In the early seventies, when my father taught at Ellesmere Port Grammar School, we sometimes went as a family to see his school productions. Although Dad taught history, he was passionate about theatre, and for a time he directed all the school plays. It was always an event – early tea and the bus to Ellesmere Port, and arrival at a school that seemed so big to us primary school children. I remember the excitement I felt, drawn into the world of theatre and the anticipation of seeing Dad’s pupils who seemed so grown-up. I remember a haunting play called The Fire Raisers, by Max Frisch, about two sinister men who go around setting fire to people’s homes. I didn’t understand then that it was a parable about the rise of Nazism, about complacency and collusion. To me it was a strange unsettling world, where a chorus of firemen chanted warnings, and Fritz Beidermann joked about helping to lay the fuse wire to his attic of petrol drums. And I recall the words ‘the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone,’ from Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People. The standard of acting was excellent and I particularly remember Dad’s star pupils Peter Cann, with his long chestnut hair and beard, and Mark Dornford- May, whose father was drama advisor for Cheshire for many years. They seemed to me to be very grown-up and talented, and the aura of glamour remained even when later I worked alongside Mark in Hammond School and Chester Theatre Club productions, and realised there wasn’t such a gap in our ages.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the day my father was moved from hospital to the care home, where he spent the last four months of his life. He was misinformed by staff that he was going home. He had his bag packed and would have anticipated the peace of his own room after weeks of a noisy ward. Then he was driven to a strange building, and taken in a lift to a bleak room only just vacated by the last resident. I was told by phone of his despair and rage. The thought of it disturbs me still.
And yesterday too, I met Mark Dornford-May for the first time in forty years, at the Young Vic Theatre, where his company, Isango Ensemble previewed A Man of Good Hope. I’m certain this story of Asad Abdullahi, of hope and love in the face of the most harrowing events, will receive great reviews in the weeks to come, so I won’t add my own. Just to say the energy, skill, musicality and physicality of each performer was astounding and uplifting – and the production full of the joy and magic of theatre. We were engrossed. But most heart-warming was hearing Mark talk about my father in the bar beforehand – of how he’d been inspired by him in so many ways, not least his love of theatre, and how rare inspirational teaching is. I am touched both by the play and the encounter. It seemed a fitting way to celebrate my father.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.