Prestigious visit marks 30 years for St Mary’s House

(L to R) Richard Digby Day, Dame Joan Plowright (seated), and Peter Thorogood, owner of St Mary's. SUS-140430-100153001
(L to R) Richard Digby Day, Dame Joan Plowright (seated), and Peter Thorogood, owner of St Mary's. SUS-140430-100153001

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.

Her brilliant blend of personal reflection and humorous anecdote, in conversation with the theatrical director, Richard Digby Day, captivated the packed audience at St. Mary’s on Saturday 26th April.

This event marked the start of the 30th year of restoration of St Mary’s by Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton. In recognition of this superlative achievement, Dame Joan and Richard Digby Day generously 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 the great 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 here that 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 how, on their first day of rehearsal, Sir Laurence had pretended to forget her name, and rechristened her ‘Miss Wheelshare’, saying it was equally agricultural! Their relationship developed and they were eventually married inconspicuously while they were 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, what was it about being an actor that was so important? “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.”

Dame Joan received an enthusiastic standing ovation for her memorable performance, and it was a privilege to be in the presence of one of Britain’s most distinguished actors.

Further information about the programme of concerts and events celebrating 30 years of conservation at St Mary’s House and Gardens can be obtained from the website www.stmarysbramber.co.uk, or telephone 01903 816205. The house and gardens are open to the public from 1st May on Sundays, Thursdays, and Bank Holiday Mondays, between 2 and 6pm.

Report and picture contributed by St Mary’s House, Bramber