Once upon a time the West End was the engine room of British theatre - the prime source of new plays that would later filter out across the country and drive a playwright's career. Nowadays, however, original plays debuting in the West End are an increasingly impoverished species. London s “Theatreland” has, for the most part, become a receiving house for product originated and tried and tested elsewhere. There are, however, a handful of writers whose West End work remains the staple part of their careers.
One such of this dying breed is Ronald Harwood, a playwright who s had numerous plays produced in London in the five decades that he s been writing for the stage, including the resounding hit The Dresser (subsequently seen on Broadway, on film with Albert Finney and original stage star Tom Courtenay, and in about 36 foreign languages) and most recently Taking Sides.
But another sign of how the times have changed is that Harwood's two plays since Taking Sides have both failed to reach the West End. Perhaps, then, as a form of some insurance for their latest project, Quartet, Harwood and his veteran producer, Michael Codron, have constructed it as a vehicle for four veteran actors - Donald Sinden, Alec McCowen, Stephanie Cole and Angela Thorne - any one of whom would be reason enough to see the play and who, together, promise something of an acting feast.
Cole actually starred in Harwood's last play before Quartet, Equally Divided, together with Gerald Harper in his final stage role. 'We were betrayed,' says Harwood of the experience. 'The day I heard it wasn't coming in I locked myself in my study down in the country and pulled the blinds down. I sat in the dark for most of the day. I came out of it quickly - I'm quite resilient - but it was a body blow.'
The play before that, 1996 s The Handyman, was premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre and didn't make it to town, either. 'I sort of suspected it wouldn't come in - it was about too difficult a theme.' For a commercial writer like Harwood, the crucial relationship to establish is with a supportive producer. Duncan C Weldon provided him with a base for a time (also producing Taking Sides, both in the West End and on Broadway and which Harwood is now developing as a film script), as did Robert Fox, who produced two of his plays, JJ Farr with Albert Finney and Interpreters with Maggie Smith. 'I wish I did have a solid, trusting relationship with a producer all the time, but if you have a failure, it goes wrong,' he laments.
For Quartet, he is back with Codron, who was also responsible for transferring the original production of The Dresser to the West End's Queens Theatre from Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre where was first staged. The Dresser, based on Harwood's own experiences of working with the legendary actor-manager Donald Wolfit early in his career (for whom he began as his dresser, progressing to becoming his business manager), has undoubtedly been his most successful play to date. 'People think it's autobiographical - I never disabuse them, but it wasn't. It was inspired by Wolfit, I can't deny that, but it's not him. Wolfit was a much greater figure than Sir in The Dresser; and he would also never have had a dresser like Norman,' he says, referring to the two principal characters whose uneasy relationship the play charts as the one tries to coax and cajole the other onto a stage to give his Lear.
Harwood was a newly married but unemployed young actor when he wrote his first play in 1959 after his father-in-law gave him a typewriter as a birthday present. It was either that or become a construction worker, working on the Hammersmith flyover that was being built at the time. His first work was a television play called The Barber of Stamford Hill and a book about South Africa called All the Same Shadows, which took him just three weeks to write - “God, I wish I could write a book in three weeks now!' he marvels.
It wasn't until nearly two decades later, however, that he had what he calls 'my first real encouragement as a playwright” - with an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh s novel, Gilbert Pinfold. That was soon followed by The Dresser, and he has been churning out plays - some hits, some flops, some in between - regularly ever since, all the time balancing his stage output with writing novels, non-fiction and screenplays.
Quartet was inspired by a television documentary he saw about 25 years ago, about the composer Verdi, who bequeathed a house in Milan as a home for ageing opera singers. 'Every year on his birthday they gave a gala, and these old people would sing, sometimes appallingly, sometimes touchingly,” Harwood remembers. “It was a wonderful documentary, and it haunted me. Last year it came flooding back.' The play was born.
'I didn't want to set it in Italy, because I don't know anything about Italy, so I've set it in England, in an old age home for musicians. There are four opera singers there who were once well-known, especially for the quartet of Rigoletto, and when the fourth one arrives, it's decided that on the 10th of October, which is Verdi's birthday, they should recreate his famous quartet. Then at the end, but I won't tell you how, they sing the quartet - that's the theatrical trick to the play. It's about old age, and triumphing over it. One of the characters in the play says, 'We're artists, aren't we, we're supposed to celebrate life'. And that's really what it's about.'
For his part, Harwood celebrates his own life as an artist by writing about it. And he has no intention of stopping.
Quartet opens at the West End's Albery Theatre on September 8. Prior to London, it tours to Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (13-24 July), Cambridge's Arts Centre (26-31 July), Bromley's Churchill Theatre (2-7 August), Norwich's Theatre Royal (16-21 August), Richmond Theatre (23-28 August) and Malvern Theatre (30 August - 4 September).