After the Second World War, the Arts Council of Great Britain instigated and funded the West of England Theatre Company to tour productions through Somerset, Dorset and Devon. Based in Exmouth, it toured to at least two Dartmoor locations on a regular basis, the Jubilee Hall, Chagford, and Tavistock Town Hall. Its aim was, in the words of a young actor with the company, ‘to bring theatre to the post-war….bored towns of the south west.1 Remember that the country was still shaking off the war-time ‘black-out blues’, and people were eager for a night out and some bright lights and colour’.2 That young actor was the 27 year old Richard Hayter, just down from completing his degree at Cambridge after an enforced break for the war. Hayter was later to occupy a pivotal position in the renewal of a performing tradition on Dartmoor which had links with the mainstream of professional theatre development, as opposed to pantomime and amateur dramatics. At that time, though, he was learning his trade in the tough world of touring rep.
A newspaper article which appeared in the Exmouth Chronicle describes the way the company worked:
While one play is on its rounds of Exmouth, Taunton, Sherborne, Plymouth and the rest of the 16 ‘dates’, transported in the familiar specially-designed van with a false roof for equipment, a partitioned off back for scenery, and seating for the 15 players and management, another play is being rehearsed.L ines are learned over coffee, in Exmouth digs, or in the player’s sleep. It’s a full life, believe me. Take an average day. Rehearsal starts at 10.00 a.m. and lasts an hour and a half. Lunch; then the van leaves at 2.30 p.m. for the show, if it is out of town. Everybody lends a hand with the set. Then there is dressing, making up (each player responsible for his own, down to the last whisker). The actual performance of the current play seems to rank as little more than a rather important incident in a 14-hour day. After the show everybody helps take down the set, packing it if it has to be moved on to the next show. And the van at last rolls back to Exmouth after midnight, dropping weary players at their homes for a few hours sleep. Spare time? Well, there’s knitting and mending, and fishing for one or two. But always there are those lines from which there is no escape – except once every six shows, when a player is dropped to give him or her a rest. There’s no company like the West of England Theatre Company. This is not fulsome flattery but fact.The company is alone in the way it travels the county and gives three weeks preparation for shows.Young actors and actresses value the experience, and the company attracts talent that would probably give the ordinary rep shows a miss.3
The repertoire of this company had little to do with the South West, let alone Dartmoor. The odd Shakespeare play rubbed shoulders with later classics such as The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and contemporary plays like A Phoenix Too Frequent by Christopher Fry and Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward. It was very much about bringing metropolitan theatre to the provinces. But the venues at Tavistock and Chagford served to introduce Hayter to working on Dartmoor, which was to result in him eventually living there. In 1957 The West of England Theatre Company, by now managed by Hayter himself, was forced to close – Hayter blamed the rise of television4– and after a few jobs elsewhere he left the professional theatre, jaded and disillusioned.
Hayter describes the path that led him back to acting and directing:
‘I changed to teaching and, in 1963, I moved my family from London to Devon and taught at Okehampton School till 1972. Then I went farming on Dartmoor. Soon my ‘arm was twisted’ to appear with the Goliards and my passion for theatre work…revived.In 1985 I founded Ploughshare Theatre. I wanted to make a theatre with the simplest and most direct style possible, where nothing came between the actor and the audience. I also wanted it to have a purpose wider than that of art for art’s sake. I wanted to raise funds for famine relief; the simple – and cheap! – style, with often no lighting, no scenery and improvised costumes, suited the purpose….I also thought that the purpose, beyond theatre, would add to the dedication of actors and audience. This proved to be the case. Another belief of mine is that we shall not solve the problems of poverty and hunger until we achieve a much deeper and broader understanding of ourselves and others – of our common human nature. In this learning process the arts are indispensable – essential; and particularly the work of the greatest artist our nation, and, perhaps, the world has yet produced – Shakespeare. Life being short, I soon found myself wanting to devote what time and energy remained to presenting his work. I rejoice however to find that others are now coming forward to put on plays by many other authors, some local, but all having important things to say about ourselves and others. But I’m glad, too, that the company and audiences seemed to have gained an abiding love of Shakespeare and to want to keep him prominent in the repertoire.’5
Hayter’s passion for Shakespeare passed into professional theatre development in the South West of England via his two sons, who both joined the Cornish travelling theatre company Footsbarn, later to base itself in France. Footsbarn’s free re-workings of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays within a South West performance tradition which (inspired by the drama historian and thinker Richard Southern during his time at Dartington Hall College of Arts in the late 1950s and early 1960s) essentially seeks to do away with the playwright, might never have taken place without Hayter’s influence. Just as important, though, was Hayter’s influence on those around him in the Dartmoor area during his years first with The Goliards at Chagford, and later with his own amateur company Ploughshare Theatre, also based in Chagford, the parish on whose outskirts he lived and farmed. When amateur is used in this context, it must mean unpaid rather than unprofessional, since a number of those in both The Goliards and Ploughsharehave been, like Hayter himself, from professional theatre backgrounds or involved in earning their living from the theatre at the time. It was Hayter who in 1984 persuaded Mary Morton to put on The Tempest in a serious but successful production, with Hayter as Prospero, which encouraged him to think that a company dedicated to serious Shakespeare would find an audience in the area. I acted alongside Hayter in this production for the first time. What distinguished him immediately from other younger professional actors was the swiftness and exactness with which he had all his lines, his single-minded dedication to what he was doing and the clarity of his interpretation of the character. His professionalism in this way had a profound effect on me, and was instrumental in shaping my approach to developing MED Theatre.
1 Roger Malone (1995) ‘The play’s the thing’. Okehampton Times, July 6th, p.3.