A couple of weeks ago I visited my brother-in-law James (Jim) Morris, who has lived on a beautiful plot of forest in New South Wales, Australia, near the small town Eden, for over thirty years. He left Stratford-upon-Avon, where he had been born and brought up, at the age of 19 in 1959.
I knew he had appeared on the stage of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as a child actor aged 13, chosen largely because of his beautiful singing voice, and he’d sent me before some photographs of the souvenirs that he still has relating to what was, not surprisingly, an important time of his life. It was great to talk to him about his memories of the 1953 season when he appeared in both The Merchant of Venice and Richard III. It was a star-studded season, with Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave in The Merchant of Venice, and Marius Goring, Basil Hoskins and Rachel Kempson in Richard III.
In The Merchant of Venice he was one of the three casket-bearers, three boys who held the gold, silver and leaden caskets, who sang, and also contributed to the play in other ways, not always planned. Jim remembered how one of the boys got the giggles one night, and how another time the lighting was mis-timed, leaving the boys struggling to find their way off the moving stage during blackout. The perils of live performance…
Jim has lovely photos showing the boys in the costumes having fun, with their chaperone Mrs Tuke in attendance, as well as actors like Robert Shaw at a cricket match held in Tiddington.
Things were probably more serious in Richard III, when Jim appeared as Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of Clarence. Jim’s scrapbook includes a page of photographs of himself in costume, including a close-up. While most of the photos look like snaps, and indeed many were taken by Jim himself with his newly-acquired camera, this one looks more professional. Tucked into the scrapbook he unfolded for me a sketch, on a flimsy piece of paper, that had been made to show what his hair was to look like. I’ve seen lots of examples of costume designs for Memorial Theatre/RSC productions, but never one of these. As he pointed out, there can’t be many of them left. How extraordinary to find such a vulnerable piece of evidence for a production of Shakespeare in Stratford in such a far-distant place.
But then, Jim has a fund of fantastic memories of his early life, and quite a collection of memorabilia. I loved his diary covering 1959, the year when he left England for Australia, having seen several of the shows at the Memorial Theatre before setting off, and documenting the first few weeks after his arrival. In his scrapbook he still has the invitation, sent out by Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, and Mr and Mrs Glen Byam Shaw, to the end of season party on 25 October 1953. What a party that must have been, and what an experience for a thirteen-year old.
I was delighted to be shown one of his most treasured possessions, the little pottery pig which Peggy Ashcroft (his Portia) gave him, in perfect condition. Apparently there were three of them, each a different size, one for each of the casket boys. I wonder if either of the other two are still recognised and valued, and if so, in which of the “three corners of the world” they are to be found.