The oldest continually working theatre in Britain is going back to its roots with plans for a radical multi-million pound facelift that will give patrons a taste of theatre-going in the 18th century.
The Bristol Old Vic plans to unveil its historic front wall – which dates back to the theatre’s opening in 1766 and has lain hidden for more than a century – as part of a plan to open up the site and bring in a wider audience.
The design would mean that the original wall would be visible from the street for the first time in the theatre’s history.
Tom Morris, the artistic director, said: “It’s in the top four most significant theatres in Britain architecturally but a relatively small number of people know it’s there. Being able to see it from King Street will make a huge difference in the relationship between the theatre and the city.” He added: “Part of this is about Bristolians rediscovering their theatre.”
The redesign will also have an ecological twist, with plans for a grass-covered roof, a vegetable patch and possibly an urban beehive.
Mr Morris described the design for the new layout, drawn up by Steve Tompkins at architects Haworth Tompkins, as full of “wit and twinkle”. The redevelopment, which will cost £12m, marks the second phase of the theatre’s overhaul since Mr Morris’s arrival in 2009, after the main auditorium was remodelled last year.
The theatre was designed in the 18th century by a carpenter called Saunders or Saunderson “depending on which source you believe,” Mr Morris said, adding he was “Garrick’s favourite carpenter”.
It was illegal initially and so had no street presence. Patrons had to knock on a door which opened into a yard like a speakeasy. It was granted a royal patent, and therefore legitimacy, in the 1770s. Architects began to fill the courtyard from the early 1800s until the process was complete in 1904 when a new front of house was built.
Mr Morris said: “The wall remembers everything. The history of the theatre is about its year-by-year survival and adaptation since 1766.”
The architect, Mr Tompkins, added: “There’s something very profound about the fact it’s this modest, battered, scarred surface. It’s a metaphor for the history of the organisation.”
The theatre’s management hopes to start building work in 2015 and have it ready for the following year, on its 250th anniversary.