On Tuesday this week, as part of International Women’s Day celebrations, I was street-canvassing for the Women’s Equality Party in Waterloo.
We had decided to wait outside the Old Vic for the audience from their Gender Debate to exit – hoping that our words and leaflets would find a welcome audience (and they did). I was also struck, as we talked in the bar afterwards about our Women of South London event, how much female influence had created the success of the Old Vic.
In the 19th Century the theatre was nothing special, simply competing with music halls, variety ‘palaces’ and other theatres. It came into it’s own under the ownership of Emma Cons, a women’s rights pioneer and a passionate advocate of education for all, she introduced a temperance regime to the theatre and her penny lectures led to the setting up, by her, of Morley College. Under the management of her niece, Lillian Baylis the theatre began a repertoire of Shakespeare, opera and more serious plays and the Old Vic Company that came into being at that time eventually became the National Theatre in 1963.
When the National Theatre moved to it’s new home on the South Bank the theatre entered a period of financial (although not artistic) decline and was put up for sale. Some of the potential purchasers would have put it to use as a bingo hall, or a lap dancing club! Instead, responding to public outrange, it was rescued by another woman, Sally Greene, who set up the Old Vic Theatre Trust and acquired the building and from there on success has followed.
So it seemed a shame to me, looking at the posters for the forthcoming season, that the current production and the two to follow are all written by white men, directed by white men and starring white men. Women (and others) seem to have been squeezed out of the Old Vic which given it’s long history of finding success under women’s patronage seemed a shame.
Perhaps we will find this remedied in the next season? I do hope so, because hosting a debate on gender imbalance in the theatre, isn’t the same as actually doing something about it by employing those women in leading roles in the repertoire.