Screening the RSC, 2.

14th June 2019

John Wyver writes: Today would have been the 100th birthday of Sam Wanamaker (pictured above as Iago in Stratford in 1959), the American actor and director who conceived the idea and campaigned for many years to build the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. In the second of a series of posts leading up to the publication on 27 June of my book Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History, I have a story – that I am pretty sure has never been told before – about an earlier project to build a replica Globe – in Stratford-upon-Avon! Had this happened, as was explored seriously in the late 1950s, the post-war history of Shakespeare in the British theatre would almost certainly have been intriguingly different.

The story of the proposed Stratford Globe is related in Chapter 1 of my book, ‘Beginners’. This traces the adaptation history of RSC productions from Frank Benson’s film of Richard III, released in 1911, through to an American network television recording of Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Charles Laughton (below) in 1959. Other productions that I consider in detail include the 1939 documentary England’s Shakespeare made as a promotional travelogue by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, which features brief film portraits – a bit like animated Victorian cartes de visite – of prominent Stratford actors in key roles. Like Benson’s Richard III, this fascinating film is available for free on BFIplayer.

Charles Laughton in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1959. Photo: Angus McBean © RSC

The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1955

I also explore the complex dance in the mid-1950s between the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre under Anthony Quayle and BBC Television. There was consideration of whether the BBC might do a live broadcast of one of the 1955 productions, either Macbeth or Titus Andronicus, that featured Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. But it was eventually decided that the second act of The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Quayle as Falstaff, could be broadcast on 2 October 1955. The production was directed by Glen Byam Shaw with gorgeous designs by Motley (below).

There is a precious tele-recording of this broadcast, which begins with a charmingly inept introduction by Alan Dent. His comments reveal how the live showing was intended to boost Quayle’s campaign to divert efforts from a campaign that was gaining momentum to establish, finally, a National Theatre in London. And for the BBC, the trip to Stratford underlined the corporation’s commitment to a national public culture that was just on the cusp of being challenged by the US-influenced commercially-funded ITV. And as I write about the broadcast:

After two confusing scenes, the broadcast achieves an effective comic quality from act 3, scene 2 onwards, with a confident control of farce as Falstaff hides in the laundry basket and as the polished performances of Angela Baddeley (as Mistress Ford) and Joyce Redman (Mistress Page) shine through. The overall sense is of an energetic marital comedy, upmarket perhaps of the Brian Rix slapstick that was beginning to be televised at the time, and authenticated by the audience laughter that is audible throughout.

Two other items of trivia about the broadcast: it was produced for the BBC by Barrie Edgar, father of the playwright David, who of course has authored and adapted several plays for the RSC. And there was no further live broadcast from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until Shakespeare Live! From the RSC sixty-one years later, in 2016.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1955, designed by Motley; photo by Angus McBean © RSC

A replica Globe?

Three years after the broadcast of The Merry Wives of Windsor, in July 1958, Quayle and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre were approached by representatives of Encyclopaedia Britannica who wished to build a replica of the Globe Theatre in Stratford. At the end of the 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannica Films was the world’s largest producer of educational media, and the company wanted to make films ‘about Shakespeare’s theatre…. to bring to life on film the experience of the theatre-goer of Shakespeare’s day.’

They had considered reconstructing the Globe in a film studio but had decided that doing so in Stratford was a better idea, and that they might complement this with an exhibition, an annual festival for school and university drama societies, publications, conferences organised with the Shakespeare Institute, and a commission to T.S. Eliot or Christopher Fry for a new verse drama. As for the theatre itself, it was being planned by the noted theatre designer Richard Southern and the illustrator C. Walter Hodges, and they were being advised by the scholars Allardyce Nicoll and Richard Hosley.

The Council of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre considered the idea and discussed it with the local planning authorities, who suggested that permission was unlikely to be given for a building on the proposed site of Avonbank Gardens, adjacent to the existing theatre. On the advice of Glen Byam Shaw, they then decided that the burden of running a second company, as Britannica wished the Memorial Theatre to do, and the threat to the economics of the existing operation, constituted too great a risk.

Sam Wanamaker, who moved to Britain after being blacklisted in the United States, was in the audience for Glen Byam Shaw’s 1954 Stratford production of Troilus and Cressida. The experience prompted him to sketch on the back of his programme a plan to make shortened television versions of productions from Stratford and the Old Vic, but as with the other suitors who wished to make films and television his approach to the Memorial Theatre was rebuffed. But he was back in Stratford in 1959, playing Iago in Tony Richardson’s production of Othello opposite Paul Robeson. Might he then have heard of – and just perhaps been inspired by – the Encyclopaedia Britannica plan of the previous year?

Over the next fortnight or so, I’ll offer further fragments of the book, which I hope you might consider recommending for purchase by a college or other library.

In Screening the RSC, 1, I introduced the book and outlined the arguments in the Introduction.

Still to come:

Chapter 2: Television Times, 1961-68: consideration of the RSC’s profoundly collaborations with BBC Television, including on a glorious The Cherry Orchard (1962), a vivid As You Like It (1963) and The Wars of the Roses (1965).

Chapter 3: Making Movies, 1964-73: the largely untold story of the RSC’s deeply problematic flirtation through the 1960s with the Hollywood producer Filmways, plus a consideration of three major adaptations directed by Peter Brook: Marat/Sade (1968), Tell Me Lies (1969) and the majestic King Lear (1971).

Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970; photo by Reg Wilson © RSC

I’m thrilled that the Guardian this week featured an edited extract from Chapter 3, ‘Making Movies’, about three screen versions of Peter Brook’s 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including a Japanese recording, all traces of which were thought to have been destroyed.

Chapter 4: Intimate Spaces, 1972-82: exploration of the decade of Trevor Nunn’s television productions, including his great Macbeth (1979) with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, plus the work that culminated in the wonderful adaptation for Channel 4 of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), from which this is an extract:

Chapter 5: Toil and Troubles, 1982-2012: a chronicle of the years of strikingly few mainstream adaptations, whether for television or the cinema, but when archival recordings and more began.

Chapter 6: Now-ness, 2000-18: an engagement with Gregory Doran’s trilogy of BBC films – Macbeth (2001, pictured in the header image with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter), Hamlet (2008) and Julius Caesar (2012) – together with the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, plus a few thoughts about the future.

Header image: Sam Wanamaker as Iago, 1959; photo by Angus McBean © RSC.

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