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.