New life for historic theatre as it faces up to ‘slave trade’ past

Bristol’s Old Vic confronts its controversial 250-year-old past on its relaunch after a £25m facelift

One of the oldest theatres in Europe, Bristol Old Vic, is finally to have a proper front door. When it was built in 1766 it was deliberately hidden away from the street, as all public theatrical entertainment was officially banned. But later this month, at the end of a £25m project, a new glass foyer for its already refurbished auditorium will be unveiled, allowing the theatre to be seen from the pavement for the first time.

And, as the Old Vic welcomes back audiences, its acclaimed artistic director, Tom Morris, will also be facing up to the theatre’s links with the slave trade that once made Bristol rich.

“The theatre is undeniably a part of the slave trade legacy in Bristol,” he said. “The building came out of that economic boom and I don’t think it is enough anymore to just assume that people then did not know the trade was wrong. So we’ve called this year the Year of Change and it has been about renewing our relationship with the city.”

An artist’s impression of the new glass entrance foyer which will open later this month.
An artist’s impression of the new glass entrance foyer, which will open later this month. Photograph: Haworth Tompkins

Merchants in the city who financed the Georgian theatre 252 years ago were each invited to invest in 50 silver tokens that promised them privileged “sight” of any performance given there. “There is no doubt the wealth of that group of 50 was to some extent built on the transatlantic slave trade,” said Morris, who is best known as the co-creator of the National Theatre’s hit show War Horse. “There are several contemporary accounts that make it very clear that many people thought this trade was ‘execrable’, although few thought it could be altered. Even people involved in this slave trade understood it was wrong. It is such a fundamental moral thing.”

Last year it was announced that Colston Hall, one of Bristol’s other major entertainment venues, would change its name before a relaunch in 2020, thereby dropping a long association with a prominent slave trader, Edward Colston.

Morris’s first production as the Old Vic auditorium reopened this weekend is a staging of Joe Simpson’s 1988 memoir Touching the Void – a bestselling book that was turned into an award-winning film – which charted the climber’s struggle for survival in the Peruvian Andes.

Next month Giles Terera, the award-winning star of the London production of Hamilton, will bring a workshop performance of his first play, The Meaning of Zong, about the 1781 massacre aboard the slave ship Zong and its effect on the abolition movement.

To mark the reopening of the venue, words from two key poems performed in the auditorium at either end of its long story have been inscribed on the shutters of the new glass entrance. In tribute to the victims of the slave trade lines from Miles Chambers’s poem Bristol! Bristol!, which speaks of the city’s “historical hangover”, will appear on one side.

Daniel Day Lewis, who trained at the theatre school, in Old King Cole at Bristol Old Vic in 1979
Daniel Day Lewis, who trained at the theatre school, in Old King Cole at Bristol Old Vic in 1979 Photograph: Bristol Old Vic

“For a long time there was denial about the impact of slavery here, both financially and psychologically,” Chambers, the former poet laureate of the city, said.

“It is a legacy that created a social hierarchy. Afro-Caribbeans as a group still struggle in Bristol. Yet it is a great privilege to see my words on this theatre. I hope Afro-Caribbeans will come along, because performance is also a big part of our culture.”

Timothy West in The Master Builder at Bristol Old Vic in 1979.
Timothy West in The Master Builder at Bristol Old Vic in 1979. Photograph: Bristol Old Vic

Inscribed next to Chambers’ words are couplets from another poem written to celebrate the opening of the theatre on 30 May 1766, by David Garrick, the most famous actor of the era.

“That all the world’s a stage, you can’t deny;

And what’s our stage - a Shop - I’ll tell you why: -

You are the customer, the tradesman, we;

And well for us, you pay, before you see;”

Norman Poser, author of a forthcoming book on the era, The Birth of Modern Theatre, has described the arrival on the English stage of Garrick, who had a more naturalistic style of performance, as “a thunderclap that changed acting for all time”.

“Audiences replaced royal patrons as the chief financial support of the stage,” he writes. “For the first time in history, the press could decide the success or failure of a play or a performance. And actors were no longer shunned by polite society, some becoming celebrities. The transformation of the theatre in mid-century sowed the seeds of our modern stage.”

The new foyer, to be opened on 24 September, is the final stage of this redevelopment of the theatre, once tucked shamefacedly away behind two houses on King Street. Visitors in recent years have had to enter through the portico of the city’s Cooper’s Hall, a grand dining room that has now also been refurbished and is to be hired out to the public.

Morris joined the theatre in 2009 alongside chief executive Emma Stenning, who earlier this month announced she was leaving Bristol for a job in Toronto. This weekend she said the successful refurbishment of the theatre, and the start of its fresh relationship with the city, mean she feels she can now go.

While the two have managed to stabilise finances at the theatre over their nine-year tenure, there is one part of Garrick’s opening night poem that makes a handy and timeless point about the precarious business of running a theatre.

Borrowing imagery from Bristol’s maritime past, he told the first Old Vic audience: “Unless your favour in full tides will flow; Ship, crew, and cargo, to the bottom go!”


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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