A few hundred yards away from the glamour and plush of the Old Vic, South London's grand old lady of theatre, is the far from grand and - by definition - relatively youthful Young Vic.
Inhabiting an unlovely 1970s building that was designed to last for five years but has so far managed over thirty, the Young Vic may sound like a poor relation but is, under the artistic directorship of David Lan, one of the two or three most exciting theatres in London.
Lan, a South African actor who moved to London a couple of years after the Young Vic was built, has a distinguished record as a theatre director, film and documentary writer, playwright and author, and was writer-in-residence at the Royal Court for two years in the mid 1990s.
His agenda for the Young Vic is clear: to perform the best of classic plays along with the most exciting of new ones; to encourage and work with young actors, directors and playwrights and for the Young Vic to be a community theatre in the sense that it serves the needs of local residents.
The latter is a tall order given that the Young Vic straddles two of the poorest boroughs in London—Lambeth and Southwark—but that didn't stop Lilian Baylis from offering the best Shakespeare productions of her day in the 1920s and 1930s, and it clearly isn't a problem at the Young Vic either: Peter Brook's Hamlet is opening later this month and film star Jude Law (whom Lan directed at the Young Vic in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore) is to return to the theatre in Lan's production of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus early next year. The multi-ethnic character of the area also offers challenges, but the Young Vic approach is to try to program drama that will have a relevance to young audiences from a diverse racial and cultural background as well as more "mainstream" classics and modern work.
The wider aim of the theatre, as its name implies, is to appeal to the young. Lan's belief is that if plays that are designed to appeal primarily to young audiences are good enough then older audiences will come to see them; but that the reverse is not the case. The Young Vic encourages younger audiences to enjoy live theatre—often for the first time—and hopes to keep them coming with the quality of work produced—Lan is adamant that attracting younger audiences doesn't mean dumbing down.
The Young Vic also specializes in offering opportunities to young actors and directors - the latter in conjunction with the Jerwood Foundation, an arts charity that is supporting Lan's drive to offer directing experience on a large stage (the Young Vic looks small from the street frontage but in fact has a very large acting area as well as studio theatre).
Along with the Young Vic's undoubted dedication to the local—and wider—community, and to the promotion of young talent, goes a shrewd business sense and an ability to forge links with other leading theatres: co-productions with the National Theatre studio; a tie-in with the Ambassadors Theatre Group and, most recently, with Natural Nylon, the theatre wing of the company set up by Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Sadie Frost, and other young British talent, to provide a structure (and encourage backing) for acting projects in which the group of actors would have control of their own projects.
The Young Vic's own major project is to completely rebuild its theatre, while performing in temporary venues while the work is done, as is currently happening with the Almeida, another high-octane theatre company that punches above its financial weight. The 2002 Dr. Faustus looks likely to be exactly the high-profile high-quality drama the Young Vic needs to attract the attention and funds it deserves, so that it can carry its work with, and on behalf, of the young into the new century.
—by Paul Webb Theatrenow