Arts: If he could make an ass of himself, what about them?

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Damien Hirst, we learn, first began dabbling in animal parts as a boyish Bottom. What other prophetic epiphanies, Paul Taylor asks, lurk in the cast-lists of school plays past?

The schoolmaster who taught art to enfants terribles Damien Hirst and Marcus "Myra" Harvey spilt the beans to the press recently about his students' triumphs in the world of amateur drama. Hirst, it seems, wowed pupils and parents alike with his Bottom in an end-of-the-year production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I had to twist his arm a bit," Mr David Wood, now 60, recalled. "Once he realised it was a part he could go to town on, he was in his element." Evidently not a pinched Bottom; one wonders whether there was a whiff of formaldehyde about the ass's head. Marcus Harvey, by contrast, played in a school production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle: "He liked to be very helpful and used to visit Mr Wood's home in Dewsbury to paint scenery for the plays staged by the town's art group," glowed one report.

The revealing light cast on the people in today's headlines by their thespian activities at school is a field of study still relatively untilled. Untilled, that is, until now. Daunted not by my chronic allergy to dust, I have spent a happy fortnight rummaging in the school magazine stacks of yesteryear and taking my trusty tape-recorder to many a Sunset Home never before lit up by a journalist's presence. As the drugget is dragged over the school nativity play for yet another year, here I am ripping the wraps off the behaviour on the boards of the makers, shakers and fakers of the People's Britain.

The five-year-old Myra Hindley caught in an indelibly touching performance as the Virgin Mary? Christine Hamilton lifting the roof off the school hall with a precociously definitive Lady Macbeth? Oh, please, let's not be obvious about this. Let's begin, instead, with the current Minister for Further "Education, Education, Education", the very lovely Baroness Tessa Blackstone.

"Tessa had us all in stitches with her gaffe-prone Mrs Malaprop - especially the night she left her beauty spot backstage in a biography of Beatrice Webb!" reminisces her drama teacher at Ware Grammar School, 86-year-old Miss "Dodie" Grange. "She took direction like a lamb and was always the first to make helpful suggestions about improving Sheridan's dusty old dialogue. By the time we came to the first performance, Mrs Malaprop's mistakes, or `presentation problems' as Tessa preferred to put it, had been halved. In my mind's ear I can still hear the happy laughter Tessa's characterisation provoked."

Over at La Sainte Union Convent, Bath, some four years later, a woman on the other side of the political spectrum was strutting her stuff as Shakespeare's most poetically ineffectual monarch. "What Ann Widdecombe's Richard II lacked in ethereality," reports the anonymous reviewer in the La Sainte Record, "it more than made up in the occasional searing glimpses it gave of the much firmer ruler Richard might have been, had Fate allowed him to get a proper grip on himself. Top marks to Ann for a super death scene, its pathos only enhanced by Miss Abercrombie's sterling work on the zither."

Before he went up to Durham Choir School, one Anthony Blair was causing quite a commotion at his nursery nativity play. Let Mrs Morag McTavish, who penned and directed the show, take up the story: "Och, he was a wee rascal when he was a bairn. He had a great pal, Harriet; we used to call them Noddy and Big Ears, on account of Harriet's rather large lobes. Well, I cast the two of them as the innkeeper and his wife, you know, the ones who turn Mary and Joseph away. They had a wee duet - `No room, no room / haven't any room / haven't any room / haven't any room / in the inn, sir' - and lovely firm arm-gestures.

"Everything went swimmingly at rehearsal. The performance, on the last day of term, was what I think you media people would describe as `a different ball game'. Blow me down, if Anthony didn't wander off and start distributing Christmas cards to the rest of the cast, leaving poor Harriet to struggle on solo, with the ox and the ass noisily ripping into their envelopes. I said to him, `Why do you think Miss Robisher went to the trouble of putting a Christmas post-box outside her office?' But when that wee laddie turned on a smile, och, you could forgive him anything."

Mrs McTavish is a keen follower of her pupil's continuing acting abilities: "When he read that passage from Corinthians at Princess Diana's funeral, he made it so much his own - so much, as they say these days, `in the moment' - why, you quite forgot that St Paul had had the trouble of writing it first!"

That behaviour in a nativity play may be a clue to a performer's future is borne out by Andrew Morton's biography of Diana. There, "in her own words", she reveals that at her prep school, Riddlesworth Hall, "I was one of the twits who came and paid homage to the baby Jesus." It was "the thrill of putting on make-up" that made school theatre bearable for her. But both here and at her later alma mater, West Heath, she reveals, "when I was asked to act, it was only on condition that I shouldn't have to speak." And that's kind of prophetic, for though she did learn to use her mouth in public, it's essentially as a silent image rather than as a voice that she is destined to be remembered.

On a hunt through the yellowing glory of the programmes for the plays put on at Hendon County Grammar School, my eye hungered for some sighting of Mandelson P. Would I find a record of his sizzling rendition of "Flash, Bang, Wallop, Wot A Picture!" in a never to be forgotten production of Half a Sixpence or of the amusing slip-up when his heavily padded Mr Pickwick launched into a slightly revised version of his signature song: "When I rule the world / every day will be the first day of Lent". No such luck. There's just one reference, where, in a list of acknowledgments in the programme to a modern-dress As You Like It, a Peter Mandelson of Form 3 is mysteriously thanked "for the loan of his Dusty Springfield record".

A reluctant thespian, then, as with someone once well known to readers of The Independent. Here is an extract from her school magazine, Spring Term 1975: "When a flu bug decimated the cast and a skiing accident put Sophie Robinson in traction (get well soon, Sophie, the lacrosse team hath need of thee!), the mantle of Gwendolen Fairfax [in Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest] fell on to the surprised shoulders of Bridget Jones." The reviewer reports that Jones "acquitted herself creditably" and gave a special spirit to the lines: "I never travel without a diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train." It's clear from the tone of this review that the writer had an unreciprocated crush on Ms Jones.

And it's clear too, from the tone of the review that Stephen Fry wrote in the Uppingham magazine at the tender age of 13, precisely in what direction he was heading. He begins by chiding three Inca extras in the school's Royal Hunt of the Sun for bunking off to the pub. Then he does an about- turn and starts to defend the truants in those Wildean accents that have since given pleasure to millions: "The first duty of life is never to see through appearances. The second is to see through one's disappearances to the scrumptiously sweet end."

To all the above, a very Merry Christmas.

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