In a soulless, drafty rehearsal hall just around the corner from Euston Station, Roy Dotrice is doing a reading as John Aubrey under the watchful eye of the director Patrick Garland. The bitchy 17th-century writer and antiquarian is a character that both men have come to know very well over years.
The relationship began in 1967 when Brief Lives — Garland’s adaptation of The Memoirs, Miscellanies, Letters and Jottings of John Aubrey — was first staged at the Hampstead Theatre. On the West End, Broadway and around the world, Dotrice went on to play Aubrey for more than 1,700 performances which still warrants a mention in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running one-man show. Now these two old stagers — Garland is 72 and Dotrice is, unbelievably, 84 — are about to reprise the play with a run that will open at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester on 7 February and end, they hope, in the West End.
Dotrice, dressed in jeans, a Garrick tie and a blazer, is struggling with a gruesome cough, but as I arrive he delivers the play’s final words in a gentle, affecting but understated way. This production is important to him. Scarcely six months ago, his beloved wife Kay died suddenly of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 78. They had been married for more than 60 years and it had, says Dotrice, been Kay’s express wish that he should do the play.
‘I’d never agree to do anything without talking to her about it first. She was a great actress herself and always knew instinctively how parts should be played. I’d started reading Aubrey through with her not long before she died. She felt I had become far too hammy in the part by the time I did my final performances in the role in 1974. I was chasing after the laughs too much. This time I am doing it the way she wanted me to. I’m getting back to basics.’
Dotrice has three daughters by Kay: Michele, who played Frank Spencer’s wife in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em and, more recently, appeared in Vanity Fair; Karen, who was in the film Mary Poppins and the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs; and Yvette, who was perhaps best known for the television series Crossroads.
All three have, with their spouses, rallied round but, for all that they have helped, it has been John Aubrey who has probably been the most instrumental in getting Dotrice back on his feet again. ‘I’d been discussing the idea with Patrick for a while. My initial reaction was that it would be fun to get reacquainted with Aubrey. In the event, the project has proved a godsend. It has given me a sense of direction and a sense of purpose at a time when I have desperately needed both. I wanted to start work on this as soon as possible after Kay’s death as I saw it very much as my tribute to her.’
The lines in the play about death have a resonance for Dotrice that they didn’t have when he last uttered them on stage. He feels more compassionate towards the character who, like a lot of elderly men, lives his life in the past. ‘I think actors who play the same parts over long period of time go one of two ways — either they switch to autopilot or they get into an ever more intimate relationship with the character. I have taken the second route.’
There can’t be another play in the country with a star and a director who have the experience of Dotrice and Garland. The former toured with the RSC and went on to pick up, among other glittering prizes, a Tony award for A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway in 2000 and, remarkably, five Grammy nominations, most recently for his recording of Winnie the Pooh. On screen, he is best known for playing Mozart’s domineering father in Amadeus. He also appeared in The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore. He was, perhaps somewhat belatedly, awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours.
Garland, meanwhile, is a former artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre. On Broadway he directed Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Other big successes include Forty Years On, A Doll’s House and, more recently, The Mystery of Charles Dickens with Simon Callow.
As impeccable as their pedigrees are, one wonders if, with the British theatre dominated by musicals and vehicles for youthful soap stars, there will be an appetite for a one-man show which revolves purely around words. ‘There is a line in the play about “ever longing to converse with old men’s living history,”’ says Dotrice. ‘When I was younger, I used to love to talk to my dad and my uncle and get my own “living history” from them and other old men. My hope is young people will feel like that today — they will want to know what Aubrey has to say about his illustrious contemporaries.’
The pair will clearly be making something of a statement with their wonderfully old-fashioned play, and, as for the soap stars, they have seen their like before. ‘The temptation has always been there to put television people on to the stage,’ says Dotrice. ‘I remember Peter Hall telling me up at Stratford that he’d seen a young actor who he thought would make a great Horatio and then, when he auditioned him, he found he couldn’t wear the costume, couldn’t walk the walk, couldn’t project. The fact is, without that theatre training, it’s difficult for them.’ Garland, for his part, believes theatre audiences will soon rediscover their appetite for proper actors in proper plays. ‘These are always the plays that have something to say to them,’ he says. ‘That’s all Roy and I want to do — to communicate with an audience.’ The two men are often surprised by how Brief Lives changed so many lives permanently. Garland read in the Daily Telegraph how the late Hugh Massingberd, as the newspaper’s former obituaries editor, decided to try to illuminate the lives of great men through gossip and anecdote after seeing how well Aubrey had done it during the show’s original run.
Dotrice recalls a middle-aged couple coming up to him on a railway station in 1969. ‘They told me they had seen the play just before they had planned to emigrate to New Zealand. They realised they couldn’t possibly leave the country because to do so would be to deny their history and their past. They decided to stay in this country as a result of seeing the play.’
Garland says that he and Dotrice both know that the play is good and sometimes that has to be enough. ‘I remember writing to Olivier to say how much I regretted my production of Cyrano had not got better reviews,’ he recalls. ‘Olivier replied that some of his greatest work had been torn to pieces by the critics and the public. And lots of work that he knew to be rubbish had been praised to the skies. Sometimes there is just no accounting for taste. More wise words for a younger man from one much older.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 2, 2008