In Shakespeare country
THEATRE: After the examinations were over I proceeded to
Stratford-upon-Avon for that year's (1965) Shakespeare Festival. Apart
from me only Mr. and Mrs. Harrison undertook that trip. The rest of the
course men and women dispersed. It is possible that the Stratford thing
was too expensive for most of them.
I had no problem on that account since UNESCO met the cost. If it was
not this once in a life time opportunity, I would have opted to come
back home after the BDL course - I longed for home so much.
I was more than glad I chose to make use of that opportunity. That
indeed was the highlight of my entire itinerary of the Fellowship. I
will remember that stay of nearly three weeks as long as I live. As long
as my faculties can recall that marvellous experience.
FELICITATION: Tony Ranasinghe
Stratford-on-Avon gets filled almost to its seams during each
Shakespeare season. Men and women of the Theatre come from all parts of
the world. University students and schoolchildren come in hoards and
occupy any boarding lodging, school or home available.
Intellectuals, writers, actors, actresses, media men and a host of
others converge on Stratford at this time. No, there is no carnival
atmosphere. It is a solemn, purifying and ennobling atmosphere that
Even our accommodation was arranged by the BDL - by Jean Knight of
BDL - Bless her. In spite of all the learned lecturers, guest speakers
etc. it is Miss Jean Knight of the British Drama League that I remember
She was the epitome of efficiency and courtesy. She was like a caring
elder sister to all of us. At Stratford we were put up in a house owned
and run by two sisters in their middle age - both spinsters. Typical
English country women.
When I say 'we' I mean myself and four women following the
Shakespeare Season and Study Course. There was Miss Gugumus from France,
a tall boney woman with a head of close cropped curls who looked like
one of those unpredictable characters from a novel by Francois Sagan - a
female French writer who was very much in vogue at that time.
There was Elaine Major from USA, a typical specimen of American
womanhood - always ready with a smile and a wisecrack over which you
often took a double-take! I don't know why she always reminded me of Bob
Hope - perhaps it was her disarming smile or her ready wit.
Then there was Mrs. Agnes Khol from the Federal Republic of Germany,
a duty-bound, conscientious school marm if ever there was one. (Agnes
was to become my pen pal and good friend for a long long time whom I
even visited on a visit to Germany years later) Finally there was Maria
from Italy (who else?) - a pretty woman who never got tired of talking
about her handsome husband. I was thus the only man about the house
among six women!
The actual Festival itself featured a number of the Bard's plays
performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the banks of the river
Avon. (Incidentally, no Britisher ever referred to Stratford-upon-Avon
in a shorten form as Stratford.
It was always Stratford-upon-Avon or Stratford-on-Avon. I believe
they considered it would have been sacrilegious to refer to their
beloved Bard's hallowed birth place in any lesser form).
There were other open air performances, recitals of Shakespeare
poetry, exhibitions, special lectures, discussions and guided
Shakespeare country tours. Of course one had the liberty to see the
place by oneself on foot, by bicycle or any other vehicle provided one
kept to the strict rules and decorum.
That meant no picnicking, no carousing and no desecrating any of the
We were participating in and witnessing the 106th official
Shakespeare Season. The main feature of the Festival was the impressive
bill of Shakespeare plays that were being featured at the Royal
This year (1965) they had Love's Labours Lost, The Jew of Malta, The
Merchant of Venice, The Comedy of Errors, Timon of Athens and Hamlet.
A very unassuming booklet says - "Each year the Royal Shakespeare
Theatre, the University of Birmingham, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
and the British Council arrange a series of lectures, informal talks,
poetry recitals etc. intended for the visitor spending a short time in
Stratford-upon-Avon as well as the student wishing to undertake a more
What is significant is that many organizations and many related tasks
merge in a well planned well orchestrated whole. Certain activities had
started much later. For instance the Poetry Festival. In 1965 it was
only the 'Twelfth Stratford-on-Avon Poetry Festival.
This particular item is significant in that it is not limited only to
Shakespeare. That year it featured poems by Rudyard Kipling too. The
bill reads 'Eric Porter, John Nightingale, Tim Haunton, in Ballads,
Songs and Verses by Rudyards Kipling.
A week later, on the 11th of July, it featured poets from the
Commonwealth and the program had six headings, namely - 'The Quest',
'Colonization', 'The Newcomers', 'Civilization', 'Wars' and 'Journey's
Young Theatre Groups are featured as part of the fare. For instance
the Oxford Stage Company which presented an open air performance of As
You Like It in the grounds of the Shakespeare Institute.
I would say that in 1965, the Play Bill at the Royal Shakespeare
Theatre belonged to Paul Schofield who was one of the top most
'Shakespeare' actors in England at the time. In a lesser degree it
belonged to Eric Porter and David Warner - a total newcomer to the role
Not that I am denying the actresses their due. There was Glenda
Jackson, Elizabeth Spriggs, Janet Suzman and Madoline Thomas. But the
plays themselves, as most of the Bard's plays are, were male domains.
Paul Schofield's portrayal of Timon of Athens was considered as the
brightest spot and the highlight of that acting season. Such was the
demand to see that performance, I believe the authorities had to squeeze
in a couple of extra shows of the play.
Eric Porter as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice gave a stunning
performance too. For him, Shylock was not the conventional Jew, but a
man wronged and maligned by society.
In insisting on the pound of flesh he was trying to get even with
that society and in this Eric Porter succeeded extremely well. (Much
later, here in our own country Tony Ranasinghe' portrayal of the same
role on our stage reminded me very much of Paul Schoffield's approach to
the role of the Jew.
That was a scathingly good performance too - and I am sure Tony
Ranasinghe had never seen Paul Schoffield on stage.) David Warner's
'Hamlet' was a much talked about event in the Festival. Practically
every actor worth his salt would have tried 'Hamlet' at one time or
another - particularly the top rung actors who were in a position to
demand a role.
But David Warner was a total stranger to the stage. He had never
acted before - not even as an amateur. This Hamlet was directed by Peter
Hall and he had picked Warner who, if the story going round was true,
was a barman or a waiter in some place.
Peter Hall had insisted on a totally new approach to the most famous,
and perhaps also the most misinterpreted male lead of the Bard and that
was how David Warner had come into the scene. The talk going round was
that the raw actor was very good. This kind of tit bit somehow get
around and form part of the excitement of the whole Festival.
Unfortunately I missed this momentous event because our Study Course
was over in mid July and the new Hamlet was scheduled to be premiered on
the 17th of August. I am not sure how the new comer fared after his
debut with Hamlet, if he chose to tread the path of the stage.
In any case, after 41 years., Warner would have become a very
'seasoned' actor by now!
I enjoyed the open air performances of As You Like it and the
Midsummer Night's Dream very much. The one was performed in the grounds
of the Shakespeare Institute and the other on the lawns of Alveston
Manor Hotel. The settings were absolutely right for the plays and so
were the way-out costumes.
The acting was easy, light hearted and breezy, and fortunately the
weather just right too - balmy and breezy. Both of these were University
productions from Oxford and Cambridge respectively.
What was most encouraging is that these productions are officially
accepted as part of the Festival and that various organizations and
institutes contribute towards their maintenance.
The Alveston Manor Hotel which had co-sponsored the 'Midsummer Night'
production, has quite a history itself. Let me quote from the Souvenir.
"Alveston Manor was first mentioned in the Doomsday Book and in 1086 it
was seized from Wultan, Bishop of Worcester, but was bought back in 1090
for 15 sterling pounds.
In 1100 Henry I excused all taxes on five out of 15 hides of ground
'for the good of his soul and that of his wife', Queen Maud. In 1392 it
was given to John Att Hall de Alveston at a rent which included 10
quarters of wheat, 30 quarters of barley, 8 hogs..." And so it goes.
The very first performance of Mid Summer Night's Dream is said to
have been given on these lawns.
Let me get back to the Bard's country. Apart from the hills and dales
the immaculate gardens and hedges, the flowers, the quaint shops, the
Shakespeare sites, the river Avon and of course the Royal Shakespeare
Theatre, there is another extremely interesting and 'invigorating'
institution that invites the visitor - the local Pub. I use the word
here in its plural sense.
The Pub is an 'institution' not only in Stratford-on-Avon, but I
would say all over England. Here of course they were more 'special'
because of the unique atmosphere of the place.
Not that they serve any special brew which would make you dream and
fantasize like a mini-Shakespeare. Even here, in the 'Frog' or the
'Duck' what is mostly served is that special English brew called
'bitters' of which I have made fond mention earlier too.
No, it is not the brew that is heady and invigorating. It is the
'atmosphere', with all those vintage stuff - coats of arms, original
Elizabethan mugs, knights in armor, real period panelling and counters,
and of course the famous English innovation - the three legged high
Thought of the week
On the 31st July they honoured Tony Ranasinghe - the ever green hero
and veteran actor of the stage, the silver screen and the small screen,
screen writer and man of many parts, fittingly at the BMICH. Even the
President called in to congratulate Tony on his 69th birthday, make a
fine speech about his friend and co-actor and also to present Tony with
The event was organized by fans, friends and well wishers of this
charismatic actor who has won the hearts of appreciative audiences of
more than two generations. As usual in this kind of event, I saw
Somaratne Dissanayake and Renuka Balasuriya busy as bees both on and off
I congratulate and bow my head in appreciation of the organizers of
this dutiful and beautiful event.
Clips of some of Tony's memorable screen performances were shown on
screen, some were re-enacted by veterans such as Malini Fonseka,
Ravindra Randeniya, Nita Fernando, Suvineetha Weerasinghe, Sanath
Gunatilleke, Anula Karunatilake, Douglas Ranasinghe and Sriyantha Mendis.
The inimitable Jackson Anthony recrated a vignette of Tony's famous
stage role as Shylock. It was an exhilarating and heart warming evening
I felt very happy indeed that I had the good fortune to act with Tony
in his very first film - Gamperaliya - four decades ago - in his green
and salad days. That mischievous twinkle in his eye with which he looked
at Laisa in the film is unmistakably there still...!