28 December 2014

DAVID RYALL, 1935-2014

Today I turned up the notes I had written after my visit to Bille Whitelaw at Denville Hall and found David Ryall’s name too. David had played a small part in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’, I recall.

Proudly, Billie showed me her room. They’ve built a fine new extension since I was last there in the 80s and the rooms are spacious with en suite shower rooms and Billie particularly enjoys her view of the garden. Amongst her pictures I noticed a series of photographic studies of her thirty-eight-year-old son when he was about nine, a photograph of ‘Sam’ of course, who is always photogenic, and old posters of Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ –‘You must have contributed to them; the company gave them to me when I left’. Yes, faintly I remember. When I left, after six years – it was a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern night I remember – there was no ceremony of any kind, except that some bunches of violets were thrown at my feet from the gallery (I pressed and framed them with their note and kept them for quite a few years – who threw them, I still wonder). David Ryall, who’d understudied me for the three years plus I’d played the part, came into the dressing room at the last minute and presented me with half a bottle of whisky, the result of a quick whip-round.

So on that day at Denville Hall, as well as talking with the woman who had danced for Diaghilev and Fred Astaire [Wendy Toye], I talked with the woman who had walked down the Boulevard with Samuel Beckett; as we had stood amongst the throng round the table of cakes and savouries, she had suddenly spoken to me the opening chunk of Not I in a hushed breathless monotone whisper with ‘no acting’ as Sam had wanted it, but it had its own special music.

I have a longish letter David wrote to me ten years ago. It was written on stage at Wyndham’s Theatre during a performance of Michael Frayn’s Democracy when David had a long period as one of several politicians, sitting upstage and working at a desk as I remember. He was very convincing in the part, and no doubt on the night he wrote to me he seemed to be addressing a constituent – which, in a way, he was.

He had joined Olivier’s National Theatre company just a year after me. He took over from Frank Wylie the role of Pedro de Candia in The Royal Hunt of the Sun and we appeared together in Strindberg’s Miss Julie as part of the Chichester season of 65. On the NT tour of Canada for Expo 67, where we performed Feydeau’s A Flea in her Ear, he begged me to accompany him by train – as he loathed flying – from Winnipeg, through the Rockies at dead of night (so we never saw them), to the West Coast. He remained grateful that we had shared that long, tedious journey.

Laurence Olivier with David Ryall in a 1966 rehearsal for A Flea in Her Ear.
Photo by Chris Arthur 
We last appeared on stage together in 1998, on another North American tour, in Matthew Warchus’s production of Hamlet for the RSC when he played Polonius and I doubled the roles of the Ghost and Player King. I remember a particularly moving matinee in Brooklyn to a tough audience of local kids. David’s Polonius was shot, not stabbed, through the arras in our production. One would have thought the shootings every day in the streets of Brooklyn and every hour on US television might have desensitized our teenage audience. No. A single boy’s voice called out: ‘F**k – he shot him!’ and you could still have heard a pin drop.

Alex Jennings (fourth from left left) as Hamlet; EP (centre);
David Ryall (third from right
). Photo by Donald Cooper
I heard too late, some months ago, that David had done a run of King Lear in a fringe production at the Cockpit Theatre, bravely reading much of the part as he had recently undergone chemotherapy and his memory was defective. Touchingly his younger daughter Charlie played Cordelia.

As Lear at the Cockpit in March 2014


  1. Thank you for this lovely memorial, with beautiful pictures! I never had the pleasure of seeing him onstage, but I have seen you, and your admiration and respect brings him to life.
    Nancy N

  2. It is indeed sad that you have had to write so many memorials to your colleagues lately, but I agree with AuntieNan, that your continued good health and memory keep them alive for the rest of us. Important work.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to discuss that, I feel strongly about this and so really like getting to know more on this kind of field. Do you mind updating your blog post with additional insight? It should be really useful for all of us.
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