The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0237  Friday, 12 June 2010

From:         Matthew Henerson <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:         June 10, 2010 10:07:11 PM EDT
Subject: 21.0235 Sir John Gielgud
Comment:      Re: SHK 21.0235 Sir John Gielgud

Well if we're telling that kind of war story...

When I was in college, I spent part of a summer at the British American Drama Academy in what I think was an experimental program in European theatre. We took contemporary and classical scene study classes, and I can remember master classes with Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Janet Suzman, and Jonathan Miller, but our primary focus was on Brecht and Chekhov, and we took writer specific classes--in translation--from Joachim Tenschert of the Berliner Ensemble and Oleg Tabakov of the Moscow Arts Theatre. I think it was not a successful experiment for BADA; the language barrier was a real difficulty. And I remember, as one of our final projects, performing excerpts from a cheery little drawing room comedy by Brecht entitled Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. (For those who don't know it, it consists of 24 individual scenes--some very powerful; others less so--in which no single character appears twice, and all of which document the degeneration of day-to-day-existence under the Nazis. I actually performed the damn thing in its entirety a few years later. I'm amazed I made it out of my 20's without opening a vein.)

But to return to the topic: brushes with British theatrical royalty. Our other final project consisted of a series of contemporary scenes. Given that my class included both Alan Cox and Nick Warring--Dorothy Tutin's son--I'm ashamed to say that I can recall only my own indifferent performance in the Richard/Judith scene from Hay Fever--I've gone on to do plenty of Shakespeare and a good deal of Brecht, but nothing at all by Noel Coward--and another young British actor who did a scene from the Christopher Hampton play called The Philanthropist. I'm ashamed to say I don't remember his name, although the last I'd heard he was playing small stuff for the RSC back in the early 90's. Anyhow he was marvellous in the Hampton scene, but during the middle of his performance, I noticed a small, somewhat podgy man wrapped in a black overcoat watching in the back. He had a scarf around his neck and a trilby hat worn low over his eyes. As the scene finished, he made eye contact with my classmate, raised two thumbs in the air, turned and walked out of the room. I asked an instructor sitting next to me, and discovered that it had been Alec Guinness. I'm afraid I ran after him for an autograph. When I caught up to him, all I could find for him to sign was a notepad I'd bought a few years before in Stratford, Ontario. It had a line drawing of Malvolio on its pages. Looking for something to say, I recalled that Guinness had played Malvolio on television. I had never seen the production, but that didn't stop me from blurting out how much I had enjoyed him in the role. (I figured the lie would be more agreeable than praise for his work in Star Wars.) He didn't seem much pleased by the compliment, however. "Did you?" he muttered as he signed my notepad, "I hated that production." And he stumped off.

All this doesn't redound much to my credit, but I do still have the autograph.

Matt Henerson

p.s. Malvolio was one of only three roles--Macbeth and Shylock are the others--played in one form or another by Donald Wolfit, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, and Alec Guinness. It's a stretch: Richardson played the role in the provinces and Redgrave did it in drama school, but there it is. The list might have included Paul Scofield, who recorded Malvolio for Caedemon, but I think he missed out on Shylock entirely.

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