Thursday, 17 February 2011

Recalling Shakespeare

On Monday I went to see a dear friend who is in the process of moving house.  It's a difficult situation because she has lived in the same rather isolated cottage for the past sixty-three years and she is a hoarder.  As you might imagine, given the length of time she's been in her home, she is having to move because of health problems and she is going into much smaller accommodation.  It isn't easy for her, either emotionally or physically.  

I went over on Monday specifically because she wanted me to  have her collection of programmes from the theatre visits she'd made to Stratford over the years to use with the Shakespeare groups I teach.  While I'd seen many of the same productions myself, I don't have the space to be a hoarder and so I haven't kept any but the more recent programmes myself.  I've often regretted this, but a small house is a small house and that's all there is to it.

As you might imagine, I've had the most wonderful time over the past few days going through these programmes and recalling some of the marvellous productions I've had the privilege of seeing since I first started going to Stratford in the early 1960s. They include, for example, the programme for the very first professional Shakespeare I saw, Peter Hall's 1962 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Judi Dench as Titania, Diana Rigg as Helena and, I notice, the novelist, Margaret Drabble, tucked away among the fairies.  I knew she had wanted to be an actress, but I hadn't realised I'd been there to see her early attempts.

It is, though, the even earlier programmes that really make you catch your breath and turn green with envy. Here, for example, is the 1959 production of Othello with Sam Wanamaker as Iago and Paul Robeson as The Moor.  What wouldn't I have given to see that.  Or the Cymbeline from two years earlier with Peggy Ashcroft as Imogen and, hidden deep among the Lords, Ladies, Servants and Guards, an as yet unheard of, Eileen Atkins.  And what about a production of Dr Faustus just after the war, in 1947, with Robert Harris as the eponymous scholar and Paul Scofield as the evil Mephistophilis? 

The piece de resistance, however, has to be the 1951 programme for Henry IV Pt I.  The cast list reads like a theatrical who's who of the period; Harry Andrews as King Henry, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, Michael Redgrave as Hotspur, Hugh Griffiths as Owen Glendower and, of course, Richard Burton as Prince Hal.  I am not old enough to remember Burton as anything other than a film actor.  How I wish I could have seen that production.  The Henry IVs are among my favourite plays anyway, but with a cast like that.......

I'm so sorry for my friend that she has had to give away programmes that are reminders of so many happy memories, but I know she is pleased that they are going to be put to good use and when I talk to her about the memories they have recalled for me as well, we are at least going to have food for hours and hours of theatrical discussion.


  1. How wise your friend was to store away programmes with the ability to stir so many happy memories. I'm enthused just reading about the plays and casts.

    I kept no programmes from my first visit to Stratford in the late 1970s, but I remember Judi Dench as Imogen in Cymbeline so well, and Jonathan Price in the twin roles of Sly and Petruchio in the Taming of the Shrew left a lasting impression. He began from a seat in the audience, as if he was a drunk who was going to disrupt the performance.

    There are few things more magical than great theatre.

  2. Fleur, I'm working on 'The Taming of the Shrew' at the moment for my Shakespeare Groups and you can't move for references to the Bogdanov/Pryce production. I was in the audience for the first night when people actually went out and asked the management to call the police to deal with the disturbance! It received some very interesting reviews. I think it was Michael Billington who said that it was time that the theatre stopped producing such a disgusting play (I'm paraphrasing wildly but that was the gist). Reading through the critical discussion so much time has been spent trying to defend Shakespeare from accusations of misogyny, that very little has been written about any of the other issues raised by the play. Whatever else that production did it made no attempt to defend Shakespeare whatsoever.

    If you ever find yourself in the Stratford area again, do let me know. I'll introduce you to all my favourite tea rooms!

  3. How lovely that you can revisit these memories and your friend knows they are in safe hands. I work in a theatre and people sometimes bring in old programs (its an old theatre) that were otherwise due to be thrown away in a clearout and we keep them archived. They are lovely to look through and so decorative. It would be a shame if they were lost.

  4. Richard Burton as Prince Hal? That would have been something to see! It is unfortunate about your friend having to move, but it is nice that she can pass on some of her possessions to someone who can appreciate them.

  5. My library has a video of Midsummer Nights Dream with Judi Dench and Diana Riggs--I watched it a few summers back--I wonder if Margaret Drabble was in it too? That must be a really wonderful collection--and very lucky to have seen the actual productions!

  6. Leah, one of the things I did notice about these was just how much more informative they have become over the years, with information about the production and current critical thought. The early ones were really nothing more than cast lists. Do you find the same? Oh and a plethora of adverts of course.

    Stefanie, I am still green with envy just at the thought. Imagine running into that lot down at The Dirty Duck (theatre local) after the show!

    Danielle, I think that will be the 1968 film, which was definitely based on the 1962 production and filmed in the grounds of a local stately house, Compton Verney. They brought most of the major cast members back together but probably didn't try very hard with the minor roles and by that time I know Drabble was concentrating on writing because I heard her speak about her early novels that September.

  7. How wonderful that you could relive all those memories! What a great list of productions you have seen. It sounds very hard for your friend, though; I hope she does okay with the move.

  8. Dorothy, I'm actually quite worried about her because she has been so active and now she has an illness that is slowly taking away the movement in both her hands and her feet. I've been wondering about taking some of our Shakespeare Group meetings (which we hold in each others houses) out to her so that she can still join in, but until I see what space she will have in her new home, I don't know if that will be feasible. We'll just have to wait and see.