9 October 1976 | A Distant, Fabled Place

My Vision of Stratfords Past and Present

First published in The Times Saturday Review
9 October 1976

In November 1955, I saw John Gielgud's last Lear in Manchester.  When the mad king fed toasted cheese to an invisible mouse, the woman in front of me giggled and I hit her on the hat.  Unfair really, for she was as bewildered as I by costumes like Michelin tyres and emblematic Japanese scenery which mystified us both from the perilous gods of the Opera House.

These designs had been planned for another stage and could not work as well on tour. (They never do.)  They had been planned for Stratford-upon-Avon. But the niceties of which management presented what play were as irrelevant to my enjoyment as a provincial schoolboy 25 years ago as they probably are to most theatregoers today.

I knew of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford as I knew of the Old Vic in London or indeed, of Trafalgar Square, Cheddar Gorge, Land's End - distant, fabled places.  We had an etching of the Birthplace hanging by the mirror in the hall.  

Bolton School for Boys encouraged drama with the same enthusiasm as it trained us for sport and self sufficiency.  To play Henry V (my best part) or Hamlet (which I never did, but Irving Wardle had done it before my time) was as prestigious as leading the first eleven or being a Queen's Scout. There were annual school camps to the Lake District, the Dales, the Peaks, to the Highlands and to Wales - hearty expeditions for hikers and mountaineers.  The Stratford camp was of another sort.

We were mocked by the school scouts as cissy amateurs.  The school janitor (an ex-Army sergeant) came with us to cook al fresco on a coke-fed stove.  Our bell tents were scattered across a meadow 11/2 miles upstream from Stratford.  After early morning, cold water ablutions and some incomprehensible loosening (when it wasn't tautening) of guy-ropes, we were free each June day to punt up and down the Avon, or to cycle out to Charlecote Park, Shottery and the Cotswolds beyond.  In the evenings we saw the plays.

Frequently, gladly, we queued through the night for half-crown standing places at the back of the stalls.  If I lavished 7s 6d on a comfortable seat just in front, I often nodded off sometime after the interval.  Blame the fresh air, the theatre's poor ventilation or the strength of Flower's ale.  Thus inattentively, I saw some now famous performances.

Of these, high moments are memorable insomuch as they captured the overall interpretation.  Thus, Alan Badel seductively throwing a rose to a girl in the audience after Berowne's soliloquy, all romanticism and narcissism.  Olivier's Macbeth stalking upstage between the two murderers, hands clasped behind him, an efficient businessman plotting his next slaughter on the stock market.  His dangerous fall from the height of the set at the climax of Coriolanus was as flamboyant, defiant and over-reaching as the whole characterization.  Max Adrian's Feste appealed to the audience, cynical, ingratiating, weary, his limp arms outstretched to us, as the spotlight faded on the last note of Twelfth Night.  Gielgud's shimmering blue gown was Renaissance pride incarnate, celebrating Prospero's return to civilization.

But at the time, these seemed no more special than other less acclaimed achievements.  I was ignorant of the stars' status - everyone was great.  As they changed costumes and characters play by play, the actors were staggering in their versatility.  I watched The Taming of the Shrew through opera glasses, wondering at the diligence of the non-speaking extras on the fringe of the stage as they focused on, and reacted to, the central action more attentively than I.

At the final moments of this production, the whole heavy, intricate setting of wood, thatch and stairways slid silently backwards, away from us into the dark and depth of the cavernous stage.  Such elaborate magic was incomparable after our school productions and amateur Shakespeare in Bolton.

But on returning to Stratford through the late 1950s, I grew increasingly and churlishly critical.  When the house cheered Robeson's lumbering elephant of an Othello, I could not share such lack of taste.  I dismissed all of Byam Shaw's Romeo and Juliet because so much of it was inaudible and over-dressed to kill.  Charity has grown with age.  But to a teenager the maturity of the juveniles at Stratford was upsetting.

Romeos, Juliets, Hamlets, Malcolms, Olivias always seemed more like parents, uncles and aunts than youthful heroes and heroines.  

One glorious exception was a performance which still thrills my memory, partly because for the first time I appreciated an actor's technical triumph over the odds of age, freeing an inner spirit. Peggy Ashcroft was old enough to be my mother - she had walked past the ticket queue one morning. On August 4, 1957, she played Imogen twice: I saw both the matinee and that evening's shows. Her Imogen was essential youth, warm, generous, noble, witty and beautiful. Her voice soaring and controlled, the hands floating almost, the back erect - I recognized her again years later when Fonteyn danced Juliet.

"Accessible is none but Milford way", she said, and I fell in love. It was what we have to call, for lack of a more exact definition of an overwhelming effect, Great Acting. There was a rare match of playwright's creation with actor's insight and technique. From the back of the stalls, I had provided the rest - a devoted attention, receptive as photographic paper to the rays of light flooding me from the stage. My own stumblings about the amateur stages of Bolton were blasphemous compared with this divinity at Stratford.

Yet here I am, in the same theatre, playing Romeo - too old for the boy by 15 years? I haven't aspired to Ashcroft's rejuvenation but was relieved by the following exchange with a teenage girl at the stage-door one night this summer. SHE: "Romeo was fantastic." ME: "Didn't you think I was a bit old?" SHE: "How do you mean? Isn't he supposed to be about 18?" ME: "Well, I'm not 18!" SHE (with more charity than I at her age): "No, but it's-a play isn't it?

I had been invited before now to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. Each year there had seemed good reason to refuse. After five years working on tour and in provincial companies (as actor and director) I was convinced by, say, 1970, that I wanted to continue as part of the experimenting and thriving theatre which challenged the main establishment of London and the big subsidized companies. I thought of theatre-people as traditional rogues, peasant slaves and vagabonds, travelling whence their audiences live and work.

In the West End, audiences are an amorphous lot, half of them foreign, all strangers to each other, unresponsive and unexcitable after local theatregoers at Nottingham Playhouse or the touring dates at Newcastle, Leeds and Southampton. Stratford's packed houses, too, were hybrids.

Pernickety aficionados, who had collected every Hamlet since Burbage, sat side by side with uncritical innocents viewing with the detachment of tourists snapping another landmark, for the album back home. See a comedy at Stratford, then the same transferred to the Aldwych, and its regular RSC home audience. In London - the laughs are bigger, more free; the actors are more relaxed, assured.

Daunting, too, was the sheer size of the RSC. After two and a half years with the contained democracy of the Actors' Company, a family almost, the RSC (with its ventures worldwide) seems from the outside to embody as much homely friendliness as the BBC or ICI. Anyway, I had romanticized myself as a maverick and as a wanderer, not a stay-at-home. In November last year the offer was finalized - Romeo, Macbeth and Leontes in The Winter's Tale; start rehearsing in January, to play at Stratford from April Fool's Day through the year. The wanderer had a new range to traverse, three of Shakespeare's more intractable peaks, with Trevor Nunn and John Barton as my guides.

When Nunn and I were studying English at Cambridge, 16 years ago, Barton was a don and the doyen of undergraduate theatre. He directed me as a 150-year-old Justice Shallow in Henry IV and as a coltish Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters (Margaret Drabble was Masha). Soon after, he abandoned Cambridge to help his old friend Peter Hall as a director at Stratford. And in 1960, Trevor Nunn and I made our debut there, in the theatre's riverside gardens.

In the open air, we gallantly challenged the gnats and the jeers of punters, behind us, for the attention of a sparse audience who unable, perhaps, to get in to see Peter O'Toole's Shylock, had reluctantly settled for the Marlowe Society's Doctor Faustus, with McKellen as an epicene, ancient Pope and Nunn as his cheeky, adoring acolyte.  

This year, I'm living in a large flat, owned by the theatre, which overlooks those same gardens where we pranced as confident undergraduates, close by Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried. The Avon is a pretty river. Warwickshire's agriculture has left the countryside unspoilt. The plays are the greatest, the audiences the largest. Stratford is alluring to actors. We are as impressed as the public by the RSC's international reputation and a season with such a classy, classical company is prestigious with future employers. But then, there isn't much work of any sort about - for much of the time three quarters of Equity members are unemployed-and a 12-month stint of steady money can revive confidence and the bank balance. The pay, though, is not spectacular, certainly less than the National Theatre's in London, nor is there a living allowance. No hardship: no luxury, either.

Working away from home, depressions challenge the excitement. Families are reunited only at weekends - rehearsal schedule willing. The telephone is otherwise the link with normality. The rest is work from 10.30 am through to 5.30 pm, with an hour for lunch at the canteen, leaving two hours to shop (when the shops are shut) and to prepare for tile evening's show. By now 1976 seems eternal. One actor has bought a cottage nearby. How will that suit when he's back working in London? Perhaps 1977 will never come!

I need not have worried about Stratford audiences. From the stage they seem remarkably homogeneous. British phlegm and politeness are the envy of International Equity - perhaps the foreign visitors find it infectious. When I played Hamlet in Rome, only for the soliloquies were the houses rapt (discounting the flashbulbs and applause): for the rest of the play it was bellowing actors versus chattering audiences and both lost. In Stratford we have now only the occasional flashbulb during the balcony scene. One season, it is said, a couple who spoke no English shared the same ticket, the wife seeing the first half of the play, her husband the second. Both had done Shakespeare at Stratford as they no doubt went on to do Blenheim, Warwick and Christchurch Meadows.

These tourists seem happy to pay the new top price of 5. The cheaper seats, 300 aloft in the balcony and 100 others scattered around the perimeters of the auditorium are mainly taken by children, so that the audience is divided up by age rather than social class. School parties are bussed across country. A theatre visit is an exciting supplement to GCE studies (Romeo and Juliet is a perpetual "0" level set text). Unlike adults, children are unrestrained by convention and make no allowances. They will laugh, for instance, whenever an actor's high emotion is only partially realized. Private jokes race along the rows, mocking (one can only guess), Romeo's codpiece, Juliet's cleavage, or Capulet's eyebrows, any of them, reminiscent, perhaps, of the English teacher. At one early performance of Romeo, there was trouble at the tricky double suicide.

I had misjudged the triumphant strength of Romeo's last line "Thus, with a kiss, I die" and too graphically tried to convey the Elizabethan pun - of making love - on the final word. My just reward was a short volley of hilarity, echoed on Juliet's similar line three minutes later. But there are authenticated nightmares of other lovers, star-crossed in rep, dying midst a scornful pelter of sweet wrappings, crisp bags and bottle tops-all obligingly on sale in the foyer raising a supplement to a meagre Arts Council grant.

Romeo opens with an anonymous Chorus (this year, John Bown in his own shirt and jeans) asking the audience's attention, indulgence and (rather regrettably) giving away the end of the story. He has the infamous and, therefore, uncuttable, reference to "the two hours traffic of our stage" relic of an age when actors played shortened texts at breakneck speed? We take three-and-a-quarter hours to play nearly all the words at a pace befitting the awkward acoustics of a large theatre. But the device of Chorus is salutary. Constantly full houses underline the point that no play lives until it has an audience. Nor does an actor exist. His discipline, sentimentalized into "the show must go on"; his ego, caricatured as "exhibitionism" or "camp"; his control and technique, underestimated as "he's a born actor", all combine not for his own gratification but for that of the audience.

The pain and labour of rehearsals can be indulgently self-satisfying. One's developing achievement will be remarked by appreciative friends, family, directors, by critics even - But the true judges are those anonymous strangers, 1,500 a night, never encountered afterwards except through the congratulatory letter or on the steps of the Dirty Duck pub along from the stage-door. For them, night after night, the performance must live, uniquely.

At the RSC we are blessedly sheltered from the hit/flop inevitability of the commercial theatre.  And I fancy, should the Dutch Elm Disease which plagues Warwickshire, ever turn its blight on the coach trade, we actors would still be here, fulfilling our contracts. But we are not automata exactly reproducing a set pattern of finalized instructions and fixed decisions. At best each performance is a re-creation, not a repetition, of ideas developed in rehearsal and since amended through the experience of varying audience response.

Any performance is, therefore, a step along the never-ending journey toward definition, clarity, unambiguity of expression. Shakespeare's mind is unfathomable. There is no centre to his maze. And my Romeo (to me) is a multiple of all the 100 separate performances given throughout the year. Romeo (to my audiences) is a multiple of all the other Romeos they have ever seen.

The incentive to persist cannot be just an audience's approval or acclaim. It springs, most of all, from a personal devotion to Shakespeare's words. And that devotion, I now appreciate, is at the heart of the RSC's endeavours.

It was initially impressive in Trevor Nunn's introductory talk to his new company last January in the rehearsal room above Covent Garden. He analysed his own enthusiasm for the relevance of Shakespeare's expansive humanity which outlives all political and social change. The RSC must declare no policy, no classification or attitude, which might try to categorize and thereby limit Shakespeare's works. In rehearsing Romeo and Macbeth with him and The Winter's Tale with John Barton, I have been introduced to their disciplined examination of the poetry, its precision of feeling and its subtlety of device, which, make demands on acting equivalent to those which Leavis, who taught Nunn at Cambridge, urges upon literary criticism. The danger could be that in overstressing an appreciation of Shakespeare as the most brilliant exponent of Elizabethan "antithesis", imagery and puns, etc, the RSC's actors might shrivel into what Peter Hall recently chastized as "talking heads".

And the academic influence of nearby Oxford and the Birmingham University's Shakespeare Institute are ever-present in Stratford. But if the company is not to revert to the pre-Hall days of an over-glamourized, festivalized theatre the risk should be run. If the RSC does not take the most demanding road, who will?

The devotion, however, is not academic alone. Take Cicely Berry. She rushes between Stratford and the Aldwych, helping actors realize their individuality of expression by freeing the technicalities of voice production. To define and explain her simple method she has rather shamefacedly published two textbooks. But in the daily working situation, her personal approach is almost that of a confidante, relaxing the mind and the body, or of a healer soothing tensions, rooting emotions in reality. She prepares the actor to be a tuned instrument, which may clearly, resonantly, play Shakespeare's subtlest and grandest notes.

For me, she has lengthened the range of my voice and encouraged a new confidence. She and Nunn share the same language of approach. She is at the heart of the company's devotion. So too, those "associate actors" who return again and again to the plays which define them most as interpretative artists.

An organization devoted to Shakespeare cannot concentrate only on his words and the sort of acting they demand. It will also constantly re-examine the sort of staging which can most urgently grab the audience's attention of eye and ear. The experimenting that has developed in Stratford's tin hut via Michel St Denis, Theatregoround and most potently, Buzz Goodbody, is now acclaimed in the newly named The Other Place. It contains a repertoire of small-cast modern plays interspersed with Shakespeare.

The audience of 150 at 1 a time sit around the acting area, on top of the action. There, the actors indulge none of the rhetoric of gesture or design which can be appropriate to their work in the main theatre. Shakespeare at The Other Place is chamber music; not grand opera. With production costs budgeted at 250, this is where we are playing Macbeth. No wigs, no make-up, no costume changes, no scenery, fourteen actors sharing all the parts and a freedom to speak the verse rapidly at conversational level, to whisper even. We charge through Shakespeare's shortest play in just over two hours without an interval.

Rehearsals, too, were concentrated. Five weeks, while all the cast were busy with their other matinee and evening shows. But Trevor Nunn was reexamining his own production of less than two years ago. Much time was saved. It is up to others to judge whether we have improved on his previous achievement. But I found no limits to my own contribution. This sort of genuine revival (or revitalization) of past successes, is a challenge to the assumptions of the commercial long-run or the sort of museum theatre which confuses longevity with immortality. 

The experiences of the infant Other Place, have affected the new stage and decoration of the parent theatre itself. This year a few of the audience can sit behind that stage too. Within the near-intractable limits of a 1920s proscenium house, a triumph of intimacy now links the gallery with the stage. Theatre houses (like our own homes) should not be eternal in structure. We heed forever to adapt, reorganize and redecorate them. No wonder this company began to find its identity at the same time as it stopped calling itself "Memorial".

I'm not sentimental about theatres and have never see their ghosts. But to work at Stratford is rather like squatting in Buckingham Palace. I keep expecting the rightful occupants to return from some long-distance tour — the Oliviers, the Dames, the glorious protean troupers of my childhood. But no, the girls ask for my autograph now - if, that is, Robin Ellis, in his Poldark whiskers, isn't about. Vivien Leigh is remembered by a stunted willow in the theatre gardens. In the Dirty Duck, among the hundred signed photographs by the bar, it is shocking to see Paul Robeson, Patrick Wymark and Max Adrian, miniature headstones side by side, glossy, youthful, smiling and dead.

Backstage, on a side wall three feet higher than one could reach, there was in April another smaller, gallery of similar mementoes, sepia and dusty, glass and frames broken by some spear passing along from stage to scenery dock.  I clambered up and stole Alec Clunes's photo. In 1957 I had begged his autograph when he was playing Caliban. He shrugged off my enthusiasm for his performance with an oath against the monstrous sweaty rubber suit Peter Brook had designed for him. In 1976, the auditorium is air conditioned for the first time and despite its spotlights was a cool refuge from the July-baked canteen.

I had spotted Clunes at a company cricket match. The men batted left-handed and the actresses bowled underarm. Dame Peggy, my beloved Imogen, was caught three times but refused to be out. Byam Shaw (the other captain) fielded imperturbably in the slips, in a deck chair. This year, a less larky team from the company slaughtered local Sunday sides. Sir Frank Benson installed the sporting tradition when he ran his annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford across the turn of the century. Reputedly he was as likely to cast his actors for their cricketing as for their histrionic prowess. “Wanted one stalwart to assay Ferdinand, Orsino and open the batting".

Before Benson and his gentlemen players, there was David Garrick who opened the first Shakespeare celebrations in 1764 with odes, songs and dances, in His praise, though precious little of the plays themselves. Before him, Stratford was its market, centre of the Vale of Evesham farmlands, its one bridge over the Avon linking with London and the south. Across this bridge returned Shakespeare about 1610 to buy New Place for his family and his retirement. The house is now collapsed into a garden of ruins. There The Winter's Tale must have been written and a 100 yards down Chapel Street we now perform it. That association means little to me.

But before Shakespeare left Stratford to become a man of the theatre in London, players had strolled into his home town for one-night stands during the plague months when public assemblies were banned in the capital. Edward Alleyn (the first Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus) toured here as a young actor. Richard Tarleton played the fool here. Before he wrote a line Shakespeare could have seen the most celebrated entertainers of his age. For that alone, there should always be actors in Stratford.

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