The RSC at Windsor Castle 1967

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In June 1967 the RSC was invited to perform The Taming of the Shrew at Windsor Castle. It was Ascot Week, and the audience was almost the entire Royal Family plus their many guests.
I was working backstage and, for this production, I was Dresser to Janet Suzman who was playing Kate.
After the performance there would be a formal reception – so I needed something special to wear. My mother’s neighbour had a beautiful sari that she offered to lend for the occasion (not politically correct these days, but things were different then.)
Of course, my mother was very excited, so I promised to write a long letter about the event.


Dear Mum,
Thanks for sending the sari, it was a great success! As for Thursday, that was partly a dream, partly a nightmare. None of us really believe it happened. For a start the two-hour coach ride each way cut it off from real life.
To begin at the beginning: on Thursday morning I worked in the wardrobe as usual. In the afternoon we had a matinee of the Shrew and when that came off a 5 pm we had to pack everything up .and load it all into a huge van. (I did all this in my Yemenite Top and “snake- .skin” trousers.), by 5.45 we had loaded everything and got the actors into two coaches. The understudies had to go in the second coach in case we had an accident’. I think everyone: felt a bit sick by the end of the drive, I know I did.

We got there by 8 pm but the driver couldn’t find the way in. We saw a window open in the castle, with a head sticking out so someone got out and shouted up for directions. When we found the gate, we had difficulty getting past the guards, but we were allowed through, nearly running a guard over in the process. We had, to enter the castle through, the tradesman’s entrance where our names were checked off on a list. Mine was not there but they let me through. The castle was much as I had imagined it would be, with gorgeous carpets, and cases of gold. and silver etc everywhere. The stage was set up at one end of, the Waterloo Chamber, where the Queen used to perform as a child. To get from one side of the stage to the other we had to go through five rooms!

Our dressing room was a bedroom with paintings by Canaletto on the wall, and an enormous four. poster bed, whose curtains rose up to a crown. This was for us to rest on – which I did. The view from this room was incredible, looking out over the ramparts and the gardens and beyond for miles. Nearby. was a sitting room obviously meant for us to use, as the lights had been left on. This was definitely a second class sitting room, and not one the Queen would use herself , but it had a gorgeous sofa and the walls were covered with enormous Van Dykes, used almost as wallpaper. It was obvious that people weren’t supposed to look at them. A buffet had been prepared for us in the lobby at the top of the stairs. It was just a lobby; but there were Rembrandts! I recognised nearly all these paintings at the time, but. now I can’t remember one of them.

The food was better than I had dreamed it could be, very simple with many different kinds of meat and salads. My favourite was the chicken. There was no dark meat at all, only great big pieces of breast an inch thick. There was also delicious beef, stuffed. duck, asparagus tips wrapped in ham and many others.

Even the bread and butter was delicious – it had been very thinly cut and spread with butter and lemon juice(?) and rolled up tightly until it looked like miniature Swiss rolls. Many people-liked the smoked trout best, but I didn’t try it.

To follow there was tray after tray of strawberries and pink cream! Unfortunately, by the time I had finished unpacking there were very few strawberries left, so I only had a few, but they were lovely. The champagne flowed freely. Apparently, we set up a record as being the only group of our size to get through thirty bottles of champagne in thirty minutes.

The buffet was open throughout the show, but, unfortunately, I was too busy to eat or drink much. You can imagine the state of some of the actors by the end of the show, as they tend to get very thirsty!

It was now that the nightmare started. By this time, it was nearly 10 pm, which was the time set for curtain up. The Queen and her 300 guests had had a hard day, with a formal lunch, Ascot and a banquet. And now they had to sit through three hours of Shakespeare and have a formal reception afterwards. Also they had to sit on hard gilt chairs which they could not leave during the interval as the Queen stayed put, and no one can move unless she does. So all in all they were not a happy audience, and there were only three laughs in the whole show, and those were from the Duke of Edinburgh, who had invited us in the first place.

The cast were worried at first, then hysterical, but by the interval they had drunk so much that they just didn’t care any more. Even so, they gave the best performance they have ever done, and it really did feel like theatre as it should be, with a group of travelling players using no set and just making do with what they find. Though what we did find was of the best! (We asked for a curtain to be put up behind the centre entrance to screen off the room behind, and we found they had hung up a beautiful tapestry!)

We got a big round of applause when the actors came on after the interval. The audience were so glad the interval was over! Eventually we reached the end of the play. Meanwhile, I had had so much running around to do, and the floors were so slippery that I had taken my shoes off. So there was I, running around Windsor Castle in bare feet with about 50 flunkeys making rude comments behind my back. In fact the flunkeys were the worst part for they were determined to make it obvious that we did not fit into their world. They were very servile and polite but made it clear that if we treated them like servants then we were putting on airs, whereas if we treated them as equals we were peasants who had no idea of how to behave.

Amongst themselves they were rude about us in loud voices, until eventually Mike Williams (Petruccio) told one of them to “P*** off!’ which did seem to have some effect.

After the show, at 1.15am we had 10 minutes to get ready for the reception. I just managed to get Janet and myself dressed in time. The sari looked lovely, and I had made myself a pair of Roman sandals in very soft leather, as I knew my feet would be swollen by this time. One of the advantages of working in the wardrobe is access to materials.

The reception was in an enormous banqueting hall lined with immense portraits and suits of armour. There must have been at least 400 people in there. Champagne was flowing again, and there were masses of very intricate little dainties and trays of shrimps and meat and fish etc fried in batter with sauces to dip them into. These were carried round by the flunkeys. One very self important one was carrying a huge box of cigarettes in one hand, and a golden orb with a phoenix on top with a perpetual flame in its head, in the other!

The entire Royal Family, except for the children, were there. Everyone you can think of. We will certainly never have such an audience again. The Family came up to meet us as we went in, so the whole Company and the Royalty were crowded together in one end of the room, while the other guests occupied the rest of it.

The occasion was supposed to be very informal, – and so it seemed to be, with everyone wandering about chatting to whoever they pleased and everyone rubbing backs and shoulders with various Royalty all the time. However, if you looked carefully, you could see that it was beautifully stage managed, as there were several important looking people mixing with us, carefully finding out who was who, and who had and who had not been introduced to the Queen and the others. They then cleverly manipulated the conversations so that people were moved around until the right person was introduced to the right member of the family at the right time.

But it was very cleverly done, – and I only realised it was happening when I noticed, that none of the dressers were being introduced to anybody though we all looked like members of the cast. I ended up talking to the Royal Librarian – he was charming.
The awful part was that it was so obviously just another job for the Royal family. They were very professional, and it was clear that they had no real interest in who they were talking to, except perhaps the Kents and the Armstrong Jones. Princess Margaret looked very hard, and apparently everything she said was bitchy. There certainly seemed to be very little love lost between her and Tony, as she seemed to be issuing orders to him which he carefully ignored, and he made faces to the people he was talking to behind her back.

Their clothes were awful. The Queen was wearing her usual white sparkling dress, with the-Order of the Garter, etc. The others were in very ordinary evening dresses with sequins and tiaras. The guests looked hideous. I didn’t see one nice dress, except those worn by members of the Company.

All in all, we were obviously out of our depth here. We just did not fit, and many of the actors behaved rather outrageously to try and get some reaction from the people they were talking to, but they got no response at all. Roy Kinnear tried to joke but got nowhere. Some member of the Family asked him how it had felt on the stage that night. He answered, “Well, we had two things working for us this evening, Fear and Alcohol.” There was not a flicker. He might as well have said nothing.

It wouldn’t have mattered if they had just been empty figureheads, but it was obvious that they were real people with real feelings and opinions, but their masks were firmly fixed, and no one could break through. At 3am the Queen left, then Tony reluctantly joined Margaret and they too left. The others went – in order of precedence and the crowd gradual disappeared. We packed everything back into the van, and drove home. We arrived at 6.30 am with the sun well and truly up.

There are three other things that impressed me at the time. One is that the cast were given strict orders not to point their guns (which we use in the Shrew) at the Queen, as no one knew just what might happen.

Another was the toilets. They were in the basement down a broad, red-carpeted staircase. They had great mullioned windows and clean grey stone walls and heavy oak doors that shut so gently. To lock them there was a tiny little knob which you turned a fraction of an inch.. It was so gentle I didn’t really believe it worked! The toilets flushed genteelly and-when you turned a tap on the water really did ‘flow’, not hurtle out; and there were individual hand towels and soaps. I could have stayed there for ages – it was such a lovely bathroom.

Lastly – some people thought about pinching a teaspoon or two, but they all were stamped “J.C.Lyons” on the back.

Thank Mrs Cook for me. I’ll either send the sari back with Liz, or wait ‘til you come here. I can hardly bear to part with it!
Love to all,

Jill

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