Jude Law can easily remember the first time the Young Vic made an impression on him. "It was a school trip to see Ian McKellen and Imogen Stubbs in Othello," he says. "Being a precocious school kid, I was really struck by the intimacy of the place. It's one thing to go to the National and see McKellen perform, and quite another to have him almost in your lap. The experience not only gave me a sense of the play's passion and power but also made me understand how its wonderful, unique theatre space helped to make sense of the play. It was a very important lesson in how space can really affect performance."
For Law, The Young Vic is a model theatre. As a south-Londoner, he went several times as a kid, happy that he didn't have to cross the river to feel part of the capital's theatre community, and relishing the ghosts of medieval theatre that haunt its location on the South Bank. Built in 1970 by Bill Howell from a few bits of breeze block, bang in the middle of The Cut's urban jumble, the theatre was originally intended as a "play" theatre for younger members of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre, at the time down the road at the Old Vic. It was certainly not designed to last long, and now, more than 30 years later, it can last no longer. "We will be closed down this summer, the building has got so bad," says the artistic director, David Lan, cheerfully. "Some of the technical work we do back-stage is illegal under incoming health and safety directives."
Fortunately, the Young Vic, which Law publicly supports [he has performed there twice], has been preparing for this inevitability for some time. The theatre will close this summer for 18 months, and, under the architect Stephen Tompkins, substantial work will take place backstage and on the surrounding structure, with the lovely, circular auditorium remaining intact. The Young Vic has already raised £5m through corporate sponsorship, trusts and donations to fund the renovation; next week, it will launch a public campaign to raise a further £2.5m. One enormous question mark remains. The theatre is banking on an Arts Council grant for the remaining £5m, and is nervously awaiting confirmation from the council's funding board. A -decision is due later this month.
Lan, South African-born and a former academic, is in buoyant mood, however. "You've caught me at a good time," he says in the Young Vic's tiny meeting-room, itself converted from a former toilet. "Our box-office takings have increased by 50 per cent over the past two years, and we've just received an Olivier nomination for 'the most audacious season, under the artistic direction of David Lan'. As far as programming-policy goes, we are bang on target."
There is no question that in the four years he has been at the helm, Lan has transformed the Young Vic. His successes have included Trevor Nunn's beautiful, smash-hit production of David Almond's Whitbread-winning novel Skellig; an outrageous, circus-inspired Romeo and Juliet, co-produced with the Icelandic company Vesturport; Tanika Gupta's bold adaptation of Hobson's Choice, relocated to modern-day Salford; and an acclaimed production of Doctor Faustus starring Jude Law himself. More sober pieces have included DH Lawrence's neglected The Daughter-in-Law and an impeccably acted production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. "David has brought the heart and soul of the theatre back to life," says Law. "He's done that by encouraging the people who work here to really get the most out of the space, be it visiting companies or work that originates in the theatre. He is very democratic and his outlook is fantastically open-minded and multicultural."
For his part, Lan says his policy is simple. "First, the Young Vic was built as, and remains, a theatre for young people," he says. "The second thing is that each production has to take the directors and designers somewhere new."
Both notions now define it. Each year, the Young Vic gives 10,000 tickets to people who live in the neighbouring boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, 50 per cent of them to schoolchildren. No other theatre in London does that. The tickets disappear immediately, and the result is an audience more diverse than anywhere else in the capital. "I find this policy very moving, actually," Law admits. "You have no idea how testing it is to perform to a mix that might include anyone from the most sophisticated to an office local who has never been to the theatre before. It makes you realise that theatre is about telling stories."
"It's not good for a theatre to be plonked down and have no relation with the community," Lan adds. "We all live in the world. And I always intended the theatre to be international: the first thing I did when I became director was visit Peter Brook in France. He promptly brought over Le Costume and The Tragedy of Hamlet."
Second, the Young Vic has always affiliated itself with directors rather than writers, "which was handy", says Lan. "It meant I could learn about directing as I went along." Affiliated development programmes include the Genesis Foundation and the Jerwood Young Directors Award, both dedicated to nurturing the talents of young directors. The result in real terms, however, is a theatre that is as visually vibrant as it is emotionally stimulating. Lan hates the term "physical theatre" and is adamant that "all theatre is physical". But there is no denying the robust visual strength of the work at the Young Vic, be it through the transformation of the auditorium into an adventure playground for Skellig or the way actors flew through the air in Romeo and Juliet.
For Jude Law, the Young Vic has always been about acting. Recently nominated for a best-actor Oscar for his role in Cold Mountain, he started out as a member of the National Youth Music Theatre before going on to perform at the Royal Court. Since then, Law's film career has gone stratospheric, but he has since returned twice to the Young Vic - first in 1999 for John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and then in 2002 for Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for which he received excellent reviews. Both were directed by Lan (who has become a close friend) and both paid Law less than £300 a week. Law says he was immensely proud to perform at his local theatre, and counts the experience as having been invaluable in honing his acting skills both on stage and before camera.
"Stage acting is a root to everything you do as an actor," he says. "It's unmissable. The rehearsal process in theatre is a crucial training in physical and mental analysis. It's excellent therapy to be able to push apart the piece in all directions and then see it come together as an ensemble. It's not something you do in film. It makes you understand the process before you go on set. Theatre demands that you recreate and perform a piece over and over again. It forces you to find a performance in you afresh every night.
"The Young Vic intensifies that process to an enormous degree," he continues. "I remember the first time I went there as an actor and switched that role from audience-member to actor. There's nothing quite like performing on that stage in such close proximity to the audience, and seeing the journey they are going on on such a visceral level."
All well and good, which is why it is imperative that the Young Vic hangs on to all this during the tricky transformation period of the next year and a half. Stephen Tompkins, whose CV includes the recent sympathetic redevelopments of the Royal Court and Regent's Park, is well aware of the need to preserve the building's soul and its intimacy as he sets about turning leaking breeze blocks into a 21st-century theatre space.
The absolute key, of course, is the auditorium, which will barely change. Capacity will increase only through an additional 80 seats in the balcony, with the option for more should a production demand it. Law, for one, is immensely relieved. "It's crucial to keep a sense of where the theatre has come from," he says. "It's a magical place."
Tompkins agrees. "We are keeping the old butcher's shop which currently houses the box office, for example. [You can still see the original green and white tiles in the interior.] We are also keen to ensure the building still makes narrative sense to its audience. The street can accommodate quite a lot of heterogeneity, and our plans are sensitive to that. There will be no sense of the theatre dominating the street. We want people to feel as welcome as ever."
Before that, there is a new, final season to run in the current building, which will open with Lan's production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth and include a new Martin Crimp play directed by the acclaimed Luc Bondy, as well as neglected plays by new directors. While the theatre is closed, Lan plans to take it walkabout, working with other theatre companies in different places. He is unwilling to discuss it in detail before the work is confirmed, but emphasises that the theatre will remain in Southwark in spirit, if not always in location. "Our audience will still be welcome," he says. "Even if we have to bus them over the river."
"The most important thing", Law adds, "is to keep its wonderful communal quality. It's the only theatre like it in London."Reuse content