Arguably the Wolfson Hall in the Shakespeare Centre, right next to the writer’s birthplace, was the best appointed venue the Fellowship has ever had for its Annual General Meeting and Conference. A spacious lecture hall with an adjacent modern theatre facility, was perfect for the ambitious programme planned for this year’s gathering.
As the fifty or so delegates arrived soon after eleven at the centre, both renewing acquaintances and greeting new members over a cup of coffee, there was a keen sense of anticipation ahead of the weekend events under the title ‘Friendship’. The delegates were also taking a look at a small photo exhibition at the back of the hall, recording the first 10 years of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
After a few introductory words from the Fellowship’s Life President, Dennis Silk ( who used to drive Siegfried in his Humber Sprite from Heytesbury to Stratford-upon-Avon to meet his friends in the town and attend performances at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre) the delegates settled down to listen to the first of the two guest speakers.
Dr. Philip Errington is a director in the Department of Printed Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s. His talk was entitled ‘One of the Anti-Christs’ : John Masefield, Siegfried Sassoon and Masefield’s theatricals’. Philip’s bibliography, John Masefield – the ‘Great Auk’ of English Literature was published in 2004, ad his collected edition of Masefield’s writing on the First World War as John Masefield’s Great War, in 2007. Over the next forty minutes or so, Philip gave us a rich profile of the poet, writer and Poet Laureate. Outlining Masefield’s early unhappy school days at the King’s School in Warwick, then describing his life at sea and in America before returning to England in 1897. By the age of 24 Masefield’s poems were being published and his first collected works ‘Salt-Water Ballads’ included the famous ‘Sea-Fever’. When World War 1 began Masefield was old enough to be exempted from military service but joined the staff of a British hospital in France. Shortly after the war he wrote the very successful ‘Gallipoli’ about the failure of the allied efforts in the Dardanelles. A couple of days before the Armistice at the suggestion of Ottoline Morrell, with whom he was staying at Garsington, Siegfried Sassoon cycled across to Boar’s Hill, just outside Oxford, where he was to meet Masefield, who in turn was willing to introduce him to the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. The friendship and literary association that began that day, between Sassoon and Masefield, developed in the elite artistic community on Boar’s Hill, was to last until they both died within a couple of months of each other in 1967.
The second speaker was Dr.Nick Walton, a lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Executive Secretary to the International Shakespeare Association and instrumental in organising World Shakespeare Congresses held around the world, he also regularly reviews Shakespearian productions and has written extensively on the bard.
Nick’s crisply presented and vividly illustrated talk featured the theatrical career (and Siegfried’s friendship with) the actor and theatre director, Glen Byam Shaw. In Siegfried’s diaries in 1925 there is a passage which in all probability, refers mostly to Byam Shaw - ‘More and more I want to weave this texture (or context) of my friends into a tapestry of human understanding. It is like someone building a house and furnishing it slowly and wisely. My friends are my house. I have no other refuge on earth’.
Their friendship started in 1924, having met at a party, and lasted until Siegfried’s death in 1967. Siegfried was a frequent visitor to Stratford, especially during the period of Glen Byam Shaw’s directorship of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre between 1952 and 1959. Nick described Glen Byam Shaw as something of a shadowy figure, but meticulous in the preparation of his productions. Known as a deeply sensitive reader of Shakespeare’s works and described by the Spectator in 1953 as ‘the best living producer of Shakespeare’s work’ and ‘being able to empathise with his characters and be sympathetic to the play and the actors’
Byam Shaw worked with the most famous actors of the time – Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Charles Laughton, Anthony Quayle and Laurence Harvey. His 1955 production of Macbeth with Olivier and Leigh was considered to be the performance against which all future versions have been judged.
Glen Byam Shaw was an advocate of the ‘Motley’ design style with its economical yet functional, picturesque yet practical, stage settings. He was famous for starting rehearsals with a speech outlining the meticulous planning he had carried out – ‘I have thought about this for a month; so you don’t have to think’ Giving out his instructions on Monday morning, there was little discussion time for method or motive. This approach would subsequently be criticised by a future director of the Stratford Theatre Peter Hall, for ‘stifling invention’
In his eight years at Stratford he produced fourteen plays which were virtually all played to sell-out audiences. In the definitive ‘Directors’ Shakespeare’ book Byam Shaw is included in the thirty most innovative directors of all time.
His very close friendship and the exchange of numorous letters with Siegfried Sassoon, would most certainly have included many discussions on the comparative skills and techniques in producing plays and the refining, editing and crafting of poetry and prose. Glen Byam Shaw was best man at Siegfried’s wedding and godfather to Siegfried’s son George.
After listening to our splendid guest speakers we retired to the adjacent theatre auditorium for tea, then settled down for a new feature at the Conference this year – a play reading.
Neil Brand had kindly given us permission to stage a ‘rehearsed reading’ of his play ‘Between the Lines’ originally broadcast on Radio 4 in 2001. Produced by SSF’s own Kayleigh Fitzgerald and starring Dominic Goodwin in the role of Siegfried, ably supported by members of a local dramatic society. We were treated to a gripping interpretation of Sassoon’s suffering from depression and subsequent mourning for friends lost on the Western Front. This prompts an imagined visit to his much missed, psychiatrist and mentor Dr.W.H.R.Rivers, whose sudden death in 1922 had devastated Sassoon. They discuss his sudden inability to write poetry - he is bought a car by a wealthy friend, and he immediately embarks on an 800 mile trip to see writer friends including Thomas Hardy and T.E.Lawrence. As his spirits are lifted he realised that could write things other than poetry, and his fortunes improve. The play lasted nearly an hour and received a rousing ovation at the end.
The conference was brought to a close just before five and we said goodbye to those delegates who would not be able to join us for the annual dinner, to be held later that evening.
Just across the Avon, at the Bistrot Pierre Restaurant in the Macdonald Swan’s Nest Hotel we met up again, just after seven, for the Annual Dinner of the Fellowship. Around thirty members and guests gathered in a private room around a very large oval table, and the evening’s celebrations began. After a few short few words of welcome from Meg Crane to the guests, the evening continued as we discussed the splendid day we had enjoyed and sippedmildly an aperitif or two as we waited for the food to be served. The three course meal was presented and digested and we sat back to enjoy a novel, after-dinner entertainment. A, how can we put this, rather less well-rehearsed play reading than the one we had enjoyed earlier in the day, was performed to the delight of the well fed and mildly inebriated guests. A mercifully, slightly abridged version of Siegfried’s play ‘Hyacinth’ was performed by several carefully selected members of the Fellowship, who perhaps might not be troubling the jury on the X-Factor any time soon.
On Sunday morning yet another treat was in store for those delegates who had been able to stay over in Stratford the night before. Dennis Silk had told us at the Conference, that when he used to drive Siegfried to Stratford in the 1950’s they frequently used to stop at the Welcombe Hotel on the outskirts of the town. He recalled that Siegfried, who always looked forward to his trips to Stratford with great anticipation, felt that when they arrived at the hotel to, in his words, ‘A great welcome at the Welcombe’ his time in the intoxicating town of Shakespeare’s birthplace had truly begun. The Welcombe Hotel is a tastefully renovated Jacobean style country house; built in 1866 for the merchant, manufacturer and politician, Robert Needham Philips and set in 157 acres of gently rolling Warwickshire countryside. On a gloriously sunny morning we enjoyed coffee on the terrace, overlooking the beautifully manicured gardens and the 18-hole golf course. Alas after enjoying the coffee, the splendid views and an exploratory walk or two, we had to part whilst reflecting on another successful conference and looked forward to all meeting up again at the Imperial War Museum in November, the next scheduled Fellowship event.
Special thanks must go to Deborah Fisher and Meg Crane for their tireless work over the previous months in organising the Conference. Our gratitude also goes to Sue and Peter Rogers - our perfect ‘Stratford Hosts' who ensured that all the weekend’s events went off seamlessly.