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Victoria Theatre - Jubilee Year Celebration

Shakespeare at The Vic

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays were an annual feature of the Vic Theatre’s programme. In fact there were 39 Shakespeare productions in the period 1964 to 1998. These included tragedies, histories and comedies.

The Shakespeare Plaque

image of the shakespeare plaque on display at the New Vic Theatre

The plaque itself is not part of the Victoria Theatre Archive. It is still proudly part of the New Vic Theatre in Basford.

The collection does, however, hold the programme commemorating the visit of HRH the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon to the New Victoria Theatre on 25 November 1987 when she unveiled the plaque in its new home.

The plaque, made of “coadstone”, a kiln fired ceramic, was bought from London and had adorned the 18th century Royal Theatre at Newcastle. This earlier theatre was built in 1787 and two of its original 21 shareholders were the famous pottery manufacturers, Josiah Wedgwood and Josiah Spode.  Great actors who appeared at the Royal Theatre included Charles Kemble, William Macready, Edmund Kean and Henry Irving. The legendary violinist Paganini gave a concert at the venue. 

At the end of the 19th century the Royal Theatre went into decline and the premises became instead the Roxy Cinema in Nelson Place.  The decline of theatre in the area in the 1950s brought Stephen Joseph to Newcastle and started the civic theatre scheme which eventually resulted in the Victoria Theatre at Hartshill and the New Vic Theatre in Basford.

When the Roxy Cinema was demolished in the early 1960s, the plaque was rescued and stored at Newcastle Borough Museum. The council have loaned the plaque to the New Vic Theatre on a permanent basis.

The Shakespeare plaque is now prominently displayed above the front door and, in the words of Director Peter Cheeseman, is “as a reminder of a glorious past and a daily inspiration for the future.”   

First Shakespeare at the Vic: King Lear: October 1964

part of the programme for a productioon of king lear

The first Shakespeare in-the- round production at the Victoria Theatre and so the first Shakespeare programme in the archive. As programme notes suggest, the production was created to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564.  

Note Director Peter Cheeseman’s comments about how the size of the permanent repertory company meant that many of the classics are neglected due to this factor. Note also that additional parts are taken by guest actors one of whom is Robert Powell playing the minor roles of one of Lear’s knights and an old man. 

Robert Powell went on to become one of the most famous actors in the 1970s. Born in Salford and educated at Manchester Grammar School and the University of Manchester, he was Mahler in Ken Russell’s 1974 film Mahler and Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977).

Stanley Page, the Australian actor, played King Lear. Stanley starred in many English TV shows in from the sixties to the noughties, including Crown Court, Casualty, The Bill and Coronation Street. He had a further connection with Stoke-on-Trent when he played Mr. Peartree in the TV series version of Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger in 1976.  Sadly, Stanley passed away in England in 2016. 

The programme asks the audience not to smoke in the theatre. Motorists travelling to the theatre are asked to ensure that they have parking lights lit on their vehicles. Neither of these requests would be likely to feature in a programme today.

The cover of the programme is typical of the graphic design of the early sixties.

Look at the sparseness of the design and the wonderful logo representing the auditorium and the stage. The printing was done in just 2 colours, purple and black. There are no photos or advertising as we might expect today. All of these suggest that the Victoria Theatre was being run on a tight budget. 

As You Like It: 1965

Look carefully in the cast list for this production and you will see Robert Powell and Ben Kingsley both named in relatively minor roles.

You will also spot that Ron Daniels plays Orlando- for more information about Ron Daniels please see the entry on Hamlet (1970).

The Victoria Theatre helped launch the careers of Robert Powell and Ben Kingsley.

In the 1970s, Robert Powell became one of the most well-known actors of the time. He made his cinematic debut in 1967 and landed his first leading part in The Italian Job (1969). 

Krishna Bhanji, known as 'Ben Kingsley', was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire. He quickly achieved popularity as a stage actor working for the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1967 and appearing as Mosca in Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the National Theatre in 1977.

In the eighties he began to do more film and television work, earning international recognition for his portrayal of Mohandas K. Gandhi in the Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982). The film was a critical and financial success, and Kingsley won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. In the Queen's New Year's Honours in 2002, Kingsley received the title Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his contribution to drama. In April 2013, Kingsley was given the Fellowship Award at the Asian Awards, London.

Hamlet: 1970

cover of Hamlet programmeWe now think of Hamlet as being a perennially popular play. This wasn’t always the case. Critics of Hamlet in the late 17th century considered it unsophisticated. The 18th century marked a significant shift in this perception as Hamlet the main character began to be seen as a hero - a clever young man trapped in a bad situation. From the middle of the 18th century, the rise of Gothic literature brought mystical and psychological interpretations to the fore, highlighting the ghost and the insanity theme. Hamlet's internal, personal battle was praised by Romantic writers in the 19th century because it reflected the time's significant emphasis on such conflicts and inner character. Arguably, this viewpoint is perhaps still the most dominant today.

Ron Daniels directed Hamlet at the Victoria Theatre in Autumn 1970; first night was October 27th. It was the third play he had directed at the theatre.  Ron was born and brought up in Brazil. He acted and directed at the Victoria Theatre in the 1960s and early 1970s, being heavily involved in The Staffordshire Rebels. In the 1970s, Ron went on to be Artistic Director at The Other Place, the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) studio theatre. From 1982, he directed for the main stage at the RSC. At the RSC, he directed Roger Rees as Hamlet in 1984 and Mark Rylance in the same role in 1989. Between 1991 and 1996 he was the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also become famous as a director of opera.

Alan David who played Hamlet in the 1970 production was a regular performer at the RSC between 1970 and 2003. He also worked at the National Theatre and later in TV. Credits include Coronation Street, Dr Who and The Sweeney. In 2007 he played Griff in Gavin and Stacey

The Tempest: 1977

cover of the programme of the Tempest productionNotes from the theatre programme:

“The wreck of the ‘Sea Adventure’, one of a fleet of 9 ships taking settlers to the new American colony of Virginia in 1609, seems to have been one of the many ingredients of Shakespeare’s last play.

For it is generally agreed that though he collaborated in the writing of at least two plays – Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII – the Tempest is the last piece of work we can call Shakespeare’s own. Indeed, Prospero’s great speech towards the end of the play, casting off his magical powers, is traditionally regarded as William Shakespeare’s farewell to playwriting. 

He retired to Stratford-on-Avon in 1611 and died there in 1616.

His friends and fellow actors, John Heming and Henry Condell, organised the publication in 1623 of all Shakespeare’s works in one volume, now known as the First Folio, and it is here that The Tempest was first printed. 

The first record of a performance had been one on Hallowmass Night in 1611, at Court in the presence of King James I.”

Image shows Programme illustration – A ship in a storm, from a Flemish engravin

The Vic Theatre production opened on Wednesday 12 October 1977.

Director: Peter Cheeseman

Designer: Alison Chitty

Music composed and conducted by Stuart Johnson and sung by members of the cast accompanied by John Kolbert (flute) and the composer.

costumes in The Tempest production




Costumes designed by Alison Chitty for The Tempest (1977)

Photo by Don McNeil

ALISON CHITTY – theatre and opera designer

The following extracts, reproduced with permission, are taken from a speech Alison Chitty made in 2007 when accepting the Misha Black Award. This was later published in the brochure accompanying her retrospective exhibition held at the National Theatre in 2010. 

“I failed my Art O-level … but luckily, I was supported and encouraged to hang on in there by my family and my teachers. I had wonderful art teachers throughout my schooling … I was given a place at the Central School of Art to study with the brilliant Ralph Koltai ... I graduated and won a nine-month Arts Council bursary to Stoke-on-Trent, the theatre-in-the-round run by Peter Cheeseman. I stayed for eight years [1970 – 1979].

“Peter taught me to respect the writer and the text … the work was directly designed for Stoke and North Staffordshire. There was always a political edge. 

“In retrospect I can see how my work in Stoke was the foundation of my design and teaching philosophy. Working in the round, I began to understand the power of the performer in the space, the power of the object … the effect of one on the other.

“I began to see how a little goes a very long way …

I worked to select the essential elements that were needed … I came to realise that a distilled version of the world of the play was leaving space for the audience to take part … to use their imaginations and contribute. … Many of our simple visual statements were born out of limited budgets, and, of course, the very nature of theatre-in-the-round. The focus of the space was the floor, and we were working sculpturally. I was learning that with distillation, restraint and often a little bit of wit, I could simply and powerfully express any place, any time, anywhere. I was becoming what I am now … a designer, not a decorator … 

“The work in Stoke … with strong, simple, no-nonsense storytelling had often been rough and tough, an exciting, honest and direct poor theatre … We told the story of people’s lives, all kinds of people.”

Over a career spanning 40 years, Alison Chitty became an award-winning production, set and costume designer, working with some of the biggest names in theatre and opera, including Mike Leigh, Francesca Zambello, Sir Peter Hall, and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. She has designed for theatres and opera houses all over the world, including the English National Opera, Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, Santa Fe Opera, and opera houses in Italy, Sweden and France. 

She was Co-Director of the Motley Theatre Design Course from 1992 and became Director following the death of Percy Harris in 2000 until the school closed in 2011. Alison was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2004 for services to drama. She is now retired and living in France.


Twelfth Night: 1991

“If music be the food of love, play on” so begins Twelfth Night or What you will. Originally written around 1601-1602 as an entertainment to be performed at the end of the Christmas season.

The Victoria Theatre's staging of Twelfth Night used Bob Eaton’s original rock music and was set in the late 1960s. Over the years, there has been discussion and conjecture over Shakespeare's subtitle for Twelfth Night, “or what you will”.  

Eaton chose to see it as a drama of celebration and festivity, wherein the ordinary course of events is temporarily abandoned. Parallels are easy to see between this and the heady days of the late sixties. It was a time of psychedelia and altered states of consciousness when the conventional notions of reality and imagination were up for debate. Even the distinction between sanity and insanity was being challenged. It was a period of free love above all else.

The term "unisex" emerged as clothing and hairstyles became looser and longer, and many parents began to remark that it was becoming harder to distinguish between boys and girls. In the play Viola is a girl posing as a boy who falls in love with a Duke. 


Some comedies

Shakespeare comedies programmes

Shakespeare's comedies (the programmes shown here are for As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream and The Comedy of Errors) are known for their witty wordplay, humour, and silliness.

As You Like It was performed by the Victoria Theatre from 23 March to 17 April 1965. Most likely written between 1599 and 1600, it is a pastoral comedy, which was a popular type of play in Shakespeare's day. The phrase 'pastoral comedy' ostensibly depicts rural people's lifestyle, manners, and traditions. In As You Like It, a woodland named Arden is significant because it shares Shakespeare's mother's maiden name. The name is thought to signify healing and renewal.

Shakespeare's shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, lacks a fully developed subplot. The Victoria Theatre used the production (first night: Wednesday, September 23 1992) to promote Education 92. At this event John Wain,  a renowned author, poet and literary critic spoke about The Comedy of Errors. 

The production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1994 presented a significant challenge to visiting German theatre dramaturg Ellen Werner. A dramaturg’s work involves programme planning and advising on literary aspects of a theatre’s work. In the programme Ellen shares her feeling that this production at the New Vic Theatre has rekindled her enthusiasm for Shakespeare's plays and brought her closer to his poetry than ever previously. 

In all three plays there are themes of disguise and mistaken identity.