New vigor flows into the Old Vic

The Old Vic theater near London's Waterloo Bridge opened in 1818, hosted Paganini's farewell concert; saw the birth of the Sadler's Wells Company; was hit by bombs in the last war; and gave countless young people a lasting taste of Shakespeare in a famous five-year cycle of all his plays in the late 1950s.

And now it has opened a new era - new in four ways.

It belongs to a Canadian businessman, Edwin Mirvish, known in Toronto, his hometown, as ''Honest Ed.'' It has been given a (STR)2 million ($3 million) face-lift, restoring its Victorian boxes and red plush and installing air conditioning.

Also, instead of just a single company, six are coming in for periods lasting six weeks each. And, in an idea lifted straight from North America, tickets are being sold on a subscription basis covering all productions for a year.

The system is already known to symphony-goers and ballet-lovers at the Sadler's Wells Theatre here. A form of it was tried by the former Old Vic group before it went broke in 1981. But it is new to the London stage in its present form.

''Honest Ed'' says he is optimistic that it will all work and that audiences will flock in.

His experience comes from a similar venture which has been running for more than 20 years in Toronto. In 1962 he bought the condemned and soon-to-be-pulled-down Royal Alexandra Theatre and turned it into a cultural center. Now, 85 percent of the seats are sold for subscription rates. This lowers ticket prices and ensures good houses in advance.

But will a plan that works in Toronto work in London?

All depends on what is being offered. The program is varied and aimed at a mass audience.

The new era started last month with the opening of ''Blondel,'' a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice (his first since ''Evita'').

Early next year, ''Master Class'' will star Timothy West as Stalin attempting to teach Prokofiev and Shostakovich how to compose ''real'' music. Following that will be shows ranging from the Stratford Festival Canada production of ''The Mikado'' to Albert Finney in ''Serjeant Musgrove's Dance.''

What's been the response so far?

A spokesman for the new theater told me the management is ''very happy.'' Subscription sales, which opened by mail in June, were to have closed Sept. 17, but have been extended to the end of the run of ''Blondel'' (Dec. 1). Regular box office seats went on sale in September.

''It's a new idea for the public,'' another official said. ''It means planning your visits to the theater for a whole year. People aren't used to that.''

A commercial theater official, looking on with interest, comments: ''The idea is well worth trying, even though conditions in North America are different. People have more money to spend there. Londoners are accustomed to booking late, and the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare prefer priority mailing lists.

''Still - let's see . . . .''

Subscription buyers are promised ''six stunning shows for as little as (STR) 10 ($15)'' - a price based on the cheapest Wednesday matinee ticket.

Top subscription prices are (STR)49 for all six productions. That's a saving of (STR)18 on box office prices.

Tickets go down to (STR)10 for six seats at the back of the ''gods'' - the stuffy upper balcony - at Wednesday matinees, a saving of (STR)3.

The Old Vic has been dark since May 1981, when the Prospect Company that operated in it went out of business. The company blamed the United Kingdom government's Arts Council, which had just refused to renew an annual subsidy of (STR)300,000.

The Old Vic has been saved before. When a previous company was disbanded in 1963, the National Theatre took over the building, with Laurence Olivier as director, and stayed until it moved to its present home on the south bank of the Thames in 1976.

The new Mirvish era contrasts greatly with the 1950s, when, as a teen-ager, this reviewer spent most Saturday nights in the ''gods'' watching the company during the five-year cycle of Shakespearean plays.

Those were the famous days of Richard Burton's Henry V, John Neville, Paul Rogers, Wendy Hiller, Claire Bloom, Judi Dench, Robert Helpmann, Keith Michell (whose dog Duff played a scene in ''Two Gentlemen of Verona'' and whose lead I would gladly hold as his master signed my program), and guest performers John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Edith Evans.

''My'' old seat price at the front of the ''gods''' has gone up from the half-crown (2 shillings and sixpence) of the 1950s to an ''Honest Ed'' Mirvish box office price of (STR)6.60 per show.

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