DISTINGUISHED actor Dame Joan Plowright opened 30th anniversary celebrations at St Mary’s House in Bramber.
Her blend of personal reflection and humorous anecdote, in conversation with theatrical director Richard Digby Day, captivated the packed audience at the historic property on Saturday, April 26.
Administrator Alan Durden said: “In a long line of celebrities from the literary, musical and theatrical worlds who have performed at St Mary’s House, Bramber, the visit of Dame Joan Plowright must surely rank as one of the most prestigious.”
The event marked the start of the 30th year of restoration of St Mary’s by owner Peter Thorogood and curator Roger Linton. In recognition of the achievement, Dame Joan and Richard Digby Day donated their fees to the ongoing conservation project.
Dame Joan recalled her student days at the Old Vic Theatre School in London, where she came under the wing of George Devine, a significant influence in her life. Then when she was 26 years old, she was accepted by Orson Welles for a part in his production of Moby Dick.
The following year she was asked by George Devine to join the newly-formed English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. It was there she had her first starring part, in The Country Wife, with Sir Laurence Olivier in the audience, who recalled subsequently that he ‘had eyes for no-one but Joan’.
They acted together in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and Dame Joan recalled the first day of rehearsal, when Sir Laurence pretended to forget her name, and rechristened her ‘Miss Wheelshare’, saying it was equally agricultural.
Their relationship developed and they were eventually married while both acting in separate plays in New York in 1961.
On their return to England, Sir Laurence was appointed director of Britain’s National Theatre. Their first overseas tour was to Moscow in 1965. It was the first time a foreign company had acted in the Kremlevsky Theatre, built for Stalin 30 years earlier. No western literature or jewellery could be taken with them, and they were told that one floor of the Ukraine hotel, where the company was staying, was staffed entirely by KGB officials.
The visit must have made an impression on Dame Joan, for even nearly 50 years later she was able to recite perfectly the short speech she had given in Russian at a reception following the first night.
Asked by Richard Digby Day how she would describe Sir Laurence Olivier, who died 25 years ago, Dame Joan replied: “How can you describe genius? As Sir Laurence said himself, ‘there are a dozen actors as good as me, but I worked harder – I was determined to be the best’.”
To round off the afternoon, Dame Joan was asked what it was about being an actor that was so important.
She replied: “Often we get stuck behind a façade; acting gives us the liberty to explore all aspects of the character we are assuming. We almost become that person.”
Visit www.stmarysbramber.co.uk for more information on the programme of concerts and events celebrating 30 years of conservation at St Mary’s House and Gardens, or telephone 01903 816205. The house and gardens are open on Sundays, Thursdays, and Bank Holiday Mondays, 2pm to 6pm.