TO GLANCE back at the period when Richard Wordsworth found himself in one classical revival after another on the London stage is to marvel that such richness and variety of opportunity could have come any character actor's way before the era of public subsidies.
Working for some of the greatest names in the business - Gielgud, Wolfit, Clunes, Quayle, Brook and Miles - Wordsworth spent season after season in one old play or another without staying anywhere for long and without dabbling more than briefly in anything new. And as he flitted in the 1940s and 1950s from one classical troupe to the next, this lean and looming actor, with his long expressive face which he knew how to pull in all directions, chose his productions with some care. He himself may not have caught the headlines but he was often in the right place at the right time to see the great ones up close.
Rosencrantz to Alec Guinness's modern-dress Hamlet (Old Vic, 1938) was not a bad beginning. He was also aptly cast as Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor, first at Stratford-upon-Avon and later for the Old Vic at its wartime West End address (now the Albery), where he later found himself on stage with Gielgud at his greatest, Edith Evans in command and Peter Ustinov a twitchy, chain-smoking detective in Rodney Ackland's version of Crime and Punishment.
Meanwhile there had been stints with Donald Wolfit's Shakespeareans in the provinces and in the West End as the Cardinal in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at Dundee Rep where he got to play leading parts, with Alec Clunes at the Arts in Shaw (The Philanderer) and Sheridan (A Trip to Scarborough) with Norman Marshall at Cambridge in Pinero and Wilde, and on Broadway in Congreve and Wilde. Then back to London for his true delight, Restoration comedy.
People who were there and are still with us doubt if anything has bettered Anthony Quayle's production of The Relapse (Lyric, Hammersmith and Phoenix, 1948) with Cyril Ritchard as the monstrous Foppington - no, not even Donald Sinden. It was also a good moment for the gangling Wordsworth as Coupler, the horrid procurer. It was a part which Wordsworth seized, like many others when he could, with a relished devilment, and repeated in the 1960s at the Mermaid in Paul Dehn's musical version for Bernard Miles, Virtue in Danger.
Meanwhile after another stint at Stratford and with Clunes as Smuggler in Farquhar's The Constant Couple, he joined Gielgud at Hammersmith for the famous 1952-53 season, as Edmund of Langley to Paul Scofield's Richard, Petulant in Congreve's Way of the World and Antonio in Peter Brook's staging of Otway's Venice Preserv'd which brought him the Clarence Derwent Award for the year's best supporting performance.
Then back to the Old Vic for five years, notably as Pistol in Henry V, Roderigo to the alternating Othellos of Richard Burton and John Neville, Malvolio, and the Porter to Paul Rogers' Macbeth.
As the outrageous Squeezum in Lock up your Daughters, a musical version of Fielding's Rape Upon Rape, Wordsworth helped to give Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre its first hit, in 1959, and to establish upon its new, open stage a lurid, romping style of fun. By then he had become a familiar figure in or behind the scenes of Peter Pan at Christmas, bringing joy with his broadly comic playing as Mr Darling and Captain Hook; and no one was surprised when they heard that in Australia he had staged and starred as Fagin in Oliver]
When the classics ceased to be revived with the old regularity of the 1940s and 1950s at the Old Vic and in the West End, Wordsworth turned to Moliere as Argan in Le Malade imaginaire (Vaudeville, 1968) with his usual exuberance, and to his illustrious great, great grandfather William, round whose life and works he devised and directed a one-man show which toured to the United States.
Would not any up and coming actor of today envy this actor's solid, quarter of a century's immersion in the classics? Or would he? It was certainly an enviable period for up and coming playgoers.
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