Obituary: Professor Hugh Hunt

Hugh Sydney Hunt, theatre director and teacher: born 25 September 1911; Director, Bristol Old Vic Company 1945-49; Director, Old Vic Company, London 1949-53; Executive Officer, Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Australia 1955-60; Professor of Drama, Manchester University 1961-73 (Emeritus); Artistic Director, Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1969-71; CBE 1977; Chairman, Drama Committee, Welsh Arts Council 1979-85; married 1940 Janet Gordon (one son, one daughter); died Criccieth 22 April 1993.

HUGH HUNT made his mark in the theatre without any of the flamboyance, insincerity, and bonhomie for which the profession is noted. Although he was a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend he was an austere man and not an easy smiler.

He was born in Camberley, son of Captain CE Hunt MC. From his parents, especially his matriarchal mother, he inherited strength of character, a strong will, a good brain and diligence - all qualities of leadership which were to be valuable as this shy man became the founder and director of various important theatre companies. Widowed, his mother had slender means but gave her sons Hugh and John, the explorer and mountaineer Lord Hunt, educations at Marlborough and Magdalen College, Oxford.

Hugh became president of OUDS, a vital force in the theatre of the Twenties and Thirties for young actors, directors and playwrights. He married Janet Gordon, daughter of the President of Magdalen, and they had two children.

He directed at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, and with various repertory companies until at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in the mid-Thirties, he directed over 30 original Irish plays including Shadow and Substance. There he gave the designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch her first assignment and they worked together sympathetically over the years.

Hunt served in the forces from 1939 to 1945, in the Scots Guards, King's Royal Rifle Corps and the Intelligence Service. After the war his taste and judgement made him the ideal first director of the Bristol Old Vic at the historic Theatre Royal. Under his inspired guidance it became the outstanding repertory company in the UK.

First he recruited an excellent company, headed by his old friend from Oxford days William Devlin, with Pamela Brown, Yvonne Mitchell, Faith Brook, Noel Willman and Cyril Cusack. Peggy Ramsay, later well known as a leading playwrights' agent, was in his first company. Wendy Hiller joined for a fine adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles by her husband Ronald Gow. Tanya Moiseiwitsch, now famous, designed the sets for Hunt's opening production, The Beaux' Stratagem. In Bristol, he laid foundations for the rest of his directorial years in developing his special gift of bringing classics to life.

In 1948 he was appointed director of the Old Vic Company in London, then at the New Theatre (now the Albery). His stars included Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, and the plays included The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet. When the Old Vic reopened in the Waterloo Road after repairs to war damage his outstanding productions included King Lear, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet.

In 1955 he was appointed founder director of Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Sydney. After five years he returned to England leaving the Sydney Theatre Co to thrive, now attached to the famous Opera House. In 1961 he became Professor of Drama at Manchester University, a position founded and funded by Granada TV and only the second chair of drama to be established in Britain. The last play he directed in London was from the Abbey Theatre, The Shaughraun for Peter Daubeny's World Theatre Season in 1968.

Hunt was a member of the Independent Television Authority, of the drama panel of the Welsh Arts Council, director of Sadler's Wells Opera Trust, and author of three plays and four books about the theatre. His autobiography alas found no publisher, as the discreet Hugh Hunt was unwilling to reveal starry indiscretions to which he was privy.

Meetings with this scholarly man from first to last were always salutary, never flippant, louche or gossipy in the familiar show-business manner. He was modest, a very private person, but a direct and forceful speaker, often moving and passionate when needed. He was a firm but kindly teacher. Latterly he retired because of failing health and lived quietly in a mountainous part of Wales cared for by his gentle wife Janet.

HUGH HUNT would not sit happily in his chair in the university world of today, for I think he would have little time for academic audit, teaching review and research selectivity exercises, writes Christopher Baugh.

Not that he would have assumed himself and his Department of Drama at Manchester University to be above such things, but for him the only real level of 'audit', and I think his rare strength as Professor lay in the selection of his staff. The 'mission' of his department, and its syllabus, was essentially the sum total of the staff whose individuality, however diverse and idiosyncratic, he fostered and protected.

'Prof' never considered himself to be an educational theorist, which proved an irritant to many in the late 1960s who wanted educational policy and political principle firmly enshrined within departmental practice. By offering a little, usually just before it was demanded, he operated rather like an extremely courteous, occasionally eccentric, but deceptively adept colonial administrator.

His great talent was to gather round him distinguished minds and practitioners, Stephen Joseph, Peter Thomson and George Taylor, for example, and having appointed them, to allow them space and freedom to develop, argue, research and teach theatre in ways which he seldom seemed to really understand or agree with but which he passionately upheld their right to pursue, believing firmly that everyone would be that much richer and more creative for their being there. This environment fostered such diverse talents as the film director Roland Joffe, and the writer David Edgar, while the unique postgraduate course linking the university with the profession did not survive his retirement in 1973 but in the few years of its life at Manchester's Stables Theatre produced writers, designers, directors, administrators and actors of distinction such as Peter Flannery, Tim Albery, Jo Vanek, Bernard Hill, Julie Walters and Anthony Sher.

A university 'trained' director himself, he never doubted the future of drama within a university and, further, passionately believed that a degree covering history, philosophy, and literature and professional practice was also the finest of educations for life. This clear and at present unfashionable vision firmly established the subject within the university not only in his department but also throughout the United Kingdom, where there are now few drama departments, theatre and media institutions which do not have strong and affectionate connections stretching back to the time when Hugh Hunt pioneered the subject at Manchester.

(Photograph omitted)

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