Obituary: George Rylands

T. J. Cribb
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:11

THE UNION of the theatrical with the academic came early in the life of George Rylands, known to all who met him as "Dadie" (he could not pronounce "baby" when tiny). Rylands went to King's College, Cambridge from Eton on a scholarship to read Classics in 1921 - in January so that he could act Electra in J.T. Sheppard's production in Greek of The Oresteia.

This practical experience of communicating the essence of a play as clearly as possible to audiences only partially able to follow the words was doubtless the key to the qualities for which Rylands's later productions of Shakespeare became famous: clarity of delivery, musicality of vocal orchestration, striking stage pictures, and an overall impression of unimpeded transparency.

But first came the acting. During the Twenties, when the Vice- Chancellor still prohibited women from appearing on the Cambridge stage, Rylands took some of the leading female roles in Elizabethan drama, including the Duchess of Malfi. He thus acquired an intimate feeling for the appropriate style of acting when he later came to direct his great friend Peggy Ashcroft in the same part. He was also a ruthlessly dashing Diomedes in the famous Marlowe Society production of 1922 which restored Troilus and Cressida to currency on the stage.

It was indeed the university's Marlowe Dramatic Society which was to be the main channel of his influence on English theatre. Through that channel flowed the principles of impersonality, balance, and the delivery of verse with neither the huff-and-puff of old-style rhetoric nor the clipped twittering of drawing- room comedy which were then the prevailing alternatives.

These principles were first mooted by Lytton Strachey in reviews of earlier Marlowe productions and developed by Rylands in discussion with Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, especially Virginia Woolf.

In her diaries Rylands makes a vivid and attractive appearance in his bright blue suit - vain, but kind, energetic and intelligent; she called him a cornflower. It was with Rylands that she shared her anxieties over the writing of The Waves, and it is a luncheon he gave her in King's that she describes in A Room of One's Own (1929). And since it was Strachey who wrote the introduction to Rylands's Fellowship dissertation, Words and Poetry, which he had prepared while working for the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press (which they published in 1928), it is clearly through Rylands that the Bloomsberries enter English theatre.

At this date, 1928, Rylands moved into the rooms in King's where he entertained, rehearsed and lived for the next 70 years, and whose doors and fireplaces were painted by Dora Carrington. Earlier he had also moved from Classics to English. The English Faculty was then in its heroic phase of working out first principles. Perhaps because his work was mainly in the ephemeral medium of theatre it is insufficiently recognised that Rylands participated in that heroic endeavour, sharing its rigour, intent interest in language, and urgency in the common pursuit of true judgment.

With characteristic boldness, in 1929 he chose King Lear for his debut as director for the Marlowe, casting the undergraduate Michael Redgrave as Edgar. John Lehmann remembered "the constriction of the heart" that assailed him at the climax of the play. Equally bold was Rylands's decision to take advantage of the lifting of the ban on women actresses by staging Antony and Cleopatra in 1933. The daring of Geoffrey Wright's costume designs scandalised the Master of Corpus.

Not that Rylands's theatrical activities were limited to the Marlowe, or indeed to the theatre. In King's he served on nearly every committee, acted as Junior Bursar, and was offered the position of Provost, which he refused. At the Amateur Dramatic Club he acted in light comedy and occasionally directed the Footlights as well as the Greek play. Here he was aided and abetted by his contemporary and colleague at King's, the talented comedian Donald Beves. The two of them ran a double act, putting on a Greek or Jacobean tragedy one week, parodying it the next.

The pay-off from this sprezzatura was seen in Rylands's revival of T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, which, because it successfully released the comedy, the author much preferred to the London premiere.

Whether participating in a comedy or a tragedy, generations of students testified to the feeling of "happy triumph" that buoyed everyone up during a Rylands production.

Behind the scenes of these triumphs there was of course much hard work. Rylands was meticulous in preparing lighting plots and worked closely with his designers and stage managers. This attention to detail and planning made him an invaluable ally for his close friend Maynard Keynes as he matured his plans for the building of the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Indeed, it was a multi-media entertainment Rylands devised for Keynes, involving photography by Cecil Beaton, choreography by Frederick Ashton, music by Constant Lambert, and acting by Rylands himself that inspired Keynes with the idea of a theatre devoted to all the performing arts. After Keynes's death in 1946, Rylands took over as Chairman of the Trustees, steering the theatre from the late Forties through the Fifties and Sixties.

Here the young Peter Hall saw all the Marlowe productions and resolved to emulate them. Here John Barton, joining Rylands at King's, also began to direct, culminating in his outstanding two parts of Henry IV with Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Clive Swift and Eleanor Bron in 1960. From here Barton left to join Hall when he took over the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre the same year.

From Rylands's last production for the Marlowe in 1960, Cymbeline, Trevor Nunn graduated from acting to direct the Marlowe himself, later inheriting Hall's mantle at the RSC. And that is the history of Shakespearean production in England for a good 20 years.

Apart from this indirect but potent influence, Rylands's practical grasp enabled him to contribute directly to the professional stage. Outstandingly there was his direction of John Gielgud's best Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1944. It was Rylands's Shakespeare anthology, The Ages of Man (1939), that Gielgud used for his remarkable solo performances.

Perhaps even more characteristic was the mixing of top professionals, such as Irene Worth, with undergraduate actors in the recordings of the complete works of Shakespeare for the British Council between 1957 and 1964. The project was the first of its kind, was hailed by critics as the most significant publication of Shakespeare since the First Folio, and is still current. The British Council also sent a Marlowe Society double-bill of The White Devil, with Noel Annan as an imposing Pope, and Measure for Measure, with Rylands in his best part, Angelo, to Berlin in the airlift of 1948.

Rylands lived long enough to see public recognition of his achievements, poor compensation though it was for surviving so many friends: an honorary degree from his own university, and in 1987 a Companionship of Honour. The RSC celebrated his 90th birthday with a programme at the Swan. And in 1996 there was a great gathering of stars at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to launch an appeal for a Rylands Fellowship, intended to repay in some measure the singular generosity of a man who had literally given away all of the fortune he inherited from an uncle - to his college, to the Arts Theatre, to the Fitzwilliam Museum, to numerous individuals whose careers he helped launch with timely assistance unencumbered by advice.

By the time of the Haymarket celebration Dadie Rylands was too frail to attend, but he sent a short film instead. With entirely characteristic impishness the film consisted of an electrifying recital of a speech from, God forbid, the Scottish play: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow". There was no one on stage that night, nor will there ever be, who could follow that.

In the summer term of 1921 Cambridge University was still rejoicing in the Peace that followed the unspeakable horror of the First World War, writes Frances Partridge. Some had a new preoccupation - their final examinations.

The Provost of King's College, J.T. Sheppard had been confiding in several surprised friends that he had fallen in love with a very pretty Scottish Newnhamite and had planned a little lunch party to introduce her to his brilliant new student, Dadie Rylands. To complete the party he was asking me, as the girl's "best friend" and the sister of one of his own most prominent actors from the Marlowe Society.

This was the occasion of my first meeting with Dadie. I can't say the two departing girls and the new boy were quite at ease with each other, but I well remember Dadie's air of condescension towards us two girls, and the dazzling blonde good looks of the two other students - Dot (Sheppard's inamorata) and Dadie (blue-eyed both, and Dadie pink-shirted to match his complexion.) The Provost had enough vitality for us all.

It was some time before Dadie and I met again, both of us living in Bloomsbury by them. He told me once that the part of his output that he was proudest of was putting productions of all Shakespeares plays on radio. He nearly always took a major part him self, "and one thing I always insist on," he added, "is that they gave full value to the poetry and that each character understood what every word he was saying meant".

Several years passed before I began to meet Dadie again, at Long Crichel, a house communally owned in Dorset by writers, artists and painters. Dadie loved walking the dogs, and would stride off over the low downs followed by two or three. Shakespeare was often the theme of conversation but of course much else was talked about outdoors, in deckchairs on the lawn, or round the fire. There was teasing sometimes, for Dadie loved to tease and would accompany it with a pussy-cat smile (to use his own phrase).

I remember a discussion about class and culture, when someone was boasting of always saying "Good Morning" to the postman. "Did you really?" teased Dadie with a wide grin. "Did you say `How are you today?' to the dear fellow. How very obliging!" But such quips as these were not resented nor did they go very deep. All the four hosts of Long Crichel loved Dadie and appreciated the fun he always set going on his visits.

But the most delightful phase of my relations with Dadie began when he, Eardley and I decided to try and take what we called "our Spring holiday" every year. We kept this up for some time, going to such places as Holland, Wales, northern Spain, the Isle of Skye and Alderney, each for about a week. We lived in simple rooms, walked a lot, and the other two helped me look for wild flowers. In northern Italy we took to sight-seeing and had enormous fun.

Later still Dadie and I flew to Greece to stay with the Leigh Fermors. The best part of a wonderful stay was the evenings when Dadie read aloud to us. We chose the poets, he the poems and his voice rose and rang in a glorious baritone.

Then, alas, came illness. But Dadie was dauntless. He came in a wheelchair, which in turn came on a train and a taxi, with his "carer", who called him alternately "Doctor Rylands" and "Darling". They came to lunch in my London flat and then travelled back as they had come.

George Humphrey Wolferstan Rylands, English scholar and theatre director: born Tocklington, Gloucestershire 23 October 1902; CBE 1961; CH 1987; died Cambridge 16 January 1999.

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