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