National Theatre launches surprise bid for Old Vic

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The Independent Online
The Arts Council has given its blessing to a bid by the Royal National Theatre to buy London's Old Vic. The price put on the legendary theatre in Waterloo by its Canadian owners is pounds 7.5m. If the National Theatre does raise the money, it will own the theatre in which it was born in 1963.

Sir Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre, has the goodwill of Ed Mirvish, the Toronto showman and retailer, who refurbished the Old Vic and ran it at a loss amounting to more than pounds 20m. The only missing component in the National Theatre's bold plan is the cash.

The Arts Council, which considered the proposal at its meeting last Wednesday, did not take responsibility for raising the funds. "It could be that some aspects of the proposal could form part of a lottery application," said an Arts Council spokesman yesterday. The National Theatre already receives an pounds 11.5m Arts Council grant.

Lord Gowrie, the Arts Council's chairman, who is reported to be very sympathetic to the bid, would eventually have a say in the application for lottery money. He has asked Thelma Holt, chairman of the Council's drama panel, to keep him in close touch with developments.

Chris Smith, the Culture Minister, will be formally informed of the plan, but a spokesman said yesterday that the ministry did not have any money left in its budget to help buy the theatre, though there is a precedent for doing so after the Treasury gave a special grant to the English National Opera to buy the lease of the Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, in the West End.

The plan to buy the Old Vic was hatched at the National Theatre last week as part of a strategy to preserve the Studio, the NT's research and development "laboratory", which operates from a modern annex at the Old Vic and forms part of the property. "A vital part of the anatomy of the National Theatre is threatened by the sale," said Richard Eyre.

The idea of owning the theatre as well as the annex began as "pure, wild hypothesis" he said. He and his senior colleagues were attracted to the Old Vic because it could be used to transfer successful shows from the National's nearby South Bank base. Foreign and regional touring companies could play at the Old Vic, which could also be leased to commercial managements. Any purchase would come too late to save the Peter Hall Company, whose successful season there ends in December.

A successful bid for the Old Vic from the National would have a delightful symmetry. The idea of a national theatre was nurtured at the Old Vic by Lillian Bayliss before the Second World War. During the war, Old Vic seasons starring Lord Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft created an appetite for a national theatre based on state subsidy.

When the National Theatre was set up in 1963, with Lord Olivier as its first director, its first production (Peter O'Toole's Hamlet) was in the Old Vic, which remained the NT's home until Sir Peter Hall led it into its new building on the South Bank in 1976.

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