Simon Hale listens to a Solihull School old boy turned theatre legend.
Hugh Grant and Ralph Fiennes share one thing in common in addition to being award-winning film stars – they were both discovered by acclaimed stage director and former Solihull School pupil Richard Digby Day.
Returning to his old school, in his 80s, Richard spoke of those collaborations and of others in a talk about his life and career that has included being artistic director of five UK theatres, including the Nottingham Playhouse, with a preference for directing the works of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.
Richard is also Vice President of the Shaw Society, having staged more productions of Shaw’s work than any other living director. He has also worked as an international professor and lecturer inspiring new actors and directors.
He was interviewed by the Head of Solihull School’s English Department, Dr Stuart Hart, in the coeducational independent school’s Bushell Hall in front of current and former pupils, teachers and parents who all responded to his knowledge, views and anecdotes by giving him a magnificent reception.
Richard recalled his path into theatre that included playing Eliza Doolittle in a Solihull School production of Shaw’s Pygmalion, gaining his lifelong love of Shakespeare from watching Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V, and winning the Leverhulme Scholarship as a promising actor to study at RADA.
It was during his RADA course, as Richard explained, that he thought he “ought to be a director” and asked his principal if he could direct a play. This proved such a success that his principal told him that he should train to become a director, even though there was no directing programme.
“I was told, ‘If you speak to various people here, and ask them for their assistance, we will invent a programme for you’ – and that’s how I became RADA’s first student of direction,” said Richard.
Having taught the programme repeatedly, Richard stressed the importance as one gets older of “passing on” what you know if you have something interesting to say: “It’s only by doing so that you make any sort of theatre for the future.”
He enthused about his experiences as a director working with leading actors including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Eileen Atkins, Geraldine McEwan and Alan Rickman, and said he regarded the Sixties and Seventies as being an especially wonderful time for the theatre.
Comparing those days with the present, Richard said: “Sadly theatre suffers from not being funded properly, but what is most worrying now is the lack of classic plays – and when they are put on by the likes of the RSC they are badly spoken and cast with not enough leading actors.
“Shakespeare requires leading from the front and an operatic delivery. After all, the plays were written for heightened language and must be spoken as such.”
Asked what makes an actor, Richard said: “Acting is a craft – and is only very occasionally art. You can’t make a person into an actor; you can only make a person who really wants to be an actor improve – which means they need to practice the craft every day.”
He said the greatest performer he has ever seen was the opera singer Maria Callas: “She was not just an astonishing singer but an actress who made you feel that all her rehearsal periods had been used to make the audience feel that what she was doing had never been done that way before.”
Ralph Fiennes was just leaving RADA when Richard cast him in the small role of an attendant to Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but, as Richard said, “From the moment we started rehearsals I knew we should have cast Ralph as the duke and the other person as the attendant.”
As for discovering Hugh Grant, Richard said he was one of many who wrote in for a general audition when he was running Nottingham Playhouse: “Having decided to audition him, he arrived just before lunch all flustered. I asked him, ‘What are you going to do’ and he replied ‘I’m going to do a piece of Hamlet’. He started and within a minute he was all over the place. Sensing his nervousness, I did what I’d rarely done before and told him, ‘Why don’t you go away and make sure you really know the piece and come back after lunch.’ Hugh came back after lunch and was very much better – not wonderful, but a lot better.”
Richard added: “I did go on and give Hugh some work during which time I remember saying to him, ‘Hugh Grant, you are very pretty but you are very bad!’ That turned out to be the only time he has ever appeared on the stage.”