The Old Vic Magazine - An Article by Liz Schafer

The Vic-Wells Association Newsletter has a history that can be traced back to October 1919 when the Old Vic Magazine (later the Vic-Wells Magazine) was first published at a price of 2d. The first editor was Elisabethe Corathiel, followed later by later by Irene Beeston, but in reality, it was completely dominated by the manager of the Old Vic., Lilian Baylis. The magazine became free to all members of the Old Vic Association when it was set up in 1923.

In its early years the Old Vic Magazine published vital information about the Vic repertoire for the coming month, as Lilian Baylis refused to pay for advertising in newspapers. She argued that ‘The Dailies ought to advertise us for nothing if they really love Opera and Shakespeare’. But Baylis also got all kinds of interesting people to write for the Old Vic Magazine: directors, performers, designers, backstage and crew. Births, marriages and deaths were announced, social events were advertised, and the results of fancy dress competitions and the guess the weight of the Twelfth Night cake competition were published.

Amongst the more humdrum items, however, are some historical gems. Here is Robert Helpmann, in the Old Vic Magazine for April 1934, reminiscing about touring Australia as a fifteen year old, dancing ‘in the bigger ensembles’ with Pavlova.

Pavlova wanted to see everything; back-blocks and all; and sometimes, particularly in north Queensland, the available stages were so small that she could nothing but her Swan Dance – and that took great technique. The audience sat in deck-chairs and the sides of the “theatre” were open to the air; but nobody of her artistic standing had ever been in these out-of-the way townships, and, of course, everyone within a radius of many miles came to see her performances….

In 1926-7 Pavlova gave a matinee in each big town from Brisbane to Adelaide, stepping off the train at mid-day and leaving again after the show for an all-night journey – a colossal undertaking for a star dancer.

Earlier, in the issue for April 1933, actress Beatrice Wilson recalled conditions at the Vic during the First World War:

Zeppelins, dark streets, limited motor traffic, an audience unaccustomed to Shakespeare – certain sections loved to hear us say “bloody”; “Macbeth” was quite exciting because of this – gas; suffocating airless cubby holes for dressing rooms; scenery very obviously “stock” and limited; no young actors.

The same issue includes an interview with Elizabeth Polunin, who had just designed the décor for the Vic-Wells opera company’s first production of The Snow Maiden, and who reveals that students from her husband’s class of Scenic Art at the Slade School were commandeered to help make costumes.

Unfortunately, copies of the magazine are quite difficult to get hold of : the Theatre Museum depository at Blythe House and the Bristol Theatre collection have the best collections but even these aren’t quite complete. It’s the early years that are really difficult to track down