Time to Remember: the legendary Sir John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud. Photo uncredited.

While our live theatre scene is interrupted, here is another in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of interesting people and memorable events.

SIR JOHN GIELGUD (1904 – 2000) was one of the trinity of theatre knights who dominated the London stage for half a century. In this appreciation from 2010, ANTHONY FIELD recalls seeing many of his performances, and even auditioning for the man himself. Enjoy the read!

By the time I became a theatregoer in the 1930s John Gielgud had already been acting every year from 1921; by the time I became a regular theatregoer in the 1940s John Gielgud had already established himself as one of Britain’s leading actors, and admired as a director and a producer.

“Who’s Who in the Theatre” records his first appearance on November 7th 1921 as a Herald in HENRY IV, although his autobiography EARLY STAGES lists his first “walk-on” parts were in PEER GYNT and KING LEAR at the Old Vic in 1922. His schedule of appearances were then endless each month throughout every year in the 1920s and 1930s, repeatedly as actor, director and producer of classics and new drama.

In 1935 a unique production of ROMEO AND JULIET had Laurence Olivier playing Romeo to Gielgud’s Mercutio alternatively with Gielgud’s Romeo to Olivier’s Mercutio. This was a chance to make the difficult comparison of two great actors. Gielgud’s Mercutio was spoken with rare virtuosity, the greatly moving delivery of the Queen’s Mob’s lines becomes a scherzo; whereas Olivier looked a handsome young Italian as Romeo.

During these seasons John played Romeo 186 times, and played Hamlet over 500 times, both the longest runs on record.

My first chance to admire his acting was in the repertory season at the Haymarket in 1944 when he opened in THE CIRCLE on 11 October, LOVE FOR LOVE on 12 October and HAMLET on 13 October. He then took HAMLET and BLITHE SPIRIT on and extensive E.N.S.A. tour to the troops in Malta and Gibraltar, and then on to the Far East, appearing in Bombay, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Delhi, Karachi and Cairo.

He returned to tour all the UK’s regional theatres as Raskolnikoff in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (with Peter Ustinov) ending with a six-month season in London. His love for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST led him to produce it and play John Worthing in a long tour of Canada and the U.S. in repertoire with LOVE FOR LOVE.

Gielgud was by then so established that he could develop his interest in new drama which included directing plays such as Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I, myself, auditioned for the part of the Gentleman Caller in September 1948 and perhaps it was as well that I failed as Gielgud was a notoriously demanding director, quick to sack any actor not up to it with ruthless and peremptory candour, although no-one seemed to be hurt as he was so full of heart for the theatre.

It is really impossible to assess who is the greatest actor of all time. Gielgud defeated Olivier as Hamlet and Romeo while Olivier knocked out Gielgud as Othello and Antony. Each contributed his own colour to the scene. Gielgud’s tremulous voice was such an exquisite instrument, illuminating the test of KING LEAR with passion and clarity. It measured evenly with Olivier’s triumphant exposition of this role. Alan Dent wrote that “John is claret and Larry is burgundy”.

The first performance (26th November 1953) of N C Hunter’s A DAY BY THE SEA at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was unforgettable. Directed by Gielgud, the cast included Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Irene Worth, Megs Jenkins and Gielgud himself. Gielgud cast himself as a failed diplomat who proposed twenty years too late to a woman who wasn’t too keen to take on a third husband after two disastrous marriages.

However, not long before the first night, Gielgud was subject to a police entrapment for a homosexual crime and it was of concern that his first entrance on the first night would cause a demonstration. I was sitting at the front of the Upper Circle and could see police officers at each side of the Stalls and Dress Circle. Sir John was, in the event, pushed onto the stage by Sybil Thorndike and was met by a thunderous ovation. This greeting was almost as unsettling to him than if he had been heckled. However, he soon regained his equilibrium and the ensemble acting was admired more than the play.

He reopened the Queen’s Theatre in July 1958 with his one-man show AGES OF MAN. He proved incomparable as Henry IV, Clarence, John of Gaunt and particularly Richard II when both he and the audience wept buckets. The anthology of Shakespeare would become a regular stand-by for him over the next decade, winning him worldwide acclaim.

In his later years John endorsed new playwrights in a way no classical actor had ever done, either appearing in or directing plays including Peter Shaffer’s BATTLE OF THE SHRIVINGS, David Storey’s HOME, Charles Wood’s VETERANS, Edward de Bono’s BINGO, Harold Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND and Julian Mitchell’s HALF-LIFE. My office wall is adorned with a painting of the front of the Apollo Theatre announcing John with Ralph Richardson in HOME which was a key moment in both actors’ careers, doing for them what John Osborne’s THE ENTERTAINER did for Olivier. It brought them firmly into the modern mainstream and John said “we were like the Broker’s Men in Cinderella”.

Again with Ralph Richardson in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND he reported “what does it matter what it means so long as the audience is held” and Peter Hall’s direction led him to consider that “these two great actors are the best double act since Laurel and Hardy”.

Like every great actor, John Gielgud was endowed with faults. He could not walk across a stage without suggesting that his knees were tied together with a silk scarf. But then, Kemble was cold and Macready was pompous. However, John’s speaking voice was supreme in its lyrical flexibility and made him incomparable with its sheer exquisiteness. He brought his vocal beauty when playing Shakespeare to modern plays which benefitted from his nuances of humanity.

Olivier was better suited to the heroic parts, the extroverts, which Gielgud shrewdly left alone, preferring to play the comedies of manners with style and elegance. His Jack Worthing in IMPORTANCE was perfection while his Valentine in LOVE FOR LOVE was warm,tender, glowing and expressive of a heart full of human devotion. His taste and artistry was of the highest integrity and he did more to sustain the artistic standard of British theatre in the 20th century than any other actor.

Gielgud’s last stage appearance, after eleven years absence from the West End, was for Michael Redington at the Apollo in Hugh Whitemore’s THE BEST OF FRIENDS when his charm and wit were undiminished. During the 16-week season he celebrated his 84th birthday.

AFTERWORD: Some of Sir John Gielgud’s performances have been captured for television. You can see him in David Storey’s HOME here

and in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND here


Time to Remember: Spotlighting Richard Pilbrow’s life in musicals

Prompted by the publication of a new book, ANTHONY FIELD writes about the career of the man who single-handedly invented the language of modern stage lighting, RICHARD PILBROW. Richard and Anthony had been dear friends and producing partners for decades, and Anthony’s exit from the Arts Council after 27 years could only have been to work with someone as multi-talented as Richard, whose own company – Theatre Projects – gained Anthony as their Finance Director. Theatre Projects is a world-renowned company which has created some of the most significant and successful performing arts venues around the world over the last five decades. Now 87, Richard is President Emeritus of the Company. Enjoy reading about his fascinating journey through the theatre of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. This article is from 2011.

Richard Pilbrow (left), Anthony Field (right)

Recently published is a long-awaited book A THEATRE PROJECT, an autobiographical memoir by Richard Pilbrow, the pioneer of contemporary stage lighting who developed his career as a theatre consultant and producer. Over the last five decades he has been involved in the production of many successful musicals.

In 1962 Donald Albery contracted him to work in a spectacular new show called BLITZ! with music by Lionel Bart. This production was to present Cockney London under Hitler’s bombardment during the Second World War – on stage, which had never seen its like before or since. Noel Coward described it as “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing”. Sean Kenny who had created brilliant sets for OLIVER! went on to designing extraordinary sets for BLITZ! at the Adelphi and Richard Pilbrow’s account of the Royal Gala preview found the stage smoke engulfing the orchestra which had to stop playing. Fortunately the first night proved perfection.

This led to Tony Walton writing to ask Richard to meet Hal Prince in New York to discuss lighting a new Broadway musical which Tony was to design. Richard stayed with Tony and his wife, Julie Andrews then starring in CAMELOT and the next morning they discussed producing A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM by Burt Shevelove with music by Stephen Sondheim. This led to Hal Prince encouraging Richard to become a producer, establishing Theatre Projects as Hal’s London office

Their first London project was to be A FUNNY THING… and everyone thought that they were crazy to cast Frankie Howerd in it. They saw him play one of the broker’s men in panto at Coventry and Peter Cook persuaded them about his comic talent. However, the tour proved a nightmare with no laughs and the previews were frightening. The opening night finally arrived with Frankie’s “Comedy Tonight” introducing the notable group of British comedians – Kenneth Connor, Eddie Gray, Jon Pertwee and Robertson Hare brought the audience to its feet in recognition and welcome. The triumph ran for two years and Theatre Projects was the first-ever London management to close the show for a week after the first year to give the entire cast a holiday.

Amidst Richard’s full work programme of plays and consultancy for the new National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he continued to co-produce and light such musicals as HALF A SIXPENCE with Tommy Steele at the Cambridge Theatre and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at the Shaftesbury.

Richard plowed his profits from A FUNNY THING… into SHE LOVES ME which he adored. This had started as an idea of Julie Andrews to turn the film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER into a musical for her although her Disney contract for the MARY POPPINS film prevented her from appearing in SHE LOVES ME. The reviews in London were the kiss of death – “charming, charming, charming”-which did not help to pull in audiences. The show has never proved commercially successful but Richard was then excited with another score played to him by Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

In 1964 Richard and Tony Walton designed and lit GOLDEN BOY on Broadway, with the book by Clifford Odets and music by Charles Strouse. Its success was partly due to the overwhelming projections for backgrounds which established a new method of designing musicals.

Returning to London, Richard applied himself to opening FIDDLER at Her Majesty’s Theatre although the whole theatre establishment told him that such a Jewish show would never succeed in the west End.

The long story of engaging Topol and the five-year run of FIDDLER has been retold many times. Suffice to note that all producers have their failures as well as successes. Although not a failure but the next Broadway musical to involve Richard was THE ROTHSCHILDS: I myself enjoyed it enormously when I saw it in 1970 but it was not a big hit, although it ran for over 500 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Back in London in 1968 Richard had opened his fourth musical in the West End which was Kander and Ebb’s CABARET starring Judi Dench at the Palace Theatre. Although Judi protested “I just can’t sing”, Hal Prince was enchanted with her, and declared “This will be the Real Sally Bowles”.

The next lighting venture was for Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY in 1971 in New York which Richard went on to produce in London at his favourite theatre, Her Majesty’s, with Elaine Stritch. It ran for 344 performances but did not recoup its capital. However, it established a long-term relationship with Stephen Sondheim. Richard demonstrated to London that musical theatre could be a profound theatrical form with Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in 1975 with Jean Simmons at the Adelphi. This ran for 406 performances during which Virginia McKenna replaced Jean.

The 450 pages of this story of Richard Pilbrow’s life can hardly be summarised in one short article except by highlighting the musicals in which he was involved, which included THE GOOD COMPANIONS in 1974 at Her Majesty’s. This had a libretto by Ronald Harwood with music by Andre Previn. Then there was the large-scale spectacle of GONE WITH THE WIND at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace, and the failures of CARTE BLANCHE at the Phoenix and the revival of KISMET at the Shaftesbury. His first venture with Cameron Mackintosh was the revival of OKLAHOMA! at the Palace in 1980 and then with Tommy Steele again, he lit SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for Harold Fielding at the London Palladium.

The transfer of WEST SIDE STORY, revived at Leicester, to Her Majesty’s proved a big hit in 1984 and led to the production of LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC at the Adelphi.

There are still dreams and hopes of shows which never achieved their potential such as BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune, based on the 1930 movie ST. MARTIN’S LANE, and Cy Coleman’s THE LIFE. Very sadly the failure of the 1986 revival of A FUNNY THING… at the Piccadilly with a sick Frankie Howerd put an end to the wealth of Theatre Projects’ programme of musicals but Richard’s continued career in the US in the 21st century finds him lighting revivals of WHERE’S CHARLEY?, THE BOY FRIEND and the new A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

All in all, anyone wanting to read the whole background of the creation of musical theatre will find it in Richard Pilbrow’s engrossing book “A Theatre Project” published by Plasa Media.

AFTERWORD: You can find out more about Richard Pilbrow’s fascinating book A THEATRE PROJECT here