Monday, 30 May 2016

Happy 250th Birthday, Bristol Old Vic!

Bristol Old Vic is one of the oldest theatres in England, and claims the distinction of being the oldest which has been in continuous operation as a theatre. When it first opened, it did so illegally, as it didn't have a Royal Warrant, so patrons had to enter, speakeasy style, through a false entrance in a neighbouring house.  It became more respectable over time.

The theatre.
It originally opened in 1766, so is, this year, celebrating its 250th Anniversary.
I don't go to this theatre as frequently as I do to Bath - for one thing, it is a little further away, and less easy to get to, but I have been a patron for years - I saw my first 'Hamlet' there, (Iain Glen, in 1991, with Jame Purefoy as Laertes). 

So when I saw that they would be holding a 250th Anniversary Gala, I decided to attend.

It took place on Sunday evening, 29th May (The original opening, in 1766, apparently took place on 30th May)

The theatre filling up (and the starry ceiling)
On arrival at the theatre we were met with a red carpet, and, once inside, were plied with champagne and canapes, before heading in to take our seats.

It was introduced by Tom Morris, the theatre's Artistic Director, and featured appearances from many actors with links to the theatre or the Old Vic Theatre school, including Kwame Kwei-Armah (who performed the speech which Garrick gave, at the original opening).

Others who appeared included Samantha Bond, Stephanie Cole,Melanie Marshall,  Pippa Haywood, Toby Jones, Patrick Malahide, Michael Morpurgo, Siân Phillips, Tim Pigott-Smith, Caroline Quentin, Tony Robinson and Timothy West, as well as students from the Theatre School (Erin Doherty) and children's theatre.

We heard readings of various actors memories of the theatre, including those of Peter O'Toole, and readings of letters both those of  an 18th C. Quaker opposed to the theatre, and of modern greats such as John Giulgud, calling for the theatre to be saved, as it risked closure and sale as a warehouse, during WW2.

Drama was provided by short performances - we saw 2 recent graduates of the Old Vic Theatre School performing an extract from an early play, in which Sarah Siddons appeared, others performed Mercutio and Tybalt's duel from Romeo and Juliet, and Siân Phillips gave (superbly) Juliet's speech  ("Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds"). 

Timothy West (who is currently in rehearsals for the theatre's production of 'King Lear') gave us Lear's 'Blow winds, and crack your cheeks' speech (with added sound effects from the theatre's recently restored 18th Century 'Thunder Run', which uses cannon balls in wooden runs in the roof to create the sound of thunder)

There was light relief from Tony Robinson and Pippa Haywood as stage managers, wandering to the stage to interrupt, critisise and mis-name Tom Morris.

We also had music - a little of Handel's Messiah, a new setting of a poem written upon the death of a young Shakespearean actor in the 18th C, Melane Marshall performing one of he songs from the recent production of 'Jane Eyre', and an ensemble peice from the 2014 production of 'Swallows and Amazons', which featured beautiful wooden models of the two boats which were sent crowd-surfing through the auditorium.

Michael Morpurgo appeared, and read an extract from his semi-autobiographical picture book 'My Father is a Polar Bear', first explaining that his natural father, Tony Van Bridge, was an actor, who he never met as a child .

After which a horse arrived on stage, the amazing 'Joey' from 'War Horse', (apparently Tom Morris was the original Director) who trotted around the stage, snuffled at the front row of the stalls, and bucked and reared.

I've only seen the show as a live cinema broadcast, not in person, but the puppet-horse is stunning!

After the show ended there was live music in the foyer and gallery from local band 'The Zu Zu Men' and then, just as I was getting ready to leave, a door in the bar opened and out came a horse....
I have to say, seeing Joey up close like this is extraordinary - he's very obviously a puppet - you can see the puppeteers, the structure, the pulleys and rods which allow him to be manipulated.

But he's also, utterly convincingly, a horse. So it is strange and surreal to meet him in the theatre foyer. I found myself worrying that those standing immediately behind him risked getting kicked, and noting how quiet and tolerant of the noise and the people he was!

It was an extraordinary opportunity to 'meet' him. Unfortunately, as I didn't cough up £10 for a commemorative programme I don't have a list of the performers, so I can't name-check 'Albert' or the operators of Joey, but they were great!

Joey, in the foyer of the theatre

It was a highly enjoyable evening, and I am glad I went. And I hope that the theatre is still going strong in another 250 years!

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