Today is The Old Vic’s 200th birthday and Sadler’s Wells, which shares historic links with the Waterloo-based theatre, will be taking part in the celebrations marking the milestone anniversary this weekend. As part of The Old Vic’s Bicentenary Open House event on Saturday 12 May, Sadler’s Wells staff will join a procession from the National Theatre to The Old Vic, with a marching band and special performances along the way – including a short opera performance celebrating The Old Vic’s historic connections with us, the National Theatre and English National Opera.
Sadler’s Wells shares part of its long and colourful history with The Old Vic. Our common thread is deeply entwined with the life of one extraordinary woman: Lilian Baylis. The theatrical entrepreneur’s belief that art should belong to everybody underpinned her management of both theatres. Baylis wanted tickets to be “affordable by artisans and labourers” and the fact that, like the Old Vic, Sadler’s Wells was surrounded by working-class communities appealed to her passion for social outreach.
At the turn of the 20th Century, both The Old Vic (then officially the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern) and Sadler’s Wells were experiencing a dip in their popularity. After suffering conversion into a skating rink and then a cinema at the end of the 19th Century, Sadler’s Wells closed its doors in 1915 and was then neglected to the point of dereliction. After taking over management of The Old Vic in 1912, Baylis re-emphasised the Shakespearean repertoire – a welcome change after a period of temperance – and in 1931 re-opened Sadler’s Wells to great fanfare.
The two theatres acted as sister venues for a while. “For four years, drama productions, opera and ballet shuttled between the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells until Baylis decided to dedicate Sadler’s Wells to opera and ballet for eight months of the year and give the Vic-Wells Ballet a permanent base,” wrote dance critic Sarah Crompton.
“The new season opened on 27th September 1935 to great acclaim, with one critic noting ‘the splendid dancing of the young newcomer Miss Margot Fonteyn, who has a compelling personality and exceptional gifts, though only just 16.’
Whilst opera continued to be important (Peter Grimes premiered at the Wells in 1945), it was in this period that Sadler’s Wells became most strongly associated with dance. It was where De Valois founded British ballet here and built both a company of dancers and a repertory that included her own works and those of Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann. She also founded a school which remained throughout World War II, when the theatre was itself acting as a refuge for the homeless.
At the end of the war, De Valois took her fledging ballet company to Covent Garden to become the Royal Ballet. However, her touring ballet company, known first as the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, then the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, remained until 1955 and returned from 1970 to 1990 before moving permanently to Birmingham to become the Birmingham Royal Ballet.”
Lilian Baylis and her two pups; University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
The latest collaboration between Sadler’s Wells and The Old Vic centres on another trailblazing woman: the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW as part of a series of works commemorating the Great War, Sylvia is choreographed by our Associate Artist Kate Prince and set at the end of the war, when gender roles in society were being revised and women were agitating for long-overdue change to the distribution of political power. With original music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, Sylvia’s story has had a modern injection of hip-hop, soul and funk.
The production is closely tied to the Mayor of London’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign, commemorating the centenary of the first women in the UK winning the right to vote. A number of cast members from the production recently performed in Parliament Square to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Millicent Fawcett created by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing OBE. Fawcett’s is the first statue of a woman to have been erected in the historic square.
One hundred years after the 1918 Representation of the People Act and two hundred years after the establishment of The Old Vic, our two theatres are marching arm-in-arm with a series of partners and supporters for a celebratory parade of the arts as a force for good in the community, for the community. Lilian would no doubt be proud.