My first experience of Shakespeare in performance was at the age of 15 (or possibly even 14), watching an outdoor production of Macbeth in the grounds of Durham Castle. Les Jolley, the Biology teacher who ran the school Drama Club, organised the outing. I don’t think any of us really knew what we were going to see but we trusted Jolley because, even when he chose plays for us to do that no one had ever heard of, they were great.
(On another occasion, he took us to see a production of Dürrenmatt's The Physicists and that was good too.)
I seem to remember that this might have been a student production but I can’t be sure, but what I can be sure of is that I was blown away by it. We sat in two blocks with a central aisle with the great main gates into the Castle behind us, and I can still see one scene with absolute clarity.
There was a sudden thundering knocking on the gates behind us. We jumped and, in shock, turned round to see what was going on. Nothing, just a repeated knocking. Then someone was shouting, “Here's a knocking indeed!” and we turned back to see this man reeling as if pissed out of his head, holding a blazing torch as he staggered down the central aisle towards the gates.
“Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub?”
That moment—the cool of the evening, the sight and smell of the flaming torch, the drunken sounds and movement, together with the increasingly loud hammering on the gate—is as sharp and clear in my mind sixty years later as it was then.
A decisive moment, for that was when I fell in love with Shakespeare!
In 1959, the People’s Theatre in Newcastle asked Les Jolley to send them someone to play a (small) (very small) part in Julius Caesar. He sent 16-year-old me! What a compliment for him to be approached rather than someone from one of the Newcastle schools, and what a compliment for me that I was the one he chose.
I had lines! I was playing Young Cato and in the Battle of Philippi in act IV I had lines!
“What bastard doth not? Who will go with me?
I will proclaim my name about the field.
I am the son of Marcus Cato, ho!
A foe to tyrants, and my country’s friend.
I am the son of Marcus Cato, ho!”
And then I was killed, and I even got a bit of an obituary, as Lucilius said:
“O young and noble Cato, art thou down?
Why, now thou diest as bravely as Titinius;
And may’st be honour'd, being Cato's son.”
It was well worth getting the bus from home to Sunderland station, the train to Newcastle Central, then walking all the way to Rye Hill in Newcastle's West End (and, of course, back again) for rehearsals and the performance week, which was the week of 11 December—cold, wet and windy but I loved it!
Then in my last year at school, Les Jolley decided we would do Julius Caesar, and he cast me as Mark Antony. That, again, was bliss!
From then on I took every opportunity to see Shakespeare and, preferably, take part. The latter, alas, proved very difficult and it wasn’t until 1973 that Sunderland Drama Club cast me as Fabian in Twelfth Night, a production which we played in Sunderland and then took to our twin town Essen in what was then West Germany.
In terms of performing Shakespeare, then, I peaked at the age of 18. I never got the chance to play Hamlet or even Macbeth, and all that’s left to me now is Falstaff (a fat, drunken old man—no acting required there, then) and Lear (and by the time you’re old enough to play Lear, you’re too old to learn the lines).
Although I can see me in Henry IV Part II sitting there lugubriously declaring, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,” or replying, “That we have, that we have, i’ faith.”