As the Young Vic prepares to open its 40th birthday season, Charlotte Marshall looks back at the history of this radical venue south of the river.
In 1970, a butcher’s shop in Southwark was transformed to become a building that could house a young theatre company and a 500-seat auditorium. Built on the site of a blitz bomb blast, the breeze-block building was constructed for only £60,000 and was made to last an unoptimistic five years. Forty years later, actors including Jane Horrocks, Joseph Fiennes, Juliet Stevenson and Helen Mirren have graced the stage. A young director’s scheme for thousands of budding artists has been established and a unique audience formed in a theatre where people can buy tickets from £10 to see internationally acclaimed work. The stage has been flooded, covered with red dust and sand, and studios have been turned into submarines. As the Young Vic claims, it is indeed a big world in there.
In 2010, the Young Vic is an altogether different place from its beginnings, but with the same challenging, bullish and relentless heart beating at the centre. Celebrating its 40th year at The Cut, the company has put together an anniversary season that current Artistic Director David Lan describes as a schizophrenic programming choice: “On the one hand I wanted to do things we hadn’t done before, on the other hand I wanted it to be reminiscent of the work we’ve done over the past 10 years.” When your previous year’s programming included a piece of dance theatre co-produced with Sadler’s Wells, a Ché Walker musical set in a bar in Camden and a version of Punch And Judy with English National Opera, it seems this brief is even wider than it first sounds.
This wide variety of work is something that has steadily crept up on the now cult institution. Although the building is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the philosophy and people behind the Young Vic’s journey started in 1945. It began life as part of the Old Vic Drama School as a means to present plays suitable for a younger audience using adult actors. The initiative was created by the Old Vic co-founder and highly esteemed director and actor George Devine and sparked the company’s long-term philosophy of making theatre accessible to all.
While the programme enjoyed a hugely successful first few years, the Young Vic fell victim to a bigger problem. In 1951, as a result of political tensions within the Old Vic, the directors and the whole faculty staged a mass resignation, leaving the Young Vic abandoned without either the financial means or the support from the influential people it so desperately needed to continue. Abandoned for 19 years, the Young Vic ceased to exist until Laurence Olivier, then director of the National Theatre company – which at that time was housed at the Old Vic – collaborated with the National’s Associate Director Frank Dunlop to create a fresh start for the company.
“The Young Vic auditorium expresses something about what we would like our society to be like: equal, engaged”
This time around the Young Vic was not just an offshoot of the Old Vic but an actual theatre company in its own right, with a butcher shop venue and Dunlop as its Artistic Director. While theatre audiences around England were standing to sing God Save The Queen before each performance and dressed in their Sunday best each night, Dunlop was determined to make his theatre as accessible and informal as a night at the cinema. Olivier declared that: “Here we think to develop plays for young audiences, an experimental workshop for authors, actors and producers.” Clearly an exciting, breakthrough moment for London theatre, the life of the venue began with a version of Molière’s The Cheats Of Scapino, starring Jim Dale of Carry On fame.
At a time when the words ‘snob’ and ‘theatre’ went hand in hand, Dunlop attempted a revolution. As Lan now explains: “Everyone was snobbish about everyone else. If you worked at the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company was the devil, the National was okay and everywhere else was a dark territory.” Bridging the gap, the Young Vic became a space where the National could show work if they couldn’t put it on in its more conventional theatre. The new venue attempted to make tickets affordable, the work accessible and the theatre unconventional, exciting and chaotic. Lan continues: “What Frank wanted to do was to cut through the assumption that theatre had a connection to literature and that in some way there were guards on the doors that you had to have a particular kind of education, a certain social standing before you came in.”
Dunlop’s philosophy on the future of theatre evolved to define the Young Vic even up to the present day. Each Artistic Director has taken these core ideas of accessibility and creating a vibrant, exciting audience and moved the revolution one step further. In 1971, in an utterly radical turn of events for a theatre, The Who held free concerts each week while they were rehearsing their seminal album Who’s Next. Under the leadership of David Thacker, who followed Dunlop in the role of Artistic Director, the Young Vic became even more involved with young people, starting a scheme which meant young actors could produce a play outside of the theatre’s repertoire but with all the experts on hand for guidance.
Lan, however, attributes the success of the Young Vic today to Tim Supple’s leadership in the 1990s. Supple worked alongside Sue Emmas – now Associate Artistic Director – to further bridge the gap between theatre and the audience. Rather than producing plays by young people outside of the normal repertoire, “Tim rethought all that and said that the core of all the work has to be what happens on stage and everything needs to come from that.” As a result, under Lan’s leadership virtually all the shows in a season have a parallel production which is worked on by a group of young people and a young director Lan admires. They attend the main production’s rehearsals and become experts on both the play and the production process. As Lan explains: “The big idea is consistent with what Frank started with 40 years ago and is to go ‘at the highest level, this is for you’. And that makes my job a very exciting one.”
“On the one hand I wanted to do things we hadn’t done before, on the other hand I wanted it to be reminiscent of the work we’ve done over the past 10 years”
While this year marks the 40th anniversary of the company’s life at the venue, it also marks Lan’s 10-year tenure running the theatre. When he took on the challenge, with no previous experience of running a theatre, he was told that the job was twofold. Firstly he needed to run the theatre, which he pledged to do in Supple’s vein of thought and has augmented in his own style: “Everything we do here is about theatre, about art, about the shows. So all the outreach work we do is to do with suggesting, encouraging, persuading people that this is theirs, it’s publicly funded, it belongs to them and we work in the conviction that work of the highest quality, if it is put to good use and presented and priced correctly, will be of interest to hundreds of thousands of people.” The second was even further out of his comfort zone. The building needed to be rebuilt.
As well as organising the vast building, architectural and logistical project, Lan also had to develop a radical case justifying the cost. With the Young Vic working to a limited budget, the theatre was only producing two or three shows of its own a year, with the RSC spending three or four months of the year in the venue and touring shows regularly visiting. Lan was hesitant to put the venue’s repertoire in the hands of others, so decided on a solution to both solve that and the future of the building: “We started to co-produce a great deal. We’d co-produce with anything that would move, and I got the backing from the Genesis and Jerwood Foundations which was tremendously helpful. The work just started getting good and interesting and unlike what anyone else was doing.”
With a fundraising team including Jude Law, who refers to the Young Vic as his “ideal theatre”, the campaign was successful and the theatre closed between 2004 and 2006 for its £12.5 million rebuild. The existing auditorium was left intact but the addition of two equally flexible studios has created a theatre that is internationally revered by directors and designers desperate to work in a venue where they can bully the space into submission at their will. The idea of co-producing also proved incredibly fruitful for the theatre; collaborations with English National Opera, Fevered Sleep and numerous international and UK companies have led to the Young Vic becoming a theatrical heavyweight across the world. It has worked with the Peter Brook company in Paris, toured a show in Brazil and collaborated with South African theatre companies, but Lan is always looking for the next thing to do, never wanting to cross old ground or pick the safe option.
As a result, the 40th anniversary season is an exciting mix of new collaborations and unique ideas. Kicking off with The Human Comedy, a sung-through World War Two drama set in California, the season has a strong music bias, with Nick Cave’s Faust then playing in October. There is a new production of The Glass Menagerie chosen for both its beauty and the chance to have director Joe Hill-Gibbins as part of the season, and I Am The Wind directed by Patrice Chèreau who, whilst relatively unknown in the UK, is described by Lan as “one of the absolutely brilliant directors. In France or Germany or in Austria or Italy she is a god.” Other productions include a unique show performed by children tackling issues facing adults today – Fevered Sleep’s On Ageing – and family show My Dad’s A Birdman by the award-winning author David Almond.
“Tim [Supple] said that the core of all the work has to be what happens on stage and everything needs to come from that”
The one notable exception to the Young Vic’s rule of never repeating themselves is Vernon God Little, which runs in January. A huge success at the venue in 2007, the theatre is reviving the production as a means of completing something they never quite finished, as Young Vic Associate Director and director of Vernon God Little Rufus Norris explains: “I think we all felt that we’d got 75% of the way there. There were some really lovely things in it and with the right audience it really took off… with people taking pints of beer in, recording bits on their mobiles, calling out, behaving in a really non-theatre way which for that show was really fantastic. It’s [the 40th anniversary] just an opportunity to really finish off something that we all loved.”
At the heart of the decision to revive the show appears to be the fact that it was such a success with the audience. When discussing the importance of the Young Vic and its place in London, both directors continually stress the importance of the audience. While not a community theatre, it is a theatre in a strong community as Norris explains: “You get a much bigger mix in the audience then you get in a lot of places and that’s a huge part of its vibrancy. It’s feeling the energy of that auditorium when it’s really cooking and looking around and thinking ‘this is London’. When it’s good and the audience is alive and really representative of that community and that part of London, then I think that’s what makes it unique and that’s when the magic of the place really sings.”
With a community not only in the dedicated audience but within the thousands of artists working as part of their Young Directors Program, the Young Vic looks set to never repeat its 1950s temporary breakdown. With Lan confessing he has no plans to go anywhere, the theatre is in both healthy and unrelentingly enthusiastic hands. Although the Young Vic has never stopped questioning its methods, programming and direction, some ideas, Lan confirms, will remain unshakeable: “The Young Vic auditorium expresses something about what we would like our society to be like: equal, engaged. The other idea here is to do with art, and in our case theatre, being for everybody and the amount of serious thinking that has been done in this building and I hope will continue to be. Thinking ‘how do we do it? How do we contribute to the creation of a more equal society?’ That’s the big idea and we try to live it through the work we create.”