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Feather's Miscellany: Theatre

John Waddington-Feather is thrilled by a performance in a London theatre of one of his plays.

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“Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of time; after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you lived.” Hamlet.

Shakespeare certainly knew the worth of the theatre in his day and today it’s valued just as much, for theatre is part of the very fabric of our society.

Drama has been played out in England since the Middle Ages when Mystery and Miracle Plays were staged (and still are) at places like York, Chester and Wakefield. Earlier still, bible stories were acted out in churchyards to illiterate audiences to bring home the Christian message; and that tradition still holds when churches and schools perform their annual Nativity Plays.

It was at school and in the church I was first introduced to the theatre; plays like ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ were performed at my primary school, Eastwood Council School, and each Christmas a Nativity Play would be staged in my church. At my secondary school, Keighley Boys’ Grammar School, drama was part of the English classroom curriculum throughout the school, which staged plays by writers like Sheridan and Wilde as well as Shakespeare. These were played out in the large civic hall that adjoined the school and had a fully equipped stage and auditorium.

At the next stage of my education, I was immersed in drama at Leeds University where I read English and was schooled by scholars like Professors Wilson Knight and Bonamy Dobrée. I also studied Italian under Professor Freddy May, who translated and staged many of Luigi Pirandello’s works in England for the first time; some of it at Leeds University and at Leeds Civic Theatre, where two of my verse-plays, “Garlic Lane” and “Easy Street” were also premiered in 1972 and 1973. I acted at university as well as at Keighley Playhouse and Bingley Little Theatre in the early years of my marriage when I taught at Saltaire. So all in all, I was steeped in the theatre from childhood to the present.

And it is about the immediate present I’m going to write; for last January my verse-play “Garlic Lane” had its London premiere, 36 years after it was produced at Leeds Civic Theatre – and what a wonderful experience it was to be at both productions. In London it was acted out in a little 70-seat theatre, once a music-hall where Charlie Chaplin performed, built over a traditional Victorian London family pub, where I was able to meet many friends over a meal before the performance and have a drink with them afterwards.

I must confess I was taken aback when I saw just how small the theatre and its stage were; quite different from the spacious stage and large auditorium at Leeds Civic Theatre. Yet there was atmosphere in the Rosemary Branch Theatre at Islington which was positively Shakepearian; a whiff of Tudor England when travelling bands of actors had to set up stage in inn-yards and the like to perform their plays. There were no frills of modern stage gadgetry then – just bare boards. Actors then had to make full use of their voice and gesture to interpret plays to audiences, just as critical then as they are now. And those young actresses and actors over a pub in Islington directed by a first-class producer, Glenn Mortimer, acted out my play superbly. They were magnificent! They transformed that little London stage into a Northern mill-town with its rugby league field, its fish-and chip shop, its raw wintry streets and town pub and café. I was back home in the past down Lawkholme Lane in Keighley as I watched the play unfold. I was drawn into the play as earlier London audiences must have felt drawn, as they watched drama being acted out in inn-yards or on the backs of carts or in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; where human voice and gesture created another world, the world of the theatre; the magical world of the imagination.

As a playwright, I owe a great debt to the Spare Parts Theatre Company who staged my play last week. I don’t suppose it will ever reach the dizzy heights of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”, but those youngsters at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington, certainly took it well up the slopes of Parnassus.

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