At the beginning of the 1953-54 season, which was to open on September 14th, the Directors of the Old Vic Trust, supported by the Arts Council of Great Britain, made an important statement of policy. They announced that all thirty-six plays in the first Shakespearean Folio would be presented at the Old Vic in the course of the next five years.
An undertaking of such magnitude deserved some more permanent record than a random accumulation of programmes, playbills and press cuttings. It seemed to us that it would be of value to try and preserve some of the achievements under the plan by making action photographs of the plays in actual performance and accompanying them with notes on the productions and on the receptions accorded them. A sufficient number of photographs in sequence could, we believed, give a fair overall impression of a play and at the same time they would capture moments of special interest in the individual performances of the actors. With the encouragement of the Directors of the Old Vic this has now been attempted.
The Five-Year First Folio project is very much in the traditions of the Old Vic theatre, for in 1923 the Vic achieved the distinction of being the first theatre in the world to have presented every play in the First Folio. This was accomplished in the years between 1914 and 1923 by the producers, Mr. and Mrs. Matheson Lang, Ben Greet, George Foss, Russell Thorndike and Charles Warburton, and Robert Atkins under the management of Lilian Baylis. The thirty-sixth and final play, Troilus and Cressida, was produced on Wednesday, November 7th, 1923, on the eve of the tercentenary of the First Folio, in the presence of the Princess Royal and accompanied by suitable rejoicing. The cycle had been completed, however, almost by accident and was not undertaken as a deliberate, preconceived plan.
The Directors responsible for the cycle which started in 1953-54, on the other hand, surveyed the Folio as a whole and planned the productions to spread over five seasons, with a fairly even balance of comedies, tragedies and histories in each group so that the seasons would in themselves be varied and satisfying.
The plan was intended to maintain the Old Vic's position as 'the home of Shakespeare' (Lilian Baylis used to have this title painted on a giant notice on the Waterloo Road side of the theatre) and to continue to give young actors a chance to play leading and widely varied Shakespearean roles while still young.