In the Foreword to this gloriously entertaining book, the theatre critic Benedict Nightingale is at a loss on how to describe it and ends up with ‘quirky’. He is quite right. How do you consider a romp through all the plays of England’s greatest writer from the pen (or laptop) of an author who advertises it on the cover as – ‘an actor’s saga of near misses and dogged endurance? Of course David Weston is not talking about the Bard but rather his own sixty years of playing his creations.
In 2011, Weston’s earlier book Covering McKellen: An understudy’s Tale, won that year’s Theatre Book Prize and Dulwich audiences had the opportunity of hearing the author talk about his hopes to play one of his life’s ambitions – King Lear, on the world tour. As he amusingly told us, Ian McKellen did not miss a single performance and so his dream remains unfulfilled. Last year he published a novel of the further adventures of Dickens’s Artful Dodger after his transportation entitled Dodger Down Under.
Weston has worshipped two gods in his life. The first was Michael Croft, a teacher at Alleyn’s in the 1950’s who was considered by his colleagues at the school, as either a charming genius who was an inspiration to work with, or a total education subversive. It would be Croft, with his visionary Shakespearean productions at Alleyn’s, who would launch the National Youth Theatre, and with it the careers not only of David Weston, but a host of others, and as Weston would be the first to admit, better known actors than he.
If you want to know who they are, this book will tell you. The author’s career has spanned six decades and I suspect that if a part came up that might moderately interest him, David Weston would still play it. There can be few actors still working that can recall performing in Moscow when the Cold War was at its height, or in Berlin as the Wall was literally being built next to the theatre he was playing.
Weston’s other god is Shakespeare whose authorship of all the plays printed under his name Weston will defend to the death. Drawing upon his long experience in performing Shakespeare, Weston is ever ready to take up the cudgels against the welter of academics who express differing views on authorship, style and substance to his own; illustrating his points from his close observation of the text with which he is so familiar.
He has performed in twenty-nine of the listed thirty-seven Shakespeare plays, in some he has played several different characters. In Covering Shakespeare he addresses each play in turn. He describes its history under his term ‘Tattle’, with also some great quotes – Samuel Pepys for example described Romeo and Juliet thus – “It is the worst play I ever heard in my life.”
The second, and principal element of the book is the part he calls Memories. Here he reveals what a precarious life an actor has. It is fine when young and carefree, but when parts dry up and responsibilities begin to arrive, life for an actor can be demoralising. It was in the mid-1970’s that Weston began to realise that the glittering career he had once confidently expected would not arrive. It had all started so well; starring as Mark Anthony in Michael Croft’s NYT production at the Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue with Martin Jarvis as Cassius, John Shrapnel as Caesar, Simon Ward as Octavius, Michael York as Messala and Ian McShane as Strato. Weston thinks it was the best thing he has ever done. Following the opening there were three top theatre agents clamouring for his attention. A star role as the young monk, Brother John opposite Richard Burton in the movie Beckett followed.
Other movie roles were forthcoming, including The Heroes of Telemark, and the starring role in Disney’s Dick Turpin. In 1967 he shared the stage with Charles Laughton and Ian Holm at the RSC at Stratford, even accompanying both of them to reflect upon their roles as Lear and his Fool in the storm scene at the Rollright Stones, the stone circle some twenty miles away. Such lengths do some actors go to find their characters.
There is a poignant moment in the book when his career is in a downward spiral, he has two young sons and his wife, Dora’s dress design business had yet to take off. To make ends meet he takes to mini-cabbing and one day has Sir John Gielgud as a passenger. He had played a scene with him in Becket and both were favourably mentioned in the same review in The Observer. Weston screwed up his courage and blurted out “You remember me, Sir John. We worked together on Becket.” Gielgud wrinkled his nose and looked out of the window. “Really, what were you? One of the extras.”
This was perhaps a turning point and Weston fought his way back into the theatre. A good job he did, he still had a further forty years to go in the profession; no, never at the top, but doing what he likes best, acting and being in the company of actors. The index to Covering Shakespeare names over 500 actors, directors, writers and critics, most of whom Weston has worked with and tells anecdotes about. He is generous in what he says, never jealous of the success of others, never mean-spirited. The book gives a vivid, yet entertaining glimpse behind the curtain.
Covering Shakespeare by David Weston is published by Oberon Books £14.95