How a school trip sparked lifelong love of the Bard
It was 1966, a memorable year. Watching England win the World
Cup for the first and only time came soon after seeing Shakespeare performed live at the theatre named after him, also for the first time. Not the only time, however. Not by a long way.
The play was Henry IV Part One. The director was Trevor Nunn, who had cut his teeth at a cutting-edge theatre offering daring and controversial new work. Yes, that was how the Belgrade in Coventry was seen back then. But let’s stick with the RSC for now.
The cast included Patrick Stewart and Jeffrey Dench (brother of Judi). Not forgetting Ian Holm, a future star of the big and small screen. He played the dissolute Prince Hal, lounging around the Boar’s Head Tavern with Falstaff before lunging at Hotspur on the battlefield near Shrewsbury.
I was 17. So were three schoolmates who came with me. We were then in what was known as the lower sixth (arts) at a grammar school in Birmingham, and the French “master” had driven us the best part of 30 miles down the A34 to Stratford.
Because the head of English apparently loved the Bard so much that he didn’t believe that any actor was up to delivering his immortal words. Curiously, that didn’t stop him asking boys to read out Shakespearean speeches in class - flatly, for the most part, in Brummie accents. Perhaps he just had a wicked sense of humour.
We’d studied the first Henry IV play for our GCEs. I’d managed a grade three at O-level in English Literature but realised, once I’d seen the play performed live, that I hadn’t had much of a clue what all those quotes that I’d digested really meant.
To see the characters fleshed out – particularly so in Falstaff’s case – was mesmerising. To hear the words given emphasis in credible places was a revelation.
As for the finale, that was something else. Captured rebels condemned to death by the triumphant prince, would be executed at the “exeunt”.
As the nooses tightened and the bodies dropped, the lights went out - not just on stage but throughout the theatre. The dramatic effect has lived with me to this day. So has the thunderous applause that followed.
More than enough to think about on the journey back to what was then a very humdrum Brum.
Pictured: A young Ian Holm having matured into Henry V and a matured Chris Arnot who saw Holm on stage in 1966