Archive for the ‘Retrospective’ Category

As we celebrate this special 50th anniversary year, it is significant that the opening production at the now RST on 4th April 1961 was MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING directed by Michael Langham who has just died at the age of 91.

Michael had been a director the previous year when Peter Hall decided that his first season as Artistic Director would include a number of the Comedies and his play was to be THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Dorothy Tutin played Portia and the young Peter O’Toole played Shylock (prior to becoming better known as Lawrence of Arabia).

It was another comedy which Michael Langham was invited to direct the following season – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -an important play in the history of theatre at Stratford as it was the first to open the 1879 theatre. Then Beatrice and Benedick were played by Helen Faucit and Barry Sullivan. Fifty years ago, the roles were taken by Geraldine McEwan and a Canadian actor making his debut at Stratford – Christopher Plummer.

Plummer went on to play Richard III that season and subsequently followed O’Toole onto the wide screen, becoming known worldwide for his performance as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. His first big break had been in his native Canada in 1956 when Michael Langham (at the invitation of Tyrone Guthrie) was Artistic Director for the Stratford Ontario Festival.

During his opening season, Langham demonstrated his approach to Shakespeare’s text by treating it as “living thought” and he cast the young Christopher Plummer in Henry V. Years later, Plummer said he owed his career to this visiting Englishman who was at the helm in Ontario from 1956 to 1967. What is further significant is that not only was Michael Langham invited by Peter Hall to direct during the early work of the RSC, but that during his time in Canada he introduced a thrust stage at Stratford Ontario.

As we now celebrate our new thrust stage at Stratford -upon -Avon, surely Michael Langham’s talents will also be remembered as we recall our Ghosts in the Wall and proudly include those actors /directors/benefactors of the past who have made possible our present and future in this home town of Shakespeare .

 Tony Boyd-Williams

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When Paul Freeman as Claudius spoke these words in Matthew Warchus’ production of HAMLET during the opening performances in 1997, he was looking at an alternative Gertrude to the one originally cast.

 Although I understand Diana Quick gave a very fine performance during the early part of the run, it was in fact Susannah York who should have taken the role. The news this weekend of Susannah’s death reminded me of this temporary indisposition caused as a result of a fall from the stage during rehearsals and how she pluckily made every attempt to return to the production as soon as possible, using a stick for some performances when she did eventually play Hamlet’s hapless mother. It was a special performance from an actress long admired for her work in theatre and cinema.

In fact, Susannah was able to make jokes about her fall and the latter certainly did not prevent her from appearing (even with her leg in plaster ) at the Friends’ Birthday celebration event to provide some most enjoyable readings alongside Joanna McCallum. Earlier that season, they had given us a splendid Alice Ford and Meg Page as they sought playful revenge on Leslie Phillips’ delightfully roguish Falstaff in Ian Judge’s lively and enjoyable production of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.

Perhaps some lines towards the end of that play are appropriate as we recall Susannah York’s talents and warm personality (always so charming when you met her outside the RST),not forgetting her special and individual contributions to the 1996/7 season:

“..let us everyone go home,

And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire …”

Tony Boyd-Williams

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The above is indeed true of former RSC actor Pete Postlethwaite who has just died at the age of 64. I first saw him on stage in 1979 at the Buxton Festival when he played Sergeant Kite (a rich character performance) in the Bristol Old Vic’s production of THE RECRUITING OFFICER which was directed by Adrian Noble. Four years later, Adrian made his debut at the RSC with his direction of KING LEAR when the title role was taken by Michael Gambon, Antony Sher played the Fool and Pete Posthethwaite was a bluff and sadistic Cornwall.

In the same season he was a loyal and vengeful Macduff, with a return to comedy  showing superb clowning as Grumio in Barry Kyle’s Production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. I next saw him in the 1986 season as a notable Bottom when his fellow mechanicals included David Haig and Sean Bean.

Another splendid performance in a Shakespearian role has been captured for all time with his superb Friar Laurence (both pastoral and moving) in Baz Lurhmann’s film ROMEO AND JULIET. In this special year when we celebrate 50 years since the granting of the Royal Charter to our company, we remember players like Pete Postlethwaite whose performances are  both  vivid memories and worthy to be recalled as we think of the theatrical ghosts of Stratford past. For him and other former RSC members who have strutted their hours upon the stage, the following words seem most fitting at this time :

“Fear no more the heat o’the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy wordly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages “.

by Tony Boyd-Williams

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I could not but help think of these words this morning as I walked through crisp snow along the path that now leads from Holy Trinity Church to the Theatres. Although the recent heavy fall of snow has been inconvenient for colleagues trying to get into work at the RSC or patrons trying to get to either performances of MATILDA or Theatre Tours, the severe weather certainly does reflect the winters that William Shakespeare must have known when visiting or staying with family at Wilmcote.

What further splendid images he conjures up at the end of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST!

“And milk comes frozen home in pail”

“When birds sit brooding in the snow”

Mind you, he also talks of “When blood is nipped and ways be foul”, as a reminder that a cold winter can certainly have an uncomfortable side. I hope I do not appear as an incurable romantic, but when I gazed at the Christmas card scene between Church and Theatres, I could not but help  thinking of other splendid words used by Shakespeare to describe this special time of the year:

” Some say that ever gainst that season comes

 Wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated.

 The bird of dawning singeth all night long… 

The nights are wholesome ..so hallowed

 And so gracious is the time “.

I hope all who read this (wherever you spend Christmas ) have a truly merry one and a very happy New Year. As we all prepare to join in the RSC’s 50th birthday celebrations, we know we have so much to look forward to, and to reflect on this my next blog will have a Janus like approach. To be continued…

Season’s greetings to all!

Tony Boyd-Williams

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Mind you, I could have called this blog When in Rome or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way FROM the Forum. You see, we had just visited the latter and had all sorts of thoughts as to where Mark Anthony might have delivered his rabble rousing speech and what a great scene Shakespeare had written. Then we saw it, his name! No, it wasn’t the Via Shakespeare or anything like that. Just across the way from the Colosseum is a Tourist Information Centre and in the window was a poster advertising the Globe Theatre and a performance that evening of LA BISBETICA DOMATA by William Shakespeare.

LA BISBETICA …? Now our Italian was progressing by this stage of our holiday, but which of Shakespeare’s plays …? Aha! Someone had clearly been influenced by RSC Marketing, because inside the Centre were handouts and  on the reverse of these were the names PETRUCCIO and CATERINA. Simple – THE TAMING OF THE SHREW! This we just had to see.

Rome’s version of the Globe is in the beautiful park of Villa Borghese and this was within easy walking distance from our hotel. Tickets were duly purchased and that evening we found ourselves in a fascinating replica of Sam Wanamaker’s vision. It may not have the catering or retail facilities of the London Globe but there was almost a full house-including groundlings and a buzz of eager anticipation with the performance due to commence at 9.15pm.

The Artistic Director of Rome’s Globe is Gigi Proietti, a well known Italian comic actor. Although he had not directed this production, it was definitely a case of comedy tonight with a hilarious and rumbustious version in the style of Commedia dell’ Arte. In fact it was very much like Connal Morrison’s recent excellent RSC production, except that most of the music was taken from well known Italian Opera.

And yes, it was played in Italian and no, we did not understand every word. However, knowledge of the text on our part plus energetic and brilliantly comic performances from the entire cast made this an evening to remember. Petruchio’s servants rushing around the stage to the William Tell Overture was a real highlight as was the frenetic dance at the end when it really was a case of who was taming. who with a triumphant Katerina lassoing a surprised Petruchio!

A well deserved ovation at the end and then out into the park with the stars of midnight  overhead Yes, the hour of midnight had indeed struck twelve but this marvellous show directed by visionary director Marco Carniti was not a moment too long. A glance at the website www.globetheatreroma.com/english, , shows that this production has been revived this season  – not surprising!

And to what did we owe this special theatrical experience? Marketing and of course, Shakespeare! So, when you are next in Rome during the Summer ….

 Tony Boyd-Williams

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During a recent holiday to visit our youngest son and family in Switzerland, we stopped off in Paris for a couple of nights and found an excellent hotel just around the corner from the Comedie-Francaise. Alas, the theatre was closed in July but it was interesting to note that during the 2010/2011season, the company are presenting LES JOYEUSES COMMERES DE WINDSOR . A day or so later, a train journey took us alongside Lake Geneva and to Lausanne. Aha! THE ROUGH GUIDE TO SWITZERLAND told us that the celebrated Shakespearian actor, John Philip Kemble (especially famous in his day and age as Hamlet and Macbeth) was buried in that town in 1823.

Two references to Shakespeare across the channel within three days! Before the week was out, we were just entering Marylebone Station en route for Stratford. What was the first major poster that caught the eye? A large version of the RSC brochure cover FALL IN LOVE WITH SHAKESPEARE THIS SUMMER IN STRATFORD -UPON -AVON, complete with the now iconic photo of Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale as Romeo and Juliet.

Three holiday references to our William within a week ! That reminds me. Sometime, I must tell you about the version of the Globe Theatre in Rome….HE really is everywhere, but then he did pen those words “All the WORLD’S a stage”.

Tony Boyd-Williams

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The evening of 31st July was fine and the sun shone through the windows of St Helen’s Church. We enjoyed cakes, ale and wine in the grounds. However, the real purpose for our gathering  in Clifford Chambers on this occasion was to hear about this “other Tudor poet ” Michael Drayton.  A most enjoyable  and witty talk (illustrated with readings) was given by Roger Pringle and doubtless Roger has inspired some of us to make another literary pilgrimage but this time to Westminster Abbey to see the grave of this contemporary of Shakespeare.

It will also be good to read some of Drayton’s work, whether it be his epic poem based on the Wars of the Roses -The Baron’s Wars -or his equally epic work about England -Poly  Olbion  (fascinating title !). His sonnets will also repay careful study, especially the one containing these quite philosophical words to his true love, Anne (coincidence?) -“Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part”.

I note that the Complete Works of Michael Drayton are available in paperback, so maybe they will be put on my “what would you like for Christmas? ” list  (as well as RSC gift vouchers !).

During his talk, Roger mentioned the popular rumour that Drayton MAY have been involved in that celebrated Pub crawl with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. We were also reminded that at this moment in history, Clifford Chambers was in the County of Gloucestershire. That set me thinking. In Henry IV -Part 2, Shakespeare transports us to Gloucestershire when Falstaff visits Justice Shallow in order to collect recruits, and scrounge hospitality. In view of the proximity of Clifford to Stratford, Shakespeare may well have visited and if so, was THIS the Gloucestershire which inspired him?

Interesting. Maybe the celebrated pub crawl and possible inspiration for a scene from The Histories are in themselves suggestions for new work. One thing is certain, any new play based on such material would be splendidly promoted by the  RSC Marketing Dept.

Excuse me, while I finish here and sharpen my quill …

Tony Boyd-Williams

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Recent family business took my wife and myself down to Kent. Between appointments, a moment or two of relaxation gave me the opportunity to peruse a second hand book on the area which  mentions that in 1609, Shakespeare and the King’s Players visited Dover. It is suggested that a raging storm during their stay might have provided an idea for THE TEMPEST. I wonder? 

We were staying in the Cinque Port of Hythe, and local records suggest that after Shakespeare and Co performed in the town they were entertained by the local corporation to wine and sugar cakes. Ah well, I suppose it made a change from cakes and ale.

A walk through the town led us down THEATRE  STREET. No trace of any performance space today, but does the name indicate that Shakespeare performed here? Well he did write something about all the world being a stage, so why not in this part of Hythe either before or after that visit  to Dover? To be here or not to be here, now that really is the question!

by Tony Boyd-Williams

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In the summer of 1968,the RSC began a series of “new work “productions at the Aldwych Theatre to mark the occasion of the USA Presidential elections that autumn. The first of the new plays was INDIANS by Arthur Kopit and I was fortunate to obtain a ticket for the First Night -no previews in those days. I still have vivid memories of the production which was based on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and remember the telling monologue from the actor playing the captured Geronimo -my first experience of Geoffrey Hutchings as a member of the RSC.

Earlier that year, the company had presented two new productions in Stratford and then transferred them to London after a short run by the Avon. The plays were JULIUS CAESAR (directed by John Barton) and THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (the first RSC production from Terry Hands).Geoffrey appeared in both and they ran into the following year. He showed  his remarkable versatility with the doubling of Cicero/Octavius Caesar and the comic servant Simple, the latter being given a walk out of Mack Sennett which brought the house down. Geoffrey’s flair for comedy continued with a splendid cameo as Dr Serringe in the revival of THE RELAPSE which joined the Aldwych repertoire in the spring of 1969.

His flair for playing politicians on the rising tide of fame continued back in Stratford later that year when he played Cromwell in the RSC’s first production of HENRY VIII, and my wife and I also recall his double faced tribune, Sicinius Veletus twenty years later in a production of CORIOLANUS directed by John Barton and Terry Hands. 

Geoffrey had special gifts for comedy/comic voices and we recall  with additional pleasure, his Autolycus (with Gilbert and Sullivan type patter songs) in Ronald Eyre’s 1981 production of THE WINTER’S TALE as well as his Captain Andy Hawks in the RSC/Opera North production of SHOWBOAT.

Splendid theatrical memories indeed!

Tony Boyd-Williams

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Another RSC actor from the early days of the company has died the Scottish actor Tom Fleming. Tom was the first to play Jesus on the BBC in a series which was shown in about 1958 during the slot then known as Children’s Television. He made such an impact that over fifty years later, I can still recall his charismatic performance and rich voice.

I was therefore naturally interested when I read in an edition of the then THEATRE WORLD that he would be joining the RSC for the company’s third Stratford season in 1962.Although I did not manage to get to Stratford that year, the magazine was a way of reading the critical acclaim which greeted his performances as Duke Vincentio, the Porter, Cymbeline and Kent. The latter performance was also seen in London and Paris.

1963 was a year when I determined to get to Stratford from Cardiff, and I had the pleasure of seeing Tom Fleming as both Brutus and Prospero – performances that remain in the memory, as do those of some of his then colleagues such as Roy Dotrice, Ian Holm, Janet Suzman, Cherry Morris and David Warner (the latter three making their Stratford debuts).

Towards the end of that season, Tom Fleming also became one of the initial ensemble for The Wars of the Roses when he played Buckingham. I was not able to see that performance, but again THEATRE WORLD provided a detailed  review of the production. I  seem  to recall something like “Tom Fleming’s wily Buckingham rides the political storms like an experienced MC at the palace “.

He did not return to the company, but continued his acting career in his native Scotland and later became especially well known as the BBC commentator for Royal/State occasions.

It is good that there is a permanent memory of all the above performances in photographs which are lavishly included in ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY 1960-1963, edited in 1964 by John Goodwin to mark the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth.

 Tony Boyd-Williams

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