Imagine seasons at the Old Vic with movie stars Richard Burton and Claire Bloom topping the billing. Most theatre-lovers now would guess they would be productions to kill to see. Well, in the mid-1950s, they happened, and Burton and Bloom led a cast of actors who were individually names of renown.
Robert has so many great stories about his career, which started in the theatre with the Old Vic company and later with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. I was fascinated to hear about them, and it led to Robert finally putting his recollections down in words, though when we were in the very early stages of talking about his memoirs, he would often tell me that the productions he was involved with at the time (for details you’ll have to read the book) didn’t achieve the level of artistic merit that might be expected given the stellar names attached to the ensemble.
Was this just modesty, I wondered? Robert insisted that contemporary reviews had sometimes been supportive, but largely indifferent. Could this be true? To see if we could find evidence to support the memories, I headed to Blythe House’s Theatre and Performance Collection to have a rummage around in their archives.
This in itself was very exciting. They are attached to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and based in a charming part of London. Walking through the quadrangle and taking a seat in a silent library with several large, dusty boxes of collected articles on the table, I was reminded of my undergraduate days. In fact, I don’t think up until that point I’d conducted any research on that scale ever since.
We are very grateful to the Vic for its resolve to go through the Folio; but we shall be less grateful if there is a resolve to help the dramatist by botching his effects. Still, no more grumbles… It is not altogether well; but it might have been much worse…
Blimey, Sketch didn’t pull its punches talking about the Old Vic’s All’s Well That Ends Well, did it? And so it went on. As I turned page after page, and absorbed newspaper clipping after theatre review, I discovered a sniff to rave ratio vastly in the former’s favour. Robert’s memories of the productions he was involved with six decades earlier bore out. Though, of course, there were two very special Shakespeare historical plays at the Old Vic with a particular director that were, as Robert recalled and the crits agreed, really worth the entrance fee…
The lesson for me was that it’s easy to imagine a golden age of theatre, but to try to pin down such an imagined epoch is pointless: it will always elude. Here was a cast that included the great Michael Hordern, or Virginia McKenna, or Robert Hardy… and the critics and general public may well have left underwhelmed. Even less well-known names leap out and demanded attention, such as Welsh Shakespearean actor William Squire. Not a household name, perhaps, but for those (like me) who, four decades on still watch and rate the early 1970s TV drama Callan, it’s a name that will resonate.
From the leads to the spear carriers, the productions were saturated with players who would impress audiences of all media and leave their mark. It still seems to me, as someone who wasn’t there, astonishing that the legendary names in the casts were not sufficient, on their own, to secure an artistic success. But then theatre relies on so much more than the public-facing actors for the magic to happen. Directors, producers, and everybody else have to work well together. Sometimes though, our imaginations recreate productions based on false expectations. This we must resist: all theatre has to be judged on its merits, after a personal experience. Since it’s so transient, and each production different every time, a critique will always be elusive and never definitive. That’s the charm?
Theatre and book critic for Entertainment Focus, freelance writer and one third of the Doctor Who podcast The Complete Menagerie (Almost).