Fifteen years ago Toronto's beloved Bloor Street magnate, "Honest" Ed Mirvish, narrowly outbid Andrew Lloyd Webber for ownership of London's legendary Old Vic Theatre. Though met with vocal opposition by some of Britain's foremost theatre personalities (among them Trevor Nunn and Cameron Mackintosh), Mirvish and business partner, son David, set out to restore the property to its former Victorian glory. One year and $4 million later the team proved that "outsiders" were up to the challenges that lay ahead.
This summer, the era that saw Ed Mirvish invested by the Queen as a Commander of the British Empire for his rescue work on the Old Vic (1989) came to an end with a single announcement.
For a reported asking price of $16.9 million (Cdn), the Mirvishes will give up their role as guardians of the hallowed hall that once featured performances by Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndyke and Derek Jacobi - to name only a famous few.
Located just south of the River Thames and Waterloo Station in the working class district of Lambeth, the theatre is well removed from London's west-end entertainment hub. In the early days its scummy reputation - and smell- preceded it. Today it remains a celebrated gem, the oldest working theatre in the city and a splendid monument to the Industrial Age.
A glimpse of the venue's turbulent past reveals that geography and fashion have consistently hampered success. A "minor" theatre built in 1818, the Royal Victoria (known first as the Royal Cobourg) saw decades of renovation, managerial upheaval and a steady stream of melodramas drawing rowdy working class audiences. It escaped the bowels of ignominy when a temperance reformer named Emma Cons assumed control during the early part of this century. After her death, niece Lilian Baylis put the Old Vic back on the map with ballet, opera, and Shakespeare. In the 1960s another highlight: under director Olivier, the National Theatre Company moved in. When the NTC pulled up stakes in the seventies, the theatre was again left directionless. It floundered for years to come. Just last year, David Mirvish hired Sir Peter Hall to create a permanent repertory company, a move which was financially risky but highly sound artistically. The first season's results will soon be seen on Broadway.
The Old Vic's survival even to the point that the Mirvishes could take it over is astounding. Its location is still considered a disadvantage, and its mid-size is better suited to smaller shows which are not traditionally known for commercial success.
Still, the Mirvishes hold that time and not money (losses estimated in Toronto and London papers are wildly speculative- between $20-60 million) was the reason for the decision. When Theatre News asked how much time was spent in an average year commuting between Toronto and London, Ed Mirvish replied, "When I first acquired the theatre I would be over every two months. Now it has been a year since I've made the trip. David gets over more often but he is finding it difficult to do so. When we bought the Old Vic we didn't have the Princess of Wales. Today, we have so many interests in Toronto-we've started the theatre museum, we have Ed's Press and Celebrity Club, the two theatres, Mirvish village and the store. The Old Vic needs more attention, so I hope that we'll find someone to give it what it needs."
Mirvish says he is prepared to wait for his price, though he would like to sell it "today", preferably to someone who will appreciate its history. As for rumours of Cameron Mackintosh purchasing the Old Vic, Mirvish would offer only that the property is in the hands of an agent, and that the theatre business by nature is '90 percent talk and 10 percent action'. One suspects this last adage will surface in his newest book, which the entrepreneur was proofing at the time of our meeting.
Meantime, where will the decision to sell leave Sir Peter Hall? "We're going to keep him until the season ends. Artistically, he's doing great work". Mirvish asserted that the season will run as planned and that the buyers will have the option to close at the end of December. As far as the possibility of two shows from the acclaimed first season making their way to Toronto, specifically Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Chekhov's The Seagull, Mirvish would not give comment.
On the topic of Hall allegedly taken on for the purpose of boosting the Old Vic's commercial viability, Mirvish had this to say: "If it worked out financially, our thought was to continue year after year. Repertory is just not practical for commercial purposes. It should be and is done mainly by government and charitable foundations".
Mirvish harbours no regrets."They've been very rewarding years" he reflected It's been a privilege. But we're all caretakers-we don't own anything except our own brains. No one can take that one away from us."
"Our time with Jonathan Miller (our artistic director for three years) was a highlight. He did great work. He would never use big names because his objective was to develop young actors, unknown directors. I used to say to Jonathan, 'if ever you get the urge to make money don't fight it. It's not that bad!' The man was a genius -- a renaissance man. I look forward to doing shows with him in the future."
At a time when the Mirvishes' fiscal activities are vittles for a hungry press, Ed Mirvish maintains characteristic diplomacy and business sense. He chalks up ravenous appetites for stories of financial trouble to the need to sell papers. "We are a private company and don't disclose too much. We pay our bills on time and make sure that everyone who works for us gets paid on time. Since we took over the old Vic it has been running 52 weeks in the year. When you pay the bills on time, you don't have to listen to anyone"
-- Lisa Kovaric