Bristol Old Vic lines up world premieres for autumn/winter season

Last Updated on 2 August 2021 by Showcall Editorial Team

Bristol Old Vic is to stage The Meaning of Zong with Giles Terera, Dr Semmelweis with Mark Rylance, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Robin Hood and Ross Willis’ new play, Wonder Boy

Bristol Old Vic Semmelweis

Dr Semmelweis with Mark Rylance and Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong are to be staged at Bristol Old Vic alongside other new work in its autumn and winter season.

The two much-anticipated new productions were postponed because of the Covid-19 shutdown but are now back on track after the Bristol theatre reopens for live in-person audiences from 11 September.

Bristol Old Vic also announced a new Christmas show, Robin Hood, with theatre company The Wardrobe Ensemble and a new play, Wonder Boy, by Ross Willis and directed by Sally Cookson. It will also stage Wise Children’s previously announced adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Announcing the new season this evening, artistic director Tom Morris also confirmed the theatre’s commitment to delivering live-streamed and on-demand theatre digitally beyond the time of the Covid for as much of its work as possible – part of a major transformation of the business.

The Weston Studio – the home of Bristol Old Vic’s Talent Development – will remain closed as social distancing does not suit the smaller space but a new programme is due to be announced in September.

The season in the main house opens with The Meaning of Zong, running from 11 September to 2 October 2021*, with opening night on 16 September. (*Update 26 July 2021: The Meaning of Zong has been postponed to 2 April to 7 May 2022 due to the impact of Covid restrictions.)

The play is inspired by the horrific massacre aboard the slave ship Zong, its impact on the early years of the abolition movement and its resonance today. Written by and starring Giles Terera, it tells the story through Olaudah Equiano, the freed British African who brought news of the massacre to the attention of anti-slavery campaigners.

Terera, who won an Olivier Award for playing Aaron Burr in the London production of Hamilton, said: “When I first started exploring this story, I felt very strongly that there was a connection between today and the 18th century when these events took place. History isn’t just history, it’s a continual conversation with the present. It’s a play about us, now.

“At this moment, there is lot of discontentment, but at the same time there are a lot of people standing up for people who don’t look like them or live like them. This play focuses on that: as an individual, what is your obligation to your society and community? What are you prepared stand up for? What are you prepared to defend?”

Jointly commissioned and developed by Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, The Meaning of Zong was presented as a rehearsed reading by Bristol Old Vic in 2018 and, after its run was stopped by the pandemic, it was reimagined as an audio play on Radio 3 in March this year.

From 9 October to 6 November, Bristol Old Vic and theatre company Wise Children will present the world première of Emma Rice’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, bringing the classic story to new life in her trademark musical and visual style.

As announced in early June, Wuthering Heights is a co-production between Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, Wise Children and York Theatre Royal. After its Bristol run, it transfers to York Theatre Royal from 9 to 20 November and the National Theatre in London in 2022.

For its Christmas show, Bristol Old Vic has teamed up with Bristol-based theatre company The Wardrobe Ensemble for what promises to be a “fresh spin” on the story of Robin Hood.

Running from 25 November 2021 to 8 January 2022, family show Robin Hood: Legend of The Forgotten Forest sees a 21st-century child crash into 12th-century Sherwood Forest. Combining wit, warmth and daring archery, it is described as a magical tale about taking aim at the things you believe in, shooting straight from the heart and becoming the hero you were born to be.

From 20 January to 12 February 2022, Bristol Old Vic will stage the delayed world premiere of Dr Semmelweis, based on the true story of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, an early pioneer of life-saving antiseptic procedures. A radical creative of the medical profession, his rejection of received wisdom dared him to look at the world differently and held the potential to save countless lives.

Based on an original idea from Mark Rylance, Dr Semmelweis is written by Stephen Brown with Rylance and will be directed by Tom Morris. It is presented in association with Sonia Friedman productions, the National Theatre and Rylance’s Shakespeare Road. Tickets will go on general sale on 8 July.

Rylance said: “Theatre happens in the hearts and minds and souls of the people watching it… The revival of theatre needs to follow where the audiences are. That may be here in Bristol where we will tell the story of Dr Semmelweis, or in London where I will be bringing Rooster back to life in Jerusalem very soon…

“I’m particularly pleased that chance has led me to this place, where I’m going to be part of the revival of theatre in the regional cities. I can’t think of a better theatre to do this than Bristol Old Vic.”

From 5 to 26 March, Bristol Old Vic will present Wonder Boy, a new work by Bristol-based writer Ross Willis, whose debut play was the acclaimed Wolfie. Wonder Boy is described as a powerful coming-of-age story about a young boy finding his voice and his power in a world where he doesn’t belong.

It will be directed by Sally Cookson, who has a long association with Bristol Old Vic. She said: “I watched the workshop production and was blown away by the writing. I’d never seen a piece of writing that made me feel like this. Ross Willis is a unique writer with a completely individual voice and it felt so important to get Ross into Bristol Old Vic and premiere his first play on the main stage.”

Wonder Boy will include music by Benji Bower, set and costume design by Katie Sykes, lighting by Aideen Malone, sound by Mike Beer, movement by Laila Dialo and captioning by Limbic Cinema. Tickets go on general sale on 8 July.

Announcing the new productions, Morris stressed that the new season was inspired by the work of the theatre’s engagement and talent development departments and the creativity and resilience of the communities and artists they work with, fuelled by a successful year of experiments in digital theatre and live broadcasting.

Wuthering Heights Bristol
Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights will premiere at Bristol Old Vic
About Mark Ludmon 318 Articles
Mark Ludmon has been a journalist for over 20 years, specialising in theatre, hospitality and drinks after starting in regional daily newspapers. He has an MA in early modern literature and history, focusing on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and a theatre studies MA from Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. He is a former panellist for the Olivier Awards. He tweets at @MarkLudmon.