London's Old Vic To Become Old Victim?

News   London's Old Vic To Become Old Victim?
 
For all the delays in getting the mini-tour of Broadway's Vic/Vic to Houston and Seattle, another Vic is in more serious difficulty. According to a New York Times report from London (Oct. 6), the UK's Old Vic Theatre, built 180 years ago, may cease to exist as a playhouse.

For all the delays in getting the mini-tour of Broadway's Vic/Vic to Houston and Seattle, another Vic is in more serious difficulty. According to a New York Times report from London (Oct. 6), the UK's Old Vic Theatre, built 180 years ago, may cease to exist as a playhouse.

The recently-formed Peter Hall Company has used the space for the past 10 months, but in August, the Mirvish Corporation put the building up for sale. Nov. 14, potential buyers will be able to bid on the place where Sir John Gielgud made his stage debut (in Henry V) and where Sir Laurence Olivier directed the National Theatre.

According to a consultant at Nelson Bakewell, which is handling the Sotheby's auction, potential buyers for the space include developers, theatre companies and wealthy individuals. On the plus side for theatre lovers, The Old Vic is zoned for use as a theatre, making it difficult to convert into another kind of establishment. On the other hand, the definition of theatre is broad, and could also include a nightclub.

That said, John Karastamatis, publicity director for Mirvish Corporation, told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 8) the plan is to sell the venue (and it's annex, across the street) as a legit theatre.

Ed Mirvish, the 83-year-old, Canadian owner of the theatre, told the Times the reason for his decision to sell had to do with his inability to visit the theatre more than once a year. "The theatre needs the close attention of the owners, and we can't give it that attention," he said. Spokesperson Karastamatis told Playbill On-Line the Peter Hall Company will have mounted 13 plays by the time it leaves in December. "The season has not been financially rewarding, which wasn't a big surprise, but still... But that's not the reason the building's being sold. The Mirvishes have owned The Old Vic as absent landlords for 15 years now. And over those years, they've beautifully restored it and done wonderful things with it. But now it's too much work, and time, to manage a building in London. We've accomplished what we want to do with it, and we want it sold only as a theatre." Karastamatis noted that only Sotheby's knows who are the major candidates for purchase. "There are conflicting rumors about the National Theatre," he said. "The Old Vic has the Old Vic Annex as part of it. The downstairs now functions as box office for The Old Vic, the other three floors are used by the National for development of new plays (such as Death And The Maiden). That's leased to them by the Mirvishes for one peppercorn a year. The National would like to keep the Annex, It's currently part of the same package for sale with the other building, but it's also possible to separate them. As for the National buying the whole space, they're kitty-corner to The Old Vic, so I doubt they'd take on another performance space across the street, even if they do occasionally transfer shows there)."

And what will happen to the Peter Hall Company? Says Karastamatis, "British producer Bill Kenwright will present them in limited West End runs. One, Waiting For Godot, might even come to Broadway if Ben Kingsley's film schedule can be worked out." The show would likely be a Kenwright/Mirvish co-production.

According to the Times, Royal Victoria Hall (nicknamed "The Old Vic") was first bought by the Mirvishes for $880,000 USD -- outbidding competitor Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Mirvishes put in $4+ million in renovations, and the Nov. 14 asking price is $7.5 million pounds. (The Times reports that The Old Vic is expected to fetch upwards of $12 million.) The bad news? According to the Times, the theatre faces a $16 million deficit, with Guardian drama critic Michael Billington quoted as saying, "To break even in a first season is almost insuperably difficult."

Hall told the Times he was shocked by the sale, because he was initially asked to stay on for five years. "I said, absolutely yes, it will take five years." Mirvish, however, countered that, "We said that if it breaks even or makes a little it will continue into another year. But if he does not make it this year, we will not go into a second year. That was the understanding up front."

--By David Lefkowitz

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