Banner Image

Shakespeare at the Library

Discover the fascinating tale behind Shakespeare's First Folio and other stories featuring Shakespeare in the Library.

Sir Laurence and Lady Vivien's visit

“The screen has familiarised millions with Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara, and with Sir Laurence Olivier as King Henry V.  Soon the film version of "Hamlet" is to be exhibited simultaneously in London and Sydney. Public curiosity and enthusiasm are likely to reach fever point when this famous husband and wife appear in person…”  

Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1948

In 1948 the Library’s Shakespeare Room had a pair of most distinguished visitors – Sir Laurence Olivier and Lady Vivien Leigh, the famous actors and romantic partners.

Olivier and Leigh were visiting Australia as part of a tour with the Old Vic Theatre Company, of which they were both principal cast members. The tour was sponsored by the British Council and featured William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth.  

Sir Laurence and Lady Vivien with John Metcalfe
Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh with John Metcalfe
The Library’s then principal librarian, John Metcalfe, invited Olivier and Leigh to visit the Shakespeare Room, or the Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial Library as it was known then, which had completed construction in 1942.
Metcalfe had written to Olivier:

We would like to have in that Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial Library some record and token of your visit to Australia and I had in mind bringing together in a suitable binding, and with an appropriate inscription, the programmes of the three plays you are giving and the book which has been done about the Old Vic in Australia. If you would be good enough this record could be given full authenticity by the autographs of yourself and Lady Olivier. The visit could be entirely informal and private with not more than three or four gathered to meet you, representative of the Trustees and the staff of the Library. I would only like, if you have no objection, to have a photograph taken for the record and not in any way for the press by our own photographer of yourself and if possible Lady Olivier in the Shakespeare Room

Olivier initially found himself too busy to call upon the Library, but eventually did so on Wednesday, 21st July, 1948, with Vivien Leigh. Olivier and Leigh were photographed alongside Metcalfe and the Library’s First and Second Shakespeare Folios. The famous couple then attended a luncheon given by the British Drama League. Whilst in Sydney, Olivier and Leigh also attended the first screen viewing of Olivier’s film adaptation of Hamlet.

The photographs taken in the Shakespeare Room that day were subsequently bound in a volume containing the Old Vic Theatre Company’s dramatic programme from the Australia tour, alongside the correspondence between Olivier and Metcalfe (RB/LQ0010/M).