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On tour with Theatre Workshop
Julia Jones, later to be an award-winning scriptwriter, recalls her experiences as a young actor.
In the summer of 1948, having graduated from RADA, I was mooching about London looking for work when I popped in to see if there was news of any jobs. As I arrived in the entrance lobby Miss Brown, the Registrar, shot out of her office holding a letter. ‘Julia, you’re just the person I want to see,’ she said. ‘I’ve a letter here from Joan Littlewood of Theatre Workshop. The company is going on a tour of Czechoslovakia in the autumn. She wonders if any students might be interested in joining them.’
I telephoned Joan and the next morning I was on the first train to Manchester. Three days later I was on the stage of the Library Theatre, having been given a small part in Ewan MacColl’s play The Other Animals.
A few days later rehearsals began for a play we were to take on the autumn tour abroad, Lorca’s Don Perlimplin’s Love for Belisa. It’s a beautiful, poetic play in one act with four scenes and I was very excited to be given the part of the young Belisa. Other plays we took were The Flying Doctor by Moliere, The Proposal by Chekov, Johnny Noble by Ewan MacColl and The Other Animals.
For the benefit of new members there was a company meeting before we left Manchester in which Joan talked about her vision for theatre. ‘I want simple scenery,’ she told us. ‘I want music on the stage, dance on the stage, I want meaningful lighting, I want actors who act with the whole body, not just from the neck up, and can create real working people.’It was inspiring, as were the very vigorous arguments that went on about business policy. Incidentally, we were all paid the same salary: £3 a week, for which we worked very hard indeed, helping to make scenery, costumes and props in addition to movement classes and rehearsals.
And then came the great day when we left Manchester for Prague. We caught the night ferry across the Channel; I remember standing at the prow of the boat and as we approached the coast of France and catching the summer smell of the land, the greenery, hay and grass.
We took the night train from Paris, preparing to sleep the time away as we crossed France and Germany. These journeys are commonplace now but then many of us had never crossed the English Channel, plus Europe was a devastated place after the war.
The train rattled through France, most of us were sleeping when we were awakened by shouts and doors banging. The door of the compartment I was sharing with a few others crashed open and I opened my eyes to see a tall man in uniform staring down at me with the cold, expressionless eyes possessed by such people. Was this a nightmare? None of us moved. ‘Hello,’ I said, half asleep. ‘Englisch? the man asked. ‘Jawohl,’ answered our stage manager Chick Fowler who spoke a little German. ‘Out!’ the man shouted. ‘Out!’ We struggled awake, reached for bags. ‘Take nothing!’ he shouted again. Ewan was behind me as we filed off the train. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked him. ‘Border controls,’ was the reply.
In the early hours of a cold, drizzly morning we waited with other passengers while the train was searched from end to end before we were allowed back, cold and shocked, to our seats. Then, at last, we were off for a slow journey across ruined Germany to Czechoslovakia where we were greeted and taken off the train by Vladimir, who was to be our friend and translator. And so to a small coach with a cheerful driver, and a few hours later we were in Prague.
The coach pulled up in front of the Czech National Theatre. There before our bemused eyes, we saw a red carpet leading up to the entrance. A few minutes later this band of weary strolling players, dishevelled and almost unwashed after two days and two nights of travelling, processed up the carpet to be greeted enthusiastically by dignitaries of the Czech theatre. Memory is confused now. We were fed and watered and made much of in the Green Room and I’m sure Joan and Ewan were interviewed by journalists and discussed theatre matters, but I remember the glory of a cup of tea even though it was without milk, for the country had been swept bare of all dairy produce by the Germans. We were still rationed at home, but here they had almost nothing. And so to our hotel, to be distributed to our rooms. Our grubby clothes were collected and returned to us next morning in pristine condition.
Next day we were rehearsing for our opening night – The Other Animals. I did my bit and left the theatre to wander round Prague. The city was never bombed (the Nazis just walked in) and, though shabby, the buildings were beautiful. It was pleasant to be in a city with no bomb sites and I enjoyed myself until, feeling leg weary, I boarded a tram for the theatre. As it moved along it filled up with people obviously going home from work: men in overalls, women in black with shawls like the women in the market in Liverpool. I was watching out for landmarks near to the theatre and became aware that all I could see were tall tenement buildings. Something had gone very wrong and all I knew in Czech were the words “Please” and “Thank-you”. I was conscious that everyone on the tram was watching me with interest. They would know I was an English actor from the theatre as we’d been well publicised. I remembered the company was invited to a reception and time was getting on. Then I had a brainwave: in my pocket was a beer mat from the theatre bar - it would surely have on it the name of the theatre. I took it out and held it up to the conductor. ‘Prosime,’ I said. He took it, raised his eyebrows and held it up for the passengers to see and said something. Oh, how they laughed.
The conductor pointed to the name on the beer mat and said: ‘Pilsner Lager’. I smiled nervously. Applause joined with the laughter. Our tram stopped, the conductor returned the mat, took my hand, led me across the road to a stationary tram at the stop on the other side and put me on to it.
On the opening night The Other Animals, a political play with music and dance, was received with enthusiasm. During drinks afterwards I heard a man say to Joan: ‘We were doing this sort of thing in the twenties.’ Joan was not best pleased. She had probably been influenced by Gordon Craig’s work at the end of the 19th Century; he had wanted dance, music, song, interesting scenery and light on stage. His work was largely ignored in England and he had left England for Europe and Russia, where he was welcomed. Somewhat similarly, Joan skipped a year, I think, from RADA to spend time in France before the war and would have absorbed much of what was going on theatrically on the continent. For years she suffered the same lack of interest in her work as Craig.
Don Perlimplin was to follow Ewan’s play at the National Theatre. During the dress rehearsal, crossing the stage, deep in the character of Belisa, I was stopped dead by a great shout from the auditorium. ‘Julie! For God’s sake find the light!’ John Bury, the lighting designer, was out there with Joan. Very nervous I looked about. The light? What light? Another shout: ‘Find the light!’ I moved less than a foot and felt a sort of glow – the light! ‘That’s it!’ came the voice. ‘Carry on.’
In time finding the light became instinctive. John spent hours getting his lighting right; one must take notice of a great artist. Joan had christened him Camel when he first joined the company and Camel he was for all the time I knew him at TW.
The applause was rapturous when the curtain came down on the first night. During drinks afterwards we were all overcome with congratulations. I found myself with a glass of slivovitz in my hand and three youngish very enthusiastic men intent on conversation. The drink was a problem for me: there’s little in the alcohol line that I enjoy and at my first sip this took my breath away. I glanced about, hiding my gasps. A large palm stood in a pot nearby. Classic! I excused myself and casually made for the palm, went round it, disposed of the drink in the pot and came out on the other side to find the three chaps waiting for me. Conversation resumed.
A strange thing happened one evening when the curtain came down on Johnny Noble: Joan pounced on me. ‘Your performance is letting down the whole company!’ she said angrily. I was suitably shocked. ‘What do you mean?’ She didn’t reply, regarded me for a moment and swept away. Fellow actor David Scase was nearby. I asked him what Joan meant. He laughed. ‘Don’t you know you’re getting very good notices?’ Thinking it over later I wondered was Joan in some way jealous? An Achilles heel in this remarkable genius?
Looking back on this incident, I realise I never told Joan that hidden in the recesses of my mind was the knowledge that one day I would write. Why didn’t I tell her? Joan had more ideas in half an hour than most of us have in a lifetime; thus, in rehearsals, she would so overwhelm actors with her suggestions and ideas that they could become confused and lose their own creative impulse. I learned from this that I must go into the first rehearsal sure of the core of the character I was to play before Joan got to work. If I revealed to her my intention to write one day, there was the danger she would tell me what to write and how to write it.
The first-hand experience gained as an actor, especially when working with a distinguished director, is invaluable for the would-be playwright. One absorbs what becomes an inbuilt knowledge of the construction of a play and the use of dialogue to reveal the hearts and minds of the characters who move the story forward. Dear Joan! She opened doors for me, not just to the theatre, but to the world.
I had told stories from the age of three and, when out of work as an actor, I was always scribbling. The first play I wrote, The Navigators, was accepted by James MacTaggart and Tony Garner for BBC’s Wednesday Play and was nominated for a Bafta award. I went on to write for the Play for Today series, the first woman contributing to these programmes. Then, in 1970, beautiful Prague came back wonderfully into my life. In the Prague International Television Festival of that year, my play Devon Violets won First Prize for Drama. I never dreamt as I sat in that tramcar in 1948 what 1970 would mean for me!
Bratislava was the next city on our tour of the country. We travelled again in a small coach, our driver a very tall, brawny man who sang his way along the mountain roads. Of course Ewan obliged with folk songs and then all of us joined in. It was like a scene from a Hollywood musical.
It was a two-night stand in Bratislava and we went through our repertoire. I can’t remember in what order, but I do remember Howard Goorney’s reception for his performances in The Proposal and the Flying Doctor. He was a wonderful clown, his comedy timing impeccable. Joan’s direction was light and full of fun. She was brilliantly versatile. The set for both plays was a simple rostrum with a window on it, turned according to interiors or exteriors, by members of the cast, including Joan, dancing to musi
After Bratislava our hosts treated us to a couple of days’ holiday in a nunnery in the mountains. It was a delightful, restful stay. The nuns looked after us with smiles and breakfasts of goat’s milk, eggs, butter – food we’d not seen since we left England, although there we’d had severe rationing: one egg and two ounces of butter a week.
Peter Smallwood and I took a short walk into the countryside where, in a village, we were chased by a gaggle of geese to the joyful amusement of a number of children who rescued us in the end. In the evening the company went down into a village in the valley for our evening meal. On our climb back to the nunnery glowworms put on a great show to light the pathway for us.
Next day, Vladimir guided the company to see a Byzantine monastery in a local beauty spot where there was a very deep abyss. He took us to a safe place at its top and said: ‘Now you can look down into the Abbess’s bottom.’ Laughter! In which he joined when his mistake was explained.
Our holiday over, we set off on a short tour of one-night stands. At our first stop we were greeted with joyful smiles and flowers by a young and very attractive Mayoress and her town council. Our show, the three short plays, was received with enthusiasm, though one did wonder how much the audience understood. For most citizens their second language was German (which they refused to use).
The end of the tour saw us back in Prague at a big reception where there were many sad farewells and promises of returns. It had been a truly wonderful experience.
We crossed the border into Poland without problems. The carriages were mostly empty and we were able to spread out comfortably - just three in my compartment. However, things changed dramatically at the first stop in Poland. A host of people boarded the train and filled up every empty space. Even the toilet was occupied, the door open to reveal a man who’d taken refuge there, as one of our party discovered when he heroically battled his way through the press of bodies; he retired defeated when the man smiled brightly at him.
Seated opposite to me (we were packed like sardines) were two plump young women with round faces and rosy cheeks. They were hugely pleased to learn we were English and immediately started to practise their English. There had been a fair in the town where they’d boarded the train and they proudly showed their purchases - the coats they were wearing with fur linings. I learned too that, as teenagers, they had been snatched by the Nazis and taken to Germany as domestic slaves. They left us at the next town and, though it was good to have a bit of space to breathe in, we said goodbye with a certain sadness.
The trip to Sweden across the Baltic sea was uneventful; as a neutral country, Sweden had not experienced the war and the Nazis first hand We disembarked in Gothenburg where we were met enthusiastically by theatre people and transported to the large Green Room in the theatre there. We entered the imposing room and were met by an equally imposing sight - a long table laden with smorgasbord: hams and other meats, cheeses, eggs, butter, all kinds of bread, fruits, tall jugs brimming with milk, sugar for tea or coffee, a paradise of food in quantities we’d not seen since before the war. “Please to help yourselves”, an actor said and so we did and, rather shamefacedly, cleared the table to the last crumb. We need not have worried - our hosts were gratified that their efforts had been so successful. As Swedes have learned English at school from an early age there was no difficulty in communicating.
We talked about our tour of Czechoslovakia and its success; we discussed our programme and finally we learned that we would be staying with Swedish families while in Sweden. When in Stockholm Joan would be hosted by the young Baron von Mannerheim. He had succeeded to the title when, on Germany’s defeat, his father was dismissed as a Nazi sympathiser.
The next day was spent rehearsing for our opening night. It was probably the three one act plays - Chekov, Moliere and Ewan’s Johnny Noble. Back in England the company was used to setting up the stage, ironing costumes and so on before performing; such activity was out of the question on our tour. We actors felt like royalty, entering our dressing rooms to find our costumes hanging up, cleaned and ironed and someone to help us into them. Of course our Stage manager, Chick Fowler, supervised the setting-up on stage and Camel was certainly in charge of his lighting.
Throughout the tour our hosts welcomed us into their homes with great warmth. I personally was treated like a deprived child in need of spoiling and indeed that is what they did.
Joan herself and her work were enormously popular and everywhere she was treated with great respect. What a difference from her own country where, at that time, she was ignored!
From Gothenburg we travelled to Linkoping and then on to Norkoping, where we were received with the usual enthusiasm. The Other Animals always met with interest and discussion afterwards but the one act plays and Don Perlimplin seemed to be the favourites with audiences.
On now to the Northern parts: a long journey on an empty road through endless forests of dark conifers or so it seems now as I look back so far in time. Food again! A meal there of well-hung venison which few of us enjoyed Camel being the exception: he cleaned his plate with gusto.
And finally the journey to Stockholm where we found we were booked into the Opera House for two nights! Joan was immediately taken under the wing of Baron von Mannerheim and the rest of us met our hosts. I stayed in a flat in the centre of Stockholm with a young woman who was eager to know what it was like to live in England through the blitz and rationing. 'Was it true,' she asked, 'that you painted your legs because you had no stockings?' Yes, I told her - and in winter too!
What a contrast the Opera House was to the Library theatre in Manchester: the latter’s auditorium could have fitted endless times into that of the Opera House and every night we played to a full house. We could do nothing wrong. And it was here that I personally had an extraordinary experience. Standing centre stage during a performance of Don Perlimplin it seemed I left my body and was hanging high up above the Gods looking down at myself, a tiny white figure on the big stage. I believe it’s called an out-of-body experience. It could only have lasted a second or two because nobody noticed anything: I hadn’t missed a cue or a move but most of all I myself was entirely unmoved and didn’t tell a soul about it as if it were something I did every day. It happened once more many years later.
I have not said much about Ewan’s writing for his two plays - The Other Animals and Johnny Noble. For the first, a stylised piece using Mahler’s music and some dance, Ewan wrote poetically for the only two vocal characters - a prisoner and an interrogator, he himself played the prisoner and the interrogator was an interesting actor, Peter Varley, engaged specifically to play this part. The physical and vocal contrast between the two men contributed to the tensions of the scenes between them.
Johnny Noble was set in the north east of England and used the dialect of that area. The time was the recession of the thirties when there was great deprivation and the famous Hunger Marches took place - hundreds of unemployed walked to Parliament to put their case. Folk songs were used in the play, Ewan and a young woman as singers and all available men in the company represented the marchers, crossing the stage in slow synchronised movement. There was a love interest - a young man and his girl friend saying goodbye as he leaves on a march - played by David Scase and myself.
Obviously these two plays have a political content but the combination of Ewan’s writing, John Bury’s lighting and Joan’s vision brought poetry to them.
Baron Mannerheim figured largely in our stay in Stockholm and on one occasion, very much to my surprise, in mine. Joan informed me, after her notes on a performance, that I was invited to dinner that evening with the Baron! 'Alone?!' I asked. The thought was frightening but of course quite ridiculous. Joan, Gerry, Peter Varley and myself were of the small party. What on earth would I wear? The worry was irrelevant, there was only one choice. Clothes rationing was still strict at home and I took my whole very small wardrobe on the tour: a new green dirndl skirt, an old blue dirndl skirt, a fawn twin set, a couple of jerseys, a pair of slacks, and bits of underwear and pyjamas. It had to be the green dirndl and the fawn twin set for the dinner.
We were picked up after the show and driven through the night to a huge looming building that might have been a castle. We were greeted by the Baron and a very beautiful woman who, I learned later from Peter Varley, was a White Russian, a countess and his mistress. Peter was one of those people who seem to be informed of everything.
The dining room was lofty and sombre, panelled in wood dark with age. The Baron sat at the top of the table, the countess on his left and Joan on his right, Peter next to her then Gerry and opposite to them me by the countess. She was as sweet as she was beautiful. We were talking politely when a large soup dish landed on the table before me. Without thinking I glanced up, met the cold eyes of a tall dragon in the guise of a servant and said thank you! If looks could have killed I would have died on the spot. To say thank-you to a servant! She left the room with her male companion who was equally stiff and cold. The Baron chuckled and I looked round to his smiling face. 'They don’t approve of me either,' he said. Kind of him but surely true; after all he was entertaining a group of actors and servants are the snobbiest of people.
In this, our last week of the tour, the company was taken to see a performance of a dramatisation of Kafka’s The Trial. It was impressive. I had not read the book then but the frustration and fear engendered was palpable even though we knew no Swedish. The set was a series of tiny, claustrophobic rooms laid out in a line like the compartments of a railway carriage. The actor moved from one to the other of these small cells.
We had that day been paid ten Swedish crowns, our salary for the tour. With the crowns burning a hole in my pocket I went next morning to a book shop but couldn’t find an English translation of The Trial. I came away with a large volume, Poetry Of The English-Speaking World. Paper was severely rationed in England and few decent volumes available. From books I went to a food emporium and purchased a whole Stilton cheese for my father.
And then a farewell banquet given by Mannerheim for the company and dignitaries of Swedish theatre and society. He was seated at the top of the long table with Joan beside him and at the bottom end looking up to them was an admiral in full rig and me beside him in the green dirndl and fawn twin set. I suppose I could have bought a dress with my crowns rather than a book but I never thought of it.
I don’t remember anything of the long menu that evening. Probably because we were so well fed during our stay in Sweden. I do remember a moment during a performance of Johnny Noble when the chorus of half-starved unemployed men was on stage that evening; bloated from a large breakfast, lunch and tea, a line from one of them came up - 'We walk between one meal and the next.' En masse they had to turn upstage while they suppressed their giggles.
The Admiral and I got on rather well, chatting about London where he had visited, the blitz on Liverpool, the performance of The Trial. There was a large wine glass of red wine in front of me; I thought I’d venture a taste and stretched out my hand to it. Ah”, said the Admiral, 'in Sweden a lady must not drink until a gentleman says scholl to her.' He raised his glass and we scholled each other.
To Gothenburg next morning and the boat for England. From what could have been a case of mistaken identity a couple of us found ourselves in first class cabins. I think they may have been intended for Joan and Gerry and Ewan. Trying to sort things out we went to look for them but, it being meal time, we were directed to the first class dining room where we found the Crown Prince of Sweden seated with his entourage. And lobster on the menu.
And so to grey, drizzly Manchester and rehearsals for a visit to the second Edinburgh Festival...