Shakespeare at the Old Vic from the end of WW1 through the 1920s
There was little Shakespeare in the highly-commercialised West End in the 1920s (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 211). Most productions of Shakespeare were at the Old Vic and the seasons there, due to Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) 'that homely, dumpy, bespectacled figure with her cockney accent, her deep sense of religion and her rough, humorous tongue' (Marshall, 1947, 125). She succeeded at providing, in the Old Vic, opera and Shakespeare for the masses from 1914, and one of her aims was to stage all the Shakespeare canon. The Old Vic became a 'kind of National Theatre' and 'an institution second to none in the story of British drama' (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 210).
The Old Vic style of producing Shakespeare was, it is argued in this study, one of the main influences on B.B.C. Shakespeare and other broadcast classics, through its actors and its dominance. The actors relevant to B.B.C. production those established in the profession included: Ernest Milton (who led the company), Andrew Leigh, Matheson Lang, D. Hay Petrie, Robert Atkins, Russell Thorndike, J. Fisher White, Huton Britton and Ion Swinley. The Old Vic style of delivering verse, its rapid turnover of production and its simplicity of décor, which placed such emphasis on the actor, are all key factors. Of course we cannot now compare Old Vic Shakespeares with what was broadcast, but for example in 1922, the only other Shakespeare season run was at the Savoy, and the only actor who made it from there to the microphone was Alice de Grey. It is possible, of course, that R.E. Jeffrey directed his Shakespeares in a style counter to the Old Vic tradition.
Baylis demanded 'clear, vigorous speech, and productions which concentrated less upon subtle effects than upon making the play plainly understandable' (127). The West End audiences found their way to Waterloo Road, across the river. Among the directors in 1919-20 were Russell Thorndike and Ernest Milton.
Robert Atkins took charge from 1920, concentrating on 'speed and simplicity', with scenery cut down to a minimum (129). He was able to teach his actors 'how to speak verse rapidly and clearly without either gabbling the lines or obscuring the rhythm', though he was greatly hampered by the lack of rehearsal time, and the Old Vic was not able to run a production longer than a fortnight (129-30). There was 'no time for subtleties' (130), the productions were 'boldly outlined' and 'always thoroughly understandable' (130). He was an 'experienced and sound actor' himself, who gloried in the Elizabethan tradition' (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 210). He did every play in the First Folio, except 'Cymbeline'. He had learned directly from William Poel (Findlater, 1975, 161). The famous historian J.C. Trewin summarised that Atkins:
did more for Shakespeare in the theatre than anybody of his generation had done.
(Trewin, 1964, 87)
Robert Atkins' company was led by Ernest Milton 'whose genius often inspired the rest of the company to performances which were more than merely capable' (130). Milton played in two of the 1923 Shakespeares: as Romeo in 'Romeo and Juliet' (5 July 1923 London 8.0-10.0), and as Oberon in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (25 July 1923 London 8-10). He was Lysander in the 1925 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (23 June 1925 London all stations except 5XX relayed from London 8-9.50), produced by R.E. Jeffrey, and Caliph in the large-scale 'Hassan' (James Elroy Flecker) of 8 November 1925 London 2.30-5.30, also directed by R.E. Jeffrey.
A review in 'The Times' of 15 February 1928 praised his Mercutio in 'Romeo and Juliet'at the Old Vic 'admirably fiery and ironical, but not always clearly audible' (12). (Another wireless credit was in Cecil Lewis's 'Montezuma' (28 December 1928 London 9.35) and later as Radius in 'R.U.R.' (arranged and produced by Cecil Lewis - 22 September 1930 National 8-9.40).)
Hay Petrie made 'a big success in the small part of the Porter' in the Old Vic 'HenryVIII' (Shakespeare) in 1924 (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 211). (MacQueen-Pope mistakenly gives the date as 1923 the reference is Wearing 24.31.) Petrie was 'destined to become one of the best Shakespearean clowns of his time and he learnt much at the Old Vic' (ib.). He played, for example, Puck in the B.B.C. ''A Midsummer Night's Dream' on 23 June 1925 (London all stations except 5XX 8-9.50), directed by R.E. Jeffrey (with Ernest Milton as Lysander).
Andrew Leigh took over as director in 1925, with Baliol Holloway (see below) as his leading man, giving 'orthodox, workmanlike productions in the Bensonian tradition', establishing Edith Evans as a leading English actress. She has two wireless credits in this period: as Beatrice in 'Much Ado About Nothing', as one of a series entitled 'Shakespeare's Heroines' (6 June 1926 2LO London 5-5.30) with Baliol Holloway as Benedick, and 'A Shakespeare Day Duologue' (23 April 1928 London and Daventry 6.45-7) with the glamorous Robert Loraine. (A later review of a radio 'Antony and Cleopatra' complained that 'Sometimes her voice fell too low for the microphone There was apparent a constant mannerism, a quavering of the voice' 'The Guardian 12 February 1934.) Harcourt Williams then took over in the Old Vic in 1929 with a company headed by John Gielgud.
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