The annual Shakespeare
Drama has always been important at Keele - and Drama was one of the very first student societies to be founded by the original pioneer students in 1950. A Shakespeare play followed, and an annual "outdoor Shakespeare" has been performed every year since 1951.
The first Shakespeares
"The first Shakespeare play was Twelfth Night. I have the Elizabethan playbill before me and it was on July 4th - 7th 1951 in Churches’ Mansion, Nantwich. This was a beautiful Elizabethan house which only just escaped the Great Fire of Nantwich. We were invited by the owners, Dr and Mrs Myott, the initial Pioneer dramatists performed in the open air using the garden with house as backdrop. They generously took on a motley crowd of undergraduates and a fine production ensued. Proceeds went to the parish church, still regarded as the cathedral of South Cheshire. "
"The first production was Twelfth Night in the summer of 1951. I watched some of the rehearsals, but the performances were later at Churches Mansion in Nantwich. The thespians included Pat Fable, John "Sweeney" Todd, Thelma Guillyn and Eric Humphreys."
"I am certain that there was also a production of Twelfth Night performed at the Top Lake of Keele Hall, using the island as a "green room", with a boat coming across the Lake and with Ariel. The Tempest was certainly performed no later than 1953 because Graham Lloyd-Owen (1954) was involved backstage (or rather, at the back of the island) and he left Keele in the summer of 1953. Peter Upton (1955) was Ariel was covered in greenish luminous paint - very effective in the gloaming - and there was a boat on the lake as well. King Henry IV Part 1 took place in the Courtyard of Keele Hall in 1952. Peter Whelan (1955) played Hal; Tom Parry (1954) was Falstaff, whilst Hedley Martin (1954) and Ray Garner (1955) were also involved. "
"The first lakeside play was surely The Tempest? Peter Upton as Ariel and John Gregson as Caliban…? John Barker as Prospero…? I remember selling anti-midge cream to the audience at 3d per small box. I think the very first Shakespeare was Twelfth Night - but for some reason not on campus."
"To those of us fortunate enough to be classed as Keele pioneers – the mid-fifties graduates – the news of the death of Peter Whelan has seemed like the closing of a door on a golden time. Peter was of average height but he stood head and shoulders above the rest of us, certainly as far as thespian events were concerned. "Read more about Keith Clement (1956)
"In my first year 1955 I was in a hut with (amongst others) Liz Pearson who was in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with James (?) during that summer The lake was used as part of the scenery and apparently actors were rowed across it. This was before my year's arrival and as in 1955/56 was Liz's was doing finals I don't think she took part in further productions, but Liz's name and James too were greatly revered by the drama group! "Read more about Dot Bell (Pitman)
"There was an open-air performance of Henry IV part 1 in the courtyard of Keele Hall. Tom Parry (1954) was an excellent Falstaff. Romeo and Juliet was performed in the same location, for which I arranged the sword fights. Jim Egan made a handsome red-haired Romeo."
"There was a Shakespeare production, The Tempest I think, on the natural apron at the edge of the lake. After many rehearsals, two Keele swans were trained to swim across the lake behind Ceres' barge. They followed her ashore and (not intended in the production) proceeded to copulate. Performance stopped until they stopped. Many of the invited Potteries dignitaries assumed it was a tasteless undergraduate joke about the bounty of Ceres."
"Liz Pearson, as Titania, did indeed make her entrance in a boat across the top lake, but she wasn't rowed, she was pulled on a rope by a couple of stage hands, one of whom was me, being bitten to death by the midges. The Clockhouse performance of Romeo & Juliet was memorable for the swordfight between Bernard Gibbons as Mercutio and Roger Hands as Tybalt - very realistic!"
"The first play to be put on at Keele Hall by students was Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I. In the absence of an assembly hall it was played in the courtyard of the main Keele Hall building, presumably in 1951-1952. The following three Shakespeare productions were all performed in the open-air, enacted beside the top lake ‘in a natural amphitheatre’ (Sentinel) with tiers of wooden seating for the audience. In 1953 came The Tempest: it was an almost ideal setting for the play, with the background of trees, rhododendron bushes and the waters of the lake."
"Peter Shenton (1957) was active in promoting drama in the early days at the University, producing and acting in operettas and plays, the latter making full use of Keele’s sylvan settings. In later life, whilst teaching in the local high school in Zurich he was also a prominent member of the theatrical society of Zurich. He took part, both as producer and as actor - from Gilbert and Sullivan to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," memorably by the upper lake amongst other plays. "
"Peter Shenton was such an active participant in Keele dramatic productions of the 1950s (I particularly remember his performance as Créon in Anouilh's Antigone in 1956-57) and such a witty and engaging personality."
"James Egan I recall. I had the pleasure of being Bernie Gibbons' lieutenant to his Pirate King, and to be his "stooge" on the impromptu summer review following. Tony Field was the musical director who died shortly after graduating and Gwillym Thomas the pirate 'prentice' tenor (lovely Welsh voice) lead."
"I have no recollection of Midsummer Night's Dream by the lakeside, but I took part in The Tempest in that location, as one of a number of "spirits". The stripped-to-the-waist costume was a bit chilly, but I don't suppose the audience would have seen the goose-pimples on the "spirits". It might have been summer 1954. Prospero was played by John (?) who, like me, was eventually ordained into the Anglican ministry. The swans made their fortuitous entrance, but decorously, and I forget during which act. They disgraced or delighted themselves and the audience in their impromptu love scene the following year."
"As a resident fencing instructor, I arranged the fights for Romeo and Juliet. My other dramatic episode was freezing to death as a semi-naked “spirit” in The Tempest by the lake. It doesn’t seem to have done me much harm because I am still here. John Barker was Prospero and Peter Upton (1955) was Ariel. And Tom Parry (1954) was superb as Falstaff."
"In The Tempest, Liz Pearson was pushed across the lake standing in a punt, from the far shore to the large acting area, a feat she repeated at least once in a later production. Ffrangcon Price (1955) was Miranda, John Barker (1955) was Prospero and I was Ferdinand. But who played Ariel - and Caliban?"
"Liz Pearson was in the 'Dream' with her boyfriend James. As she was graduating in 1955 I don't think she was in Romeo and Juliet but seem to remember that she told us she'd been in "Dream". Liz was the 4th year in my hut in 1955... We usually had a senior student in each Hut."
"It was in the Dream when Titania was pulled across the lake on a boat attached to a rope. I know, because I was a stage-hand on the other end of the rope - and I got bitten to death by midges."
"I remember being involved in 1955 Midsummer Night's Dream by the Lake, the dark highlight of which was the abrupt end of the Saturday matinee when Puck - Peter Shenton - made his entry in heavy rain by leaping from a tree, slipped on the wet grass and dislocated his shoulder. Bit players like me were relieved to get in out of the rain. Peter came on that evening in running spikes, with his dislocated arm strapped to his body. What a trouper! The 1956 Romeo & Juliet was held in the Clockhouse Courtyard; in 1957 we moved indoors for Electra by Giraudoux. In 1958 Macbeth was performed indoors. They were all fine productions because we were blessed with some very good actors, and also some fine singers and musicians, marshalled by John Groom, who also staged some very good Gilbert & Sullivan."
"Bernie Gibbons (or Bernard Lloyd - stage name) (1958) went on to be a professional actor following his exploits at Keele; he was Captain in the production of HMS Pinafore (1956/57) and in Romeo and Juliet playing Mercutio. Professionally he played in the open-air Regents Park Shakespearian dramas as well as many other things (maybe at the Globe too). On TV he was in an early courtroom drama and subsequently as a newsroom journalist as a "baddie" against the popular journalist! Another actor who was in Keele productions was a guy from our year - Peter Brookes who played the postman for many years in the Midlands soap "Crossroads" and I think he was Bottom in the Midsummer Night's Dream. Judy Watson 1959 was involved with costumes."
"Also in the same year as As You Like It (1954) there was a production of A Phoenix too Frequent (directed by Peter Whelan) which was performed at the NUS drama festival. I have old cast lists. "
"With reference to the production of As You Like It in 1954 – I can remember the apprehension as the audience staging went up lakeside. Would anyone come to fill the seats? Would Peter Whelan’s confidence be justified? I was in charge of publicity and had a huge banner put up across the lodge gates on the main road. It read – ‘AS YOU LIKE IT ON THE LAWNS OF KEELE HALL’. Bus passengers got over-excited and curious. It must have worked because we had very good attendance."
Some later Shakespeares
"We did a production of Much Ado About Nothing - probably in 1959 or 1960. From memory Tulla Tallianos (1960) was Beatrice and I think Frank Moorey (1961) was Benedick, I was Hero and I think Neil (?) was Claudio."
Jocelyn Ryder-Smith (1962)
"The production that Jill Budd (Garnett) (1963) and I remember was Hamlet, almost certainly in 1959/60, but could just have been 1960/61. We think that this was probably one of the best productions of Hamlet ever (amateur or professional) because it picked up very astutely Hamlet's 'Angry Young Man' persona (very topical at the time of the production). Although the performance on the night we saw it had a couple of very memorable glitches, the cast coped brilliantly: the recording of the cock-crow in Act I, Scene I came out as a high-pitched crackle as the new-fangled tape got stuck probably. And then when Polonius (Oliver Beer) was stabbed behind the arras in Act III Scene IV his shoulders jammed in the frame and the whole thing collapsed. As John Samuel mentions, it was Tony Scott who was the 'star' at that time."
Tony Budd (1963)
Barry Pegg, who played Laertes in Hamlet, also sang in Don Schlapp's madrigal group (along with seven other of us). At one meeting of the group post-Barry's theatrical work, Barry revealed that he had done pretty badly in one of his exams, and Don said to him in the most sympathetic manner " Alas, you can't make a Hamlet without breaking Peggs". I rather thought that Bryan Reed was something of a feature in Drama life. He came up in 1955 he graduated in '59 and, I think, died young."
Brian Sutcliffe (1959)
As a relic of the ‘fifties, though, I can only offer one reminiscence - that of a production in the Clock Tower courtyard, which I recall as Romeo and Juliet (1956?) where I was a member of the crowd of spectators. My visual of this was Tybalt’s death scene, played splendidly by Bernie Gibbons, as he was in those days; I especially remember his electrifying eyes! Hey, nostalgia!"
Tony Powell (1959)
"Macbeth was the first play I appeared in at Keele in my first autumn term of 1972. It worked very well in the Chapel context and was well received. It was on the final night that the WW2 dagger I had been using to kill Banquo (Paul Dalton (1974)) all week got caught in my cape and arced its way into the back of my thigh. What we were doing with such a weapon I have no idea. They hadn’t invented health and safety then. We carried the corpse off, me at the head end, and I dropped Banquo unceremoniously onto the hard floor with a bump. It wasn’t a serious wound but I did have to have it stitched, not, I am happy to say before I got to see the director Nick Baggott (1974) kicked down the steps in my place by Macbeth for being a cream-faced loon. It was actually worth the stitches. Sorry, Nick."
Steve Tingle (1976)
Return to the Clock House - 1981
"This photo (right) shows the covered seating for the reinstitated open air Shakespeare in the Clockhouse Courtyard in June 1981 (Twelfth Night). The University had some mobile raked seating and as Stage manager I had to design, order and build a covering in case of inclement weather (a wise precaution). I had never done anything like this before but got the materials and orders for scaffolding and tarpaulins right and delivered in time for construction from 8am on the Sunday morning (much to the chagrin of the resident Vice-Chancellor and wife hoping for a lie in). Fortunately had a guy called Alistair on the production team who worked for a building firm during vacations and so could actually lead us in the building of it (remembering him swing from roof pole to pole still gives me cold sweats). Out of sight are two scaffold towers either side to carry the large spotlights - from the top of one of which Stuart Ross (microbiology lecturer and technical stalwart of the Society during the 1980s) controlled the lighting. You have never seen someone move so fast downwards as he when lightning came during one performance!"
Steve Barks (1982)
The annual Shakespeare tradition has continued uninterruptedly ever since 1951. After many years' absence, Keele Drama Society returned to the Clock House Courtyard to perform A Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, directed by James Ryley and Polly Harrison in 2015, restoring the annual tradition of playing in the courtyard! The 2016 production of As you Like it, directed by Mark Holland and Huw Brentnall, continued the tradition and saw a pastoral rendition of the play be brought to life under a wonderful canopy.
Above: Twelfth Night was performed by the Forest of Light in 2014; Richard II, The Clock House, 2018