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Archive for the ‘Retrospective’ Category

FIFTY YEARS ON (8)‏

Many apologies for our absence. I am pleased to report the RSC Friends Blog is back on and almost just in time Tony’s reflection on his first impressions of The Homecoming…….

Our scene now changes to Cardiff, but we very much stay with RSC history. The week commencing 22nd March 1965 was indeed a milestone in the history of the New Theatre, Cardiff, for that week gave audiences a chance to see not only a revival of Clifford Williams’ celebrated production of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS but also the world premiere of a new play by Harold Pinter. This was certainly a theatrical coup for the then Cardiff theatre administrator Roy Todds who, within a very short space of time had brought to the Welsh Capital the very best of theatre, opera and ballet.

A world premiere of a Pinter AND by the RSC? Friday 26th March 1965 was surely going to be a night to remember and it certainly was! Even now, I can recall waiting in anticipation in that first performance audience for the curtain to rise on what the programme informed us was “an old house in north London “. Such was the impact of that performance directed by Peter Hall and the writing of Harold Pinter that it all seems as fresh as yesterday. At the end, I knew I had been present at the birth of a modern classic and one which was going to provoke much debate amongst its audiences.

The following evening the then drama critic of the SOUTH WALES ECHO concluded his encouraging  review thus: “There were those who laughed nervously, those who laughed spontaneously and those who laughed not at all “. Those words certainly sum up that first night audience and may I add I was amongst those who laughed spontaneously! My thoughts that I had experienced a very special theatrical event were confirmed that June when I read R.B.Marriott’s review in THE STAGE following the opening of the production at the Aldwych Theatre. He wrote: “…Mr. Pinter’s writing stands squarely in its own right as a work of considerable interest and accomplishment …it is a play of genuine originality that explores people and relationships, the past and the present and possibilities with intensity and imagination”.

How nostalgic then and how very special it has been to be in the Swan audience for David Farr’s revival. Whilst that evening in March 1965 continues to be memorable, I now see it was only a prelude for the theatrical triumph which is our 2011 production of THE HOMECOMING. It has received much praise and acclaim from those who have not seen either the play or any Pinter before  and I hope any readers have been to seen it.

More than ever, this revival shows why Peter Hall, feeling that Pinter used language as effectively as Shakespeare, commissioned the play in the 1960’s and why it well deserves to have been included in our 50th Birthday season. It also confirms how important new writing was in 1965 and why it continues to be for the RSC.

In a later blog, I shall share further memories of other new writing for the company which I experienced in the sixties, including another world premiere!

Tony Boyd-Williams

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A feast of Shakespeare’s  HISTORIES during this special holiday week not only enabled me to really appreciate the by now growing strengths of the RSC ensemble, but also the dramatic benefits of the open stage as opposed to waiting for the action to happen once a curtain had risen. The direction of the plays by Peter Hall, John Barton and Clifford Williams (with assistance from Frank Evans) ensured that even before the house lights went down, characters entered and by their very actions and movement prepared us for what was to follow (e.g. in RICHARD II, Bushy, Green and Bagot seemed to conspire in one corner whilst seeming to deliberately disregard John of Gaunt who remained alone at another part of the stage). At the moment the first lines of any of the plays was spoken, the house lights dimmed and we were plunged into a world of politics and warfare, with Shakespeare’s words allowing the story to unfold.

Such dramatic beginnings were most effective and the device continued when the intervals were reached. Certain characters e.g. the gardeners in RICHARD II, the drawers in HENRY 1V -PART I were left on stage as the house lights came up and proceed to move props or items of furniture in readiness for the following scene. This was my first introduction to members of an acting company performing tasks which had hitherto been performed behind  the curtain by unseen stage staff.

Another innovation for me was the use of live musicians in costume  -most effective and exciting especially in the case of drums and trumpets accompanying marching armies. Of course, fifty years on we are used at the RSC to experiencing live music, but in the sixties I was reminded of Prospero’s Line -“Tis new to thee”. 

However, one aspect of the RSC I had not yet experienced was new work. This was to be remedied the following year when I saw Ian Holm (Prince Hal and Richard III during that memorable 1964 season ) in a world premiere of a play specially commissioned by Peter Hall. The play? Harold Pinter’s THE HOMECOMING and the next blog will share some special memories of  fantastic evening in a theatre with a production that became not only a landmark for the RSC but for British Theatre.

Tony Boyd-Williams

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And so it was that the following evening, I was one of a number who sat in a downstairs room in Hall’s Croft  (the present cafe space?) and much enjoyed listening to the voices of  Fenella Fielding and Max Adrian as they treated us to a poetical battle of the sexes with splendid panache and gusto. Some of the pieces were so amusing that there was as much laughter in our “small corner” as in the room where the actual readings were taken place. One particular moment which almost stopped the show was to hear Max Adrian dramatically whisper:

“Yesterday, I held her tight then cut her throat and serve her right!”

I cannot recall the author of this particular excerpt (perhaps it is familiar to some readers?) but I CAN recall the author of the very last piece. And why? Ah, now this refers to the surprise I referred to in my last blog.

We were just finishing our interval coffee when the door to the room opened and one of the organisers of the evening ushered in our guest readers. It was just as if Fenella Fielding and Max Adrian were in the family lounge back home! We were told that Miss Fielding  and Mr Adrian were aware that they had two audiences that evening – those who could see them and those who could only hear them. To show their gratitude to us, therefore, they had very kindly agreed to give us a special reading of the final item of the programme which was from George Farquhar’s THE BEAUX STRATAGEM. It was a richly comic reading, and still a vivid memory.

That season saw the 11th Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival and in this special year of RSC celebrations, we have the 58th Festival. What joins those seasons together is that readers taking part  include members of the RSC past and present. In 1964, Max Adrian was a former founder member of Peter Hall’s new company – 50 years ago, he had been in THE HOLLOW CROWN and THE DEVILS at the Aldwych Theatre, and had also played Jacques here in Stratford with Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind.

On 3rd July, Alexandra Gilbreath, Henry Goodman and Scott Handy appeared in a devised programme by StanleyWells entitled THESE OUR ACTORS, whilst on 10th July John Heffernan and Penny Downie are taking part in MUSE OF FIRE. The latter is devised by Paul Edmondson and explores the relationship between the Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. (Tickets cost £15,and may be obtained by telephoning or calling at The Shakespeare Bookshop in Henley Street .The Box Office opening hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm,and Sunday 12pm to 4pm).

These evenings provide a special celebration of poetry, and I can’t help wondering whether at either performance there will be any 18 year olds who just happen to be in Stratford on holiday and who just happened to notice these evenings were taking place ? If so, I hope they have or have had as marvellous an evening (and holiday) as I did.

Next time, I’ll write more about that special week in 1964.

Tony Boyd-Williams

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The summer of 1964 saw me back in Stratford and this time for a whole week! I had just finished my schooldays and my ‘A’ level results were on the horizon (in fact, they were due in a few days). Meantime, I was determined to enjoy an absolute feast of theatre and I was not disappointed. On the day I arrived (Saturday), I had tickets for the matinee of RICHARD II and the evening performance of HENRY IV -PART I. As usual, I made my way down to the theatre as soon as possible and purchased programmes. A quick glance at the cast for each play showed that I would soon be seeing some now familiar faces from previous productions -David Warner, Roy Dotrice, Ian Holm, Janet Suzman, Eric Porter, Jeffery Dench, John Normington and Jeffery Dench. The programmes were more detailed than two years previously and they provided much food for thought over lunch – no pun intended!

 I still have the programmes for this historic season and readers may be interested in the following quote from an article about the then RSC: “The Royal Shakespeare Company believe that the Elizabethan theatre and especially Shakespeare offers a dramatic richness unequalled in any other epoch or language …the aim of the Royal Shakespeare Company is to express this richness so that it is immediate to modern audiences, an experience that reverberates with the thoughts and feelings of today “.

 Some retrospective thoughts about the productions I enjoyed that week will follow in future blogs but I cannot resist referring to the weather on that first day of my week in Stratford. It may have been early August but as I made my way from the theatre in search of lunch, the heavens opened and there followed a downpour worthy of the winter months. Ah, but didn’t someone write something about “..the rain it raineth every day “?!! Actually, it WAS typical of some of the days we have experienced during the past week because when we came out of the matinee, the sun was shining brightly and it was becoming quite hot.

I should also at this stage like to relate how I first discovered the Stratford -upon-Avon Poetry Festival. Between performances, I came across this magnificent Tudor Building not far from the theatre and Holy Trinity Church. Correct, my first encounter with Hall’s Croft. The following evening there would be a programme of poems and readings under the title of THE MAN TRAP. It was arranged by Patrick Garland and would be performed by Fenella Fielding and Max Adrian. Now I had nothing booked for the following evening but enquiries within revealed that the tickets had long been sold but ..now this WAS interesting ..if I would care to purchase a ticket and sit in the lounge, the performance would be heard there even if the actors were not seen and coffee would be served in the interval. As you may guess, I purchased a ticket and had a rather special surprise the following evening.

 What was it ? To be continued …

by Tony Boyd-Williams

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Back in 1963, the company altered the format of programmes. Instead of the shilling priced  red coloured play title cover (with Swan logo) which contained the cast list and a brief director’s note, patrons were  given a choice. They could have the now familiar free cast list or purchase a more detailed programme with cast list and potted biographies of the cast, director and designer, plus a longer director’s note (sometimes also a designer’s note with costume sketches), comments on the play or the themes discussed by Shakespeare and photographs of either rehearsals or the production itself.

Such programmes paved the way for the splendid ones we are enjoying in this special Birthday Season with so many fascinating and informative articles. Plus the more detailed bio and photos of the ensembles, not forgetting for posterity  the information about THE COMPANY and what our theatres now offer – including forthcoming productions up to March next year.

Many thanks to our compilers and editors -Michelle and Lucy! As well as the productions themselves, these programmes are wonderful souvenirs of this historic moment in not only RSC history but also British  and World Theatre generally.

The productions of JULIUS CAESAR and THE TEMPEST, which I have previously mentioned, also gave me the opportunity to begin to see the fruits of the work of an ensemble and to become familiar with the work of company members who would appear with the RSC over many seasons to come:

Jeffery Dench ( Ligarius and Flavius), Clifford Rose (Soothsayer), David Warner (Cinna the poet and Trinculo), John Normington (Lucilius and a Cobbler ), Susan Engel (Calphurnia and Juno), Cherry Morris (Portia and Ceres), Janet Suzman (Iris) and Ian Holm (Ariel ). 

Fascinating to think that some of them were making their RSC debut that year!

I was now absolutely determined to return to Stratford for as many of the 1964  Quatercentenary productions as possible! Of course, that year would see productions of Shakespeare all over Britain and former company member Russell Hunter (now with the Bristol Old Vic) gently reminded audiences generally of the pitfalls of being over familiar with the plays. He suggested that in the moments before any production of one of Shakespeare’s plays began, the members of the audience should…”forget you have ever read or seen the play before”.

Without seeming arrogant, I have always followed that advice and have NEVER (yes, NEVER ) been disappointed.

And my memories of 1964?  To be continued!

Tony Boyd-Williams

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I was not able to return to Stratford until 1963,but I kept in touch with the RSC by reading reviews and articles in THE STAGE plus THEATRE WORLD. Two years after my initial thrill of coming to Stratford and the RST for the first time, the thrill was experienced once more when I twice made the theatrical pilgrimage from  Cardiff. But what to see when funds dictate that this sixth former could only manage two visits ?

I HAD planned to see the first part of the now celebrated WARS OF THE ROSES cycle which was simply entitled HENRY VI, but the illness of Peter Hall meant that the production was postponed  and a performance of JULIUS CAESAR was substituted for the performance I had booked for. This CAESAR (perhaps because it was the first professional production I had seen of the play ) is still a vivid memory. Director John Blatchley gave a fast moving and almost at times cinematic interpretation, whilst eclectic costumes suggested a modern political thriller. In a programme note, John Blatchley challenged the audience to rethink that this is a play about noble  Romans by posing the question -“How many actions in the play are noble ? ” If we go back to the text, the answer is very little. This production  was therefore a milestone in my theatrical journey of discovering new interpretations of a play and also helped me to look at the play afresh, especially as it reflected world politics in 1963.

The sparse but effective set was (along with the costumes ) designed by John Bury, then an Associate Designer and the music (most martial and quite stirring )was by someone who became a well known name in the RSC and Stratford  generally -Guy Woolfenden. 

The second production I saw that season was THE TEMPEST, directed by Clifford Williams in collaboration with PETER BROOK. It reminded the audience that Shakespeare used practically all his themes in this “last play” and it was also very funny  (brilliant clowning in the Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano scenes ) and most magical with splendid sets and costumes by the then other Associate designer, Abd’Elkader Farrah. It was quite a coincidence that at the Builders’ night on the 26th November last, I met up with his son and daughter. We had a very enjoyable time recalling this production and their father’s special contribution. Very much a case of the early days of the RSC being recalled in our transformed building.

Other memories of 1963 include long term ensemble actors plus the new programmes which the company introduced that year. Such memories must await the next blog and in case you may be wondering, I have not forgotten those word of advice from former ensemble member Russell Hunter. They WILL also be included very soon!

Tony Boyd-Williams

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Even though the 1932 auditorium had its problems, my first visit to the balcony area will always stay with me. It was the first time I had experienced an open stage and I was fascinated to see that the setting was simply a large pillar almost centre stage with a cyclorama at the back. The programme announced that at this performance there would be an Elizabethan setting of the National Anthem arranged by Raymond Leppard. No sign of musicians on stage, but the Anthem sounded very much in period and played on recorders.

Then the house lights dimmed and when they came up there was Richard, Duke of Gloucester ready to inform us that “Now is the winter of our discontent …”. I could hear loud and clear and the first theatrical magic of Shakespeare at Stratford was beginning to weave its spell.

Looking back, the cast list makes very interesting reading. Before he was cast as Captain Von Trapp, Christopher Plummer gave a quite remarkable performance in the title role, with stellar support from Eric Porter (Buckingham), Colin Blakely (Hastings), Peter McEnery (Clarence), Tony Church (Edward IV), Edith Evans (Queen Margaret ), Elizabeth Sellars (Queen Elizabeth) and Esme Church (Duchess of York).

The splendid mediaeval costumes (plus setting were designed by Jocelyn Herbert , assisted by Sally Jacobs and almost ten years before the latter designed that now iconic set for Peter Brook’s production of THE DREAM. The direction was by William Gaskill from the Royal Court Theatre and music by Marc Wilkinson. All these names were familiar from my weekly reading of THE STAGE, so it was truly wonderful to experience their talents in a live production. One name which was not then familiar to me was that of John Barton who was credited in the programme as Fight Arranger and most effective they were!

One notable moment from William Gaskill was the night before Bosworth. The camps of Richard and Richmond (Brian Murray) were either side of the proscenium arch. As each slept, they were surrounded by hooded and cloaked watch who turned out to be the ghosts of Richard’s victims -quite memorable! Several other names in the cast list are worthy of mention -Ian Richardson (Catesby), Clifford Rose (Brackenbury and the Bishop of Ely) and Russell Hunter (Second Murderer and Blunt) who went on to national fame as Lonely in the TV series CALLAN. Before that, however, he joined the Bristol Old Vic for their Shakespeare Quater centenary season and gave some advice in a programme about the true enjoyment of any production of Shakespeare’s plays. I shall share that with you all in the next blog but in 1961 I had discovered the RSC and was determined to return to Stratford as soon as possible!

by Tony Boyd-Williams

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