When the Bristol Old Vic’s new foyer opens in summer 2018, the theatre’s facade will be able to be seen from King Street for the very first time in its proud history.
When the theatre first opened, it was akin to a speakeasy bar. Patrons were granted access through the home of a Mr Gill as in 1766 when it was built the theatre was technically illegal.
Since the 1970s, theatregoers have entered through the Coopers’ Hall – even older than the Georgian theatre behind it but for the last three decades acting as a glorified staircase.
Coopers’ Hall is a building which in previous incarnations has been a public assembly room, a wine warehouse, a Baptist chapel, and a fruit and veg warehouse.
Once renovations are complete, it will become a sumptuous function room.
It is currently an empty shell, at once disorientating and familiar. Forty tonnes of rubble are currently being removed from the site each day, with the box office, snaking staircase and mezzanine level now ripped out, neat mounds of rubbish piled up and a small digger in one corner.
Walk into what was the former bar area and the wall of the theatre can be glimpsed for the first time from an area that when the theatre was built was the courtyard of the house on King Street, then as it is now exposed to the elements.
“At first glance this wall just looks like a wreck,” says Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris as he guides a small party in hi-vis jackets and hard hats around the building site for a first glimpse of the works. “But if you look more closely you can see that there are the scars of all sorts of previous features in the wall.”
He touches the historic brickwork, a hodgepodge of original features combined with various alterations down the ages. There, a bricked up ticket booth. Next to it a door, or perhaps a window. Nearby, half a dozen steps leading to nowhere that a century or so ago took theatregoers to their seats.
Upstairs, above the ghastly 1970s building that will soon be demolished to make way for a glass-fronted entrance, a seventeenth-century ‘flying fireplace’ has been discovered hovering towards the top of a neighbouring wall. Excitingly, this probably belonged to Mr Gill, whose house acted as the original speakeasy.
It’s just a small part of a history still being discovered of the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world. It’s a history that can now be traced through its scarred and beautiful walls; a rich heritage that visitors will be able to appreciate better than ever when the front of house areas reopen.
Come the summer of 2018, the aim is for the people of Bristol not only to come to the theatre to watch shows but to use it throughout the day as a place to meet; while the function room within the rejuvenated Coopers’ Hall will bring in much-needed extra revenue to help fund projects such as the Old Vic’s outreach work in communities across the city and further afield.
“This is an amazing breakthrough,” says Old Vic chief executive Emma Stenning, talking to Bristol24/7 amid the tidy chaos of Mr Gill’s former courtyard. “It’s about giving that amazing theatre the social space around it which it deserves and giving Bristol the opportunity to celebrate a wonderful building that has been hidden to them.
“It’s about making this a space where all of Bristol feels welcome to be.”