Touring Shakespeare in India with Wendy

Transcribing the Wendy Beavis Archive

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember one from this time last year, written by Kate Welch, describing the recent acquisition of a collection of letters and other ephemera relating to the actress Wendy Beavis, who toured India in the 1950s with the theatre company, Shakespeareana¸ run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal. Work on transcribing this collection is now well under way, with the added impetus that it is now being used by a Shakespeare Institute alumnus, Thea Buckley, to put together a book proposal about Shakespeare in India. This archive certainly provides plenty of useful material for that.

Wendy B 1Wendy was born near London in 1932, but grew up in Sutton Coldfield, was educated at a convent school in nearby Erdington and attended the Birmingham School of Drama where she studied acting for two years. She also trained as a model, which is possibly when this photograph was taken. In her letters to her parents from India, Wendy often asks them to send ‘repros’ of the big photographs, as ‘we are always being asked for photographs, and they would be handy’.

After leaving the BSD, she joined the Rex Deering Repertory Company, touring around the Midlands in the early 1950s, before joining Shakespeareana and setting off for India in June 1953. She returned home in October 1956 and, as far as we know, never  acted again.

Transcribing the letters has proved a fascinating project and as time goes on,  (for us and for Wendy), it is possible to build a picture of this young woman who left for India over sixty years ago. After getting used to some of her foibles (always writing ‘+’ for ‘and’; peppering every sentence with dashes; squeezing everything into one small airmail letter with no paragraphs in order to make economical use of the paper; always employing the ‘i before e’ rule, but often forgetting the exceptions – ‘wiegh’,’ viel’), we encounter a letter-writer who takes pleasure in using an unusual green ink, or in mailing her letters in long envelopes. All this of course has to be recorded in the transcripts: although it is very easy to ‘correct’ small mistakes without even noticing, it is important that the letters appear as Wendy wrote them – warts and all. This is how we get to know her. Always darting from one topic to another, often leaving the letters half-written (on one occasion, because she was due on stage!), then coming back to them, once, twice, three times.

She writes to her parents at least once a week for the entire three years that she was away, and the things she chooses to write about are revealing. It becomes increasingly clear that there are aspects of life in India that she chooses NOT to tell her parents about, and when reading this archive, it is important to bear in mind that she was writing for a very specific audience. She describes the places the Company stays, from the grim boarding houses in rural areas of India, to the occasional sojourn in a luxurious hotel in Calcutta or Simla; the weather – of course! – and the food – at first strange and exotic, but then, she discovers, absolutely delicious! She learned quickly, as many a traveller does, that eating local food is far more rewarding and tasty than expecting to find chips or a decent shepherd’s pie. She complains that meat in India is ‘awful’ and more than once, she considers becoming a vegetarian.

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She writes a lot about her clothes (or lack of them) – although she often has new dresses made locally; money (or lack of it); how she spends her free time – swimming, going to the wrestling (!), visiting coffee houses, trips to the cinema. She talks a lot about her fellow actors, and some she clearly gets on better with than others: Jennifer (the Kendal’s eldest daughter) becomes a great friend, but Nancy and her untidy ways does not meet with much favour. Seven-year-old Foo (Felicity Kendal) however, is everybody’s darling! Wendy often comments on what Foo has been up to in her letters. She seems to miss a lot of things from home –  whether this might be exaggerated for her parent’s benefit is anybody’s guess – but she talks longingly of the garden, her cat and ‘mummy’s’ home cooking. She remembers birthdays and anniversaries  and often sends presents home, although the vagaries and frustrations of sending and receiving international mail take up a great deal of her attention. Letters are lost, delayed and cross in the post, while some parcels sent from England have to be sent back unopened because the duty charged is too high for her to pay.

It has been noted before that one of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that we only get one side of the story. However, in this case, Wendy is so meticulous at responding to the details of her parents letters in her replies, that in fact, we have a very good idea of the contents of their letters to her. We also learn in this way about the home she left behind, neighbours, friends and relations who are all mentioned in her replies to her parent’s news about them. She shows concern at the death of the neighbour, Mrs Mason, and wonders what will become of her dog, Nip. And she apparently feels very badly that she is not at home to see her mother through a serious operation and its aftermath, although we might suspect that she was spared much of the detail here by her protective ‘Mummy and Daddy’.

Wendy B 2As well as all the day to day details of her life, Wendy does make occasional mention of the work she is there to do – the staging of theatrical productions for audiences around India. Although we can glean the company’s repertoire, some of the parts she played (the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion), and occasional details of her costumes and make-up, there is in fact frustratingly little information about the productions, how they were staged and how they were received. Perhaps she thought her parents wouldn’t be interested, or perhaps they didn’t quite approve of their daughter gallivanting off to foreign parts to be an actress, so she doesn’t dwell too much on this – who knows? But work she did, sometimes a punishing schedule with several performances a day: other times there was less work, but this of course was accompanied by less money. All carried out against a background of searing heat, monsoon rains, inevitable illnesses, the general frustrations and inconveniences of being on the road – and mosquitoes!

Much is already known about the work of Shakespeareana from Geoffrey Kendal’s book and then the subsequent film, Shakespeare Wallah, as well as Felicity Kendal’s later White Cargo, which tells the story of her childhood in India, touring with her parents’ theatre company. What the Beavis archive adds is another valuable facet to this story – and one which we hope to see in print in Thea’s book in the not too distant future.

Jill Francis and Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistants

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Shakespeare in 1950s India: Wendy Beavis writes home

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The Shakespeare Institute Library has recently acquired the letters of Wendy Beavis, an actor with the Shakespeareana Company touring India and Pakistan in the 1950s. Run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, the company performed in schools, theatres and sometimes the open-air and experienced long, cramped train journeys, basic accommodation and prickly heat as well as staying in palaces, riding on elephants and seeing the Himalayas, together with the camaraderie and petty squabbles of a small touring group of actors.

 

Wendy wrote to her parents in Sutton Coldfield every few days and her letters are full of the everyday experiences of being away from home: trying new food, making her limited money last, dealing with other company members and their foibles but also of the specific problems of a theatre troupe: trying to keep the costumes clean and pressed, coping with inadequate electrical supplies in remote villages, playing to audiences who don’t speak English and the constant shortage of greasepaint which Wendy frequently asks her parents to send her. The searing heat caused the Macbeth witches’ rubber masks to melt and the costumes to be drenched in sweat, monsoon rains flooded the theatre and drummed on the tin roof and, during a performance of Othello, an earthquake caused the audience to stampede from the theatre, endangering Jennifer Bragg (the Kendals’ daughter) who was lying on stage as the dead Desdemona.

Shakespeareana performed a varied repertoire, not just Shakespeare but also Gaslight, The Importance of Being Earnest, Charley’s Aunt and She Stoops to Conquer, here shown in a performance in Simla with Wendy on the far left.

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The company performed for and met many notable people including Prime Minister Nehru, Tensing Norgay, Countess Mountbatten, the Maharajah of Mysore and Gopi Krishna, the famous Kathak dancer.

The main sequence of letters runs from June 1953 when the company set sail on the TSS Jal-Jawahar from England to Bombay (performing several shows on board ship) until October 1956 when Wendy and fellow actor John Day returned on the MS Batory, with her final letter on the 20th ending ‘only another 17 days’. Having told her parents back in March that she would be coming home in the autumn and would be at home for Christmas, by the time she left India the ever-changing Shakespeareana schedule had changed again. The plan then was for the company to tour America and Canada and for Wendy to join them in Antwerp in November for the transatlantic crossing. However this tour never materialised, the company travelled on to Singapore and Malaya and Wendy never rejoined them. How her parents or Wendy herself felt about this we shall never know.

Wendy discussed news from home both domestic and national. She always responded to details in her parents’ letters and constantly asked questions about their garden, her relatives and Candy the cat. She also mentioned the 1955 general election, an outbreak of myxomatosis, a serious crash at Sutton railway station (still Birmingham’s worst rail disaster) and asked ‘How is this commercial T.V. going? Are you getting any better programmes, or is it more irritating?’

One of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that you only get one side of the story.  A rare treasure therefore are two letters written to Wendy in November 1954 which were returned to sender covered in redirections: one from her father and one from her mother. Mrs Beavis went into hospital in 1954 for an operation; it’s clear Wendy worried about her and even offered to come home but we don’t know how much she knew about it or whether her parents withheld the details. Mr Beavis wrote that while his wife was in hospital he has put two coats of paint on the kitchen as a surprise for her and reports she was ‘bucked’ to get a letter from Wendy with snaps and flowers. Mrs Beavis wrote from Ward 2 of the Women’s Hospital and on page 11 of a 16-page letter mostly talking about other people she mentioned she has had a hysterectomy. We know Wendy did not get this letter but we have those she sent her mother in hospital, one enclosing two sprigs of bougainvillea, exotic blooms in Sparkhill, Birmingham.

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Kate Welch, Senior Information Assistant