Obituary: David Waller

Click to follow
The Independent Online
David Waller was, as Shakespeare says in Coriolanus, "a great sea mark", a rallying point, an example and a role model. His contribution as an actor to a great period in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company, from the Sixties onwards, was immense and his benevolent and beneficent effect on all the people who knew him was palpable.

He was born in Street in Somerset in 1920, the son of an architect who had been forced through ill-health to live a country life and, accordingly, became a market gardener. Waller went to a Quaker school in Yorkshire before training at the Embassy School of Acting, in London, in 1937-38. His early professional life took him to the Old Vic Theatre, interspersed with engagements with various (mostly long-departed) repertory companies, including, in 1955, the Ipswich Arts Theatre Company.

I was 15 when this new leading actor came to town. In truth, I had something of an entree to the stage door of the intimate Ipswich Theatre because, only a little more than a year before, I had played a role there, which had been an ambition-shaping experience. So I felt like a partisan and possessive football supporter doubtfully weighing up the club's new signing.

Waller was fleshy and powerful, a centre-half not a centre-forward. But he took risks, he transformed himself and he made texts come alive. His crew-cut, brutal, sergeant-of-the-line Iago wasn't Shakespeare recited, or spoken, or sung - it was Shakespeare lived, inhabited and transformed. And so I became his most passionate fan.

He was kindly and interested when submitting to my stage-door conversations and I was devastated when he told me that, though he hated the nomadic actor's life, he was moving on to previously grazed pastures at the Old Vic. Around this time, he experimented with directing and writing, and played small roles in the West End.

When, a number of years later, in 1963, I was asked to direct my first professional production at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and I needed to cast the leading role of a dominating Welsh patriarch (very unsentimental, very funny), I proposed Waller and was stupefied to be told that he had left the theatre business altogether and was intending to run a travel agency.

After some pleading telephone calls, he agreed to give what he called "that awful business, the theatre" one more try. He was, as I expected, superb as the Father in Gwyn Thomas's The Keep and from that very springy board was launched a thrillingly demanding period of work together. His wife, Lys, moved to join him and we lived in adjoining flats in Coventry while Waller played parts like Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Belch in Twelfth Night, Musgrave in Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, The Narrator in Under Milk Wood, and Trelawny in a version of Treasure Island which we wrote together. It couldn't last, of course, but the inevitable termination of this joyous period was Waller's elevation to the Royal Shakespeare Company, just a few miles down the road at Stratford. In 1966 he became an Associate Artist of the RSC, which was something of a dream come true.

When I was lucky enough to follow in his footsteps to the RSC, I shared a house with David and Lys Waller in Stratford for nearly two years and once again he became indispensable to the productions I did. He was reptilian as The Duke in The Revenger's Tragedy, riotous as Sir Tunbelly in The Relapse, show-stealing as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing; he was a violent Claudius in Hamlet, a rustic philosophic Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet - and he became increasingly a central figure in the RSC, playing Northumberland in Peter Hall's great Wars of the Roses (1963), Pandarus in John Barton's great Troilus and Cressida (1968), Bottom in Peter Brook's great Midsummer Night's Dream (1970); and in 1969 shared the triumph of Harold Pinter's hypnotic two-hander Landscape with Peggy Ashcroft, who thought of him as a soul mate.

Just as with his father before him, heart disease led "Wal" to do less as the years passed. But, for me, he had become something of a surrogate father. I relied on his instincts and could sense his disapproval: his barometer of taste and mood was unfailing. His appetite for life and sense of fun belied his somewhat bank-managerial exterior; his generosity and passionate loyalty were surprising in one so outwardly reserved - his love of wife and home, of theatre and Shakespeare, of continuity and collaboration pulsed through his features in unexpected and unconcealable rushes of feeling that would embarrass him as much as they delighted his colleagues.

David Waller, actor: born Street, Somerset 27 November 1920; married Elisabeth Vernon; died London 23 January 1997.