Back in December I wrote about a play, ‘The Wit To Woo’ by Mervyn Peake that was produced at the Arts Theatre, how the critics gave it a right mauling with the consequent disastrous effect that had on the author. I have just come across a reference to the play as I am in the middle of rereading Kenneth Williams’ letters and in 1971 a gentleman by the name of J.B. Batchelor, lecturer in English at Birmingham University wrote to him asking for his comments on the play. I didn’t know Williams was in it but this is what he writes –
‘I read the play in February 1957 and I was struck by the nature of the dialogue. It is always the words that interest me and I hardly ever find myself thinking in critical terms of construction or plot or technical details of stage mechanics. Mervyn Peakes’ dialogue was full of verbal conceits, wonderful imagery, natural fluency and, above all, theatrically effective. I had no hesitation of accepting the part of Pike. I thought it glittered with malevolence and vituperative wit.’ He then has a brief word about his ability to play the part and continues with, ‘The play needed wholehearted bravura acting and vocal relish. In the vent it was played in a modern high comedy manner with considerable throwaway technique’ (Director’s choice I ask myself?) ‘You will understand it would be impolitic of me to discuss what I regard as shortcomings in performers or in the director …With the right cast and management, a rare combination I admit but not an impossibility, I think The Wit To Woo could be an engaging Gothic comedy and a profitable venture.’
That was his opinion and so what went wrong? Was the play blamed for the shortcomings of director and cast? Well it would most certainly not be the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Mister Williams and I concur on the abilities, or lack of, of many a theatre director. I’m sure there are actors who say the same about me. But this is what he says in a letter to Stanley Baxter whilst rehearing for the play ‘The Platinum Cat.’ – ‘The cast have all got better and better during the four weeks and this is mostly due to Bev (Beverley Cross). I know this is not saying very much but it has been the first time in my life that I have worked with a real director. I know that this is probably, because I have met with so many bug-eyed phonies and I have always tended to dismiss them all as a bunch of meretricious parasites.
I wish I had met Mister Williams. His letters are fascinating, humorous, intelligent, educated and in many instances wise, a natural philosopher, not at all what one would have expected looking at the Carry On films which is what most people remember him for these days, especially that wonderful line when he is playing Julius Caesar, ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ This certainly too often applies to the critics.