, and it has now been reinstated to sit between the two stage boxes, surrounded by the horseshoe-shaped auditorium. This recovers some of the theatre’s famous acoustic, damaged in the 1970 refurb, radically improves sightlines and changes the dynamic of the interaction between actor and audience: the actors are now far further down the stage, sharing the same space as audiences and making for a much greater sense of intimacy and collusion.

Other fascinating finds include a blocked door leading from the box above the stage to the back of house areas. Explains archaeologist Cai Mason: “This door is likely to have been used to provide aristocratic patrons of the theatre with what was known as ‘freedom of the scenes’. This allowed rich men to meet the performers, or more specifically the actresses, in private.” By the 19th century, the practice of allowing public backstage was abolished.

“The theatre is a precious and unique piece of storytelling technology, carefully composed both in its original design and in this refurbishment, to hold the actor on the stage and the audience in their seats in a single imaginative space,” Morris explains. “It’s as fragile and precise as a cello and the real discovery, the real excitement, will come when we start to make work in it over the next months and years. I simply can’t wait to find out how it plays.”

That chance will come soon enough, when BOV re-opens on Tuesday 4 September with the first public performance of Wild Oats, John O’Keeffe’s joyous 1791 satire about the actor’s life. “In reopening this theatre, we are looking forwards and backwards at the same time,” Morris explains. “This glorious comedy was written for a playhouse like ours, in an age of Georgian extravagance, but its central character is vividly, hilariously contemporary: an actor who doesn’t know where he comes from and who simply can’t stop acting.”

“This theatre is renowned as the most beautiful playhouse in the country. It’s intimate and steeped in history, yet flexible to the processes of 21st-century theatre making. That combination of intimate, 18th-century design and cutting-edge technology means that we can make theatre in this space the like of which you simply can’t make in any other theatre in the country.”


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