I was never an autograph hunter. Never felt the urge, or the thrill, or the bragging right, or any of the rapid heart-thumping emotions of possessing a piece of paper or notebook which contains a signature randomly scrawled by someone “famous.” Not before I went to RADA, nor after I had left it. But in between? Ah, now that is another story altogether! For a couple of months I did transform myself into, if not exactly an autograph fiend, at least a keen hunter! The strange thing is, once that very brief period of time in my life had passed, I returned to my old self and resumed being autograph-apathetic.
Actually, a Belgian trainee from a different group, whom I got to know during our Stratford-upon-Avon trip, acted as my catalyst. Now, she was an autograph freak! Little wonder, she persuaded me to tag along on her hunting expeditions, not that I needed much persuading. She was so beautiful and charming! Not to say cold-hearted, but which I found out only much later. That, however, is beside the point. I have to admit that I did get to meet (all too briefly) and obtain the autographs of some of the greatest actors that ever graced the stage and the silver screen, courtesy the tenacity and ingenuity of my charming Belgian companion and the seemingly omnipotent power and magic of our RADA ID card. I also got to watch them perform in two great plays: Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman and Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
As I mentioned in an earlier piece, the RADA ID card did bring in some perks in the way of finding seats and, occasionally, ticket price discounts, and most of the trainees had no qualms in reaping those benefits for themselves. Our first expedition regarding a few meet-ups with theatre celebrities and getting their autographs ended in failure, though, but not for any lack of effort on our part, or for the ID card failing to work its magic. Among the many plays we two watched together was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the National Theatre, a London landmark forever associated in so many ways, including its founding director, Lord Laurence Olivier. The acting peer, peerless in his acting days, was long dead when we were at RADA, and was the only person for whom I would have given my arm to watch him act on stage, especially in a Shakespearean play.
Olivier is acknowledged by critics, directors, actors, actresses, and other members of the performing arts circle as someone belonging to the very top echelon of actors of the last century. Quite a few consider him to be the very best seen thus far. Among his prominent admirers in the acting community who think this way are the Americans Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. The American actor William Redfield, too, assesses him this way: Despite being less gifted than Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud, Olivier, still, was one of the definitive actors of the twentieth century. The great British actor Peter Ustinov put it down to his dedication, scholarship, practice, determination, and courage. Brando himself, in his autobiography, pays the highest tribute to Olivier. Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson --- now there was a triumvirate of contemporary actors who dazzled audiences with their acting in Shakespeare's plays.
Back to Stoppard. While the play was in progress my Belgian friend whispered that the author was in the building and that we should go backstage to the greenroom to meet him and get his autograph. She asked me not to worry about stationary as she was going to give me a page from her own autograph book. I was ambivalent about getting the signature, but certainly not about meeting the author whose work I have always admired. So, as soon as the play ended and the actors had taken their curtain call we two and a few other RADA course mates, who had also gotten wind of the author's presence, made a beeline for the greenroom. With our RADA ID cards hanging down quite proudly from our necks, we were allowed to pass by the security guards. As we were about to enter the greenroom, a senior security man came up to us and asked if there was anyone in particular we wanted to meet. Informed of our intention, he regretted that Stoppard was supposed to come, but, in the end, did not turn up. We were free to go inside and mingle with the cast and crew though. As we had no desire to meet anyone but Stoppard, we swallowed our disappointment and beat it out of the majestic theatre complex.
We struck gold the next time around. This time just the two of us planned on taking in Uncle Vanya at the Richmond Theatre. Another truly great thespian, Derek Jacobi, was acting in the title role, but there were several other accomplished performers like Frances Barber, Constance Cummings, Trevor Eve, and Imogen Stubbs. Theirs was a stellar performance that did justice to a high-class production. This time around my clever friend had already pried out from the security people the best place to corner the actors for their autographs. It turned out to be the back entrance, which was strictly watched over by security. The magic IDs allowed the two of us to make our way to the back entrance and wait for the actors to come out and make their way to their respective transports. And so we got our autographs on their pictures inside the programme booklet. I still have them, along with the personalized “to Shahid” from Frances Barber, Imogen Stubbs and Trevor Eve. Imogen gave me a huge hug, while Trevor mumbled “How's the old place?” as he scribbled his signature. He was, of course, referring to RADA, whose alum he happened to be. Of course, our IDs hung out from our necks, and with Derek Jacobi, who had just given a monumental performance, graciously giving his signature, we two felt that we had a few great hours and were ready for more.
For me, though, the next successful autograph hunt was the best. We were back to the National Theatre, some fifteen of us, including my Belgian friend, getting tickets to watch John Gabriel Borkman. Only a few seats at the back were available, which our magic IDs enabled us to get. From there, I got to watch two of the finest actors ever doing justice to one of the best works of a playwright generally ranked by critics and scholars after only Shakespeare. I had watched Paul Scofield in the films A Man for All Seasons (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor) and The Train in my teenage years in Dhaka, and was aware that he vastly preferred the stage. For him, the challenge of acting Shakespeare represented the Mt. Everest of acting, while performing in an Ibsen play was the second highest mountain to be climbed (from an interview of him that I had read in The London Times newspaper's magazine a few days before I had watched the play).
Vanessa Redgrave, from a distinguished thespian family, was proclaimed by the illustrious American playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams as “the greatest living actress of our times.” Jane Fonda placed her on the same high pedestal as Brando. She is a political activist who has championed the cause of the Palestinians, something that got her into loggerheads with hardline Zionists, and limited her cinema appearances in the United States. She managed to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Julia. After exhibiting magnificent performances, the two master thespians were not tired enough to refuse their autographs to my Belgian friend and me. I still have their signatures. But, soon after, the Belgian and I parted ways, and the autograph hunting, for me, stopped. That, though, is another story.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Department of Media and Communications, IUB. He is also an occasional writer in The Daily Star Literature and Review Pages.