Modern Theatre: The Repertory Movement
The repertory theatre movement was forged out of the passion and conviction of two individuals, Barry Jackson and Annie Horniman who believed that a wide variety of theatrical experience should be made available to people at a price they could afford. Horniman believed that by subsidizing theatres you could both raise the standards of performance and broaden the programme a theatre could offer to its community.
After a chance meeting with W B Yeats in 1903 Annie Horniman put up the money to open the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904.
Annie Horniman was the daughter of a wealthy tea merchant with no family connections to the theatre, but she recognised the cultural value of the state subsidised repertory companies in Germany.
Horniman discreetly donated money to the Avenue Theatre in London to produce a season which included the first commercial production of a George Bernard Shaw play, and the first London production of a William Butler Yeats play
The Gaiety in Manchester
In 1907 Horniman also bought the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester. Director Lewis Casson and his wife, the actress Sybil Thorndike, worked with her on the project. They too were committed to showing their audiences as wide a variety of theatre as possible including the work of the 'Manchester School' of playwrights, notably Harold Brighouse and Stanley Houghton. In just ten years they produced over 200 plays. In 1917 the theatre was forced to close because of financial difficulties.
Birmingham Repertory Theatre opened on 15 February 1913 with a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Its founder Barry Jackson had started to produce plays in 1907 on an amateur basis, playing in small venues such as local halls. Jackson, like Horniman was passionate about the need to offer the people of Birmingham a wide variety of theatrical experience, and personally subsidised the building of the Rep Theatre as a base for his company. He took on the role of artistic director producing a wide range of plays, and experimented with the first modern dress versions of Shakespeare's plays. Jackson was also a great fan of George Bernard Shaw and directed many of his plays. In 1923 he premiered Shaw's Back to Methuselah.
The repertory movement in Britain played an important role for local writers and as a training ground for actors to experiment and expand their repertoire. Other important repertory theatres included the Belgrade in Coventry which was the first purpose built post-war theatre; the Citizens' in Glasgow and Liverpool Playhouse.
The funding crisis of the 1980s was particularly hard on regional reps; some were forced to close, whilst others had to present a slimmed down programme, performing plays with small casts and employing actors on a single contract basis. This crisis in funding brought much criticism of the Arts Council which had consolidated resources to fund the big national companies at the expense of regional theatre.
The Long and the Short and the Tall
The play has an all-male cast and is set in the Malayan jungle early in 1942. A British patrol is in the jungle trying to assess the strength of the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Their radio has a flat battery and they are having trouble getting in touch with their base camp. While resting in a deserted hut, a Japanese soldier stumbles in on them. They capture him and soon realise that the Japanese army is marching south in strength. The characters of the members of the patrol are sharply defined and Willis Hall's thought-provoking play examines the moral dilemmas soldiers have to face.
Reviewer J C Trewin - one of the only critics at the time to write regularly about regional as well as London performances - thought it played better at the Rep than it had at the Royal Court in London. He praised Mark Kingston's 'racy performance', and the intense impact of the play.
Scene from Love's Labour Lost
This picture comes from a scrapbook kept by Michael Redgrave and his wife Rachel Kempson in the 1930s. (Here we have Kempson, third from the left in the flowered skirt, playing the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost in 1937, at the Old Vic.) The Redgraves and their children, Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, and grandchildren, Jemma Redgrave and Natasha and Joely Richardson, were to become one of the most prominent acting families of the century, and Kempson continued acting into her 80s. Michael and Rachel had been married less than two years when they were invited to play opposite each other in this production. (Michael was playing King Ferdinand who marries the French princess.) It was their first London engagement. Kempson was to have played a whole range of roles through the season, including Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, but just before rehearsals started, she discovered to her dismay that she was pregnant. Love's Labours Lost was all she had time to do before the bump that was to become Vanessa became too prominent.
Scene from Macbeth
This production of Macbeth was staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1958 with Albert Finney as Macbeth and June Brown as Lady Macbeth. The director, Bernard Hepton, chose to focus on the supernatural side of the play. The witches were present on the stage for much of the play, and one of them became the Third Murderer.
The Birmingham Rep was founded in 1913 by Barry Jackson and quickly established a reputation for staging new and foreign work and for giving opportunities to young directors. In the 1920s, Jackson caused a sensation by producing Shakespeare plays in modern dress, something we now take for granted. Albert Finney was just one of the young actors employed by Jackson who went on to become a star. Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson appeared there and from the next generation, Paul Eddington and Derek Jacobi.
Harold Pinter's The Caretaker premiered in London in 1960, and was put on only a year later by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
A wheedling, garrulous old tramp comes to live with two neurotic brothers, Mick and Aston. His attempts to establish himself in the household upset the precarious balance of the brothers' lives, and they end up evicting him.
This photograph from the 1961 Birmingham Rep production is of a young Derek Jacobi, in the centre, playing Mick, with Arthur Pentelow as the tramp, Davies, and Stephen MacDonald as Aston. Like much of Pinter's work, the play is more about words and silence than action. The tension is built through the mind games between the characters, and dense closely worded dialogue loaded with subtle menace.
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Chekhov's plays have always been a mainstay of repertory theatre. Acknowledged as masterpieces, they are easy to sell to an audience, and yet notoriously difficult to perform. The plays seem to be about inaction, inertia and mood more than action and plot development. Although the words can be translated from Russian, there is another 'translation' required by the actors and director to come to an understanding of the Russian personality, and why Chekhov's characters behave as they do.
The Cherry Orchard, first performed at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904 directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, has only one real piece of plot 'action' - the peasant Lopakhin buys the decaying country estate from wealthy landowner Madame Ranyevskaya - and that happens offstage in the last act. The play is essentially made up of day to day interactions, or 'missed opportunities', for example the scene where Lopakhin fails to make the expected proposal of marriage to Ranyevskaya's adopted daughter Varya.
In this photograph from the 1960 Birmingham Repertory production, Marigold Sharman as governess Charlotta amuses the party guests, including Ranyevskaya (Elizabeth Spriggs, seated right) with some magic tricks.
Scene from The Importance of Being Earnest
Regional repertory theatre companies like the Birmingham Repertory Theatre were committed to producing a wide variety of drama for local audiences. From the early years of the 20th century, through their heyday in the middle decades of the century, they provided a training ground for young actors. In 'weekly rep', actors would make their way through a wide range of roles from farce to Shakespeare each season. This stood them in excellent stead for going on to work in the West End, on television, and in film.
Although the repertory companies also liked to work with local writers, producing new plays, a classic comedy like Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest would provide a strong box office success, enabling them also to stage more innovative work. In this photograph from the Birmingham Rep's 1959 production, you can see two actors who went on to substantial screen careers: Thelma Barlow (who played in Coronation Street for 26 years) is Gwendolen Fairfax, and Ian Richardson (star of many films and TV series) plays Jack Worthing.
Scene from The Lady's Not For Burning
Christopher Fry wrote The Lady's Not For Burning in blank verse (the same form Shakespeare usually used) to suit its medieval setting. The London premiere at the Arts Theatre in 1948 starred Alec Clunes (father to TV's comic actor Martin), but he stepped aside when it transferred to the West End adding John Gielgud and Richard Burton to the cast.
Critics were unanimous in praising the play's linguistic invention which, thought reviewer J C Trewin, had 'the relish of the Elizabethan word-men'. In 1956 the Birmingham Repertory Theatre included Fry's tale of the romance between a disaffected soldier and a woman subjected to a witch hunt in their season. Trewin, so impressed by the verbal pyrotechnics of the play, was disappointed with some of the delivery in this production. He thought Nancie Jackson (on the right here next to Albert Finney as Richard the clerk and Geoffrey Bayldon as the Mayor) as the accused girl 'seemed to have stepped out of a Chaucerian manuscript but to have called at Newnham ... on the way'. Newnham is an all-female college at Cambridge University, so he was probably implying that her diction was a little too upmarket and over-educated to be believable in the role.
Scene from Caesar and Cleopatra
Unlike Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, where the character of the Queen of Egypt is of equal importance to her Roman lover's, it is Julius Caesar who dominates in George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra. Shaw said of Shakespeare's work on the Roman Emperor that he 'never knew human strength of the Caesarian type' and when he wrote the piece he wanted to write on a classical theme for 'the classic actor of our day'.
This Birmingham production starred Geoffrey Bayldon as Caesar, Doreen Aris as Cleopatra, and a young Albert Finney as Belzanor, the captain of Cleopatra's guard.
Michael Redgrave as Malvolio
The Redgrave family is a theatrical dynasty that spans six generations.
Michael Redgrave, one of the most famous performers of the 20th century, was the son and grandson of actors, and the great grandson of a ticket tout, Cornelius Redgrave. Despite this background, he did not immediately opt for the theatre, but went to Cambridge University and then became a teacher in a boys' secondary school.
After two years, in which he acted in and produced many school plays, he left the school, and managed to get a job at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1934. He was soon playing leads at Liverpool. (Malvolio, the pompous steward with delusions of grandeur in 'Twelfth Night' is one of the most sought after comic roles in Shakespeare.) Tyrone Guthrie, then a director at the Old Vic in London saw his performance and immediately offered Redgrave a job.
Redgrave's rise to fame was meteoric and by 1939 he had made his first film, The Lady Vanishes, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The School for Scandal
Sir John Gielgud mounted this production of Sheridan's 18th century comedy, The School for Scandal, in 1937.
Gielgud had been working with the Old Vic company which was staging affordable, cheaply mounted productions and he had recently starred as Hamlet on Broadway. His status as a matinee idol gave him sufficient clout to lease the Queen's Theatre for a season. He intended to develop his ideas about Shakespeare and other classics with a West End budget.
He asked Tyrone Guthrie to direct The School for Scandal (although what we think of as 'directing' was referred to as 'producing' in the 1930s). Gielgud had gathered together a stunning cast, largely borrowed from the Old Vic company. Here we see Rachel Kempson, Gielgud, Athene Seyler and Dorothy Green. Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness and Michael Redgrave were also in the company.
Scene from Richard of Bordeaux
Michael Redgrave was a major British star of stage and screen. He and his wife, the actress Rachel Kempson, met during Michael's first acting job at the Liverpool Rep in 1934. Michael joined the company on the grand salary of £4 a week (around £150). Kempson, as the more experienced of the two, was paid £6. They married the following year and were frequently cast opposite each other as here, where they play King Richard II and his first wife, Ann of Bohemia, who died of the plague.
Richard of Bordeaux was written by Elizabeth Mackintosh under the pen name of Gordon Daviot (she also wrote detective stories as Josephine Tey), and had been a huge success in London with John Gielgud in the title role. Kempson and Redgrave were extremely excited when a London agent came all the way to Liverpool to see the play. Unfortunately he got lost, and Ann of Bohemia had already died by the time he arrived for the last act.
Scene from Henry VI
The Birmingham Rep opened Part 2 in Spring 1951, Part 3 in Spring 1952, and Part 1 in Summer 1953. The complete trilogy then ran for five weeks with an immediate London season at the Old Vic - a great triumph in the Rep's 40th anniversary year. A young cast included Edgar Wreford 'with dependable authority and presence', Paul Daneman 'who would let fly at anything', Jack May 'whose speaking voice could have a most poignant timbre', and Rosalind Boxall, 'scorching the stage as Margaret of Anjou' (J C Trewin).
Director Douglas Seale introduced a convention that when not speaking, actors should stay absolutely still, a discipline which writer T C Kemp felt provided 'undistracted concentration on the lines'.
The productions were simple and powerful and the playing fitted them. At the end of Part 3, the action swept on into the first soliloquy of 'Richard III', the final play in the tetralogy, before bells and cheering offstage blurred the words, the lights dimmed and darkness brought down the curtain.