One And Only Ronnie

The playwright Ronald Harwood is deservedly acclaimed, yet has never had a play staged at the National

Robert Low

The playwright Sir Ronald Harwood has deservedly received just about every honour going: a knighthood, CBE, FRSL and a host of honorary degrees, marking a career in which he has written 23 major stage plays spanning more than half a century.

 But one accolade has always eluded him: the generously subsidised National Theatre has never staged one of his plays. Plenty of left-wing wing dramatists — Howard Brenton, David Edgar, David Hare — have had their work commissioned and staged by the NT, and as for Bertholt Brecht, the NT has put on so many of his plays it’s a wonder they haven’t named an auditorium after him. Under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, the National embraced a more tolerant approach, notably staging plays by the far-from-left-wing Richard Bean. But the signs are that the NT’s agenda under its new artistic director Rufus Norris is returning to the relentlessly progressive.

Why has the National ignored Harwood? According to a new biography,  Speak Well of Me, by W. Sydney Robinson (Oberon Books, £20), his plays “stubbornly refused to conform to the canons of ‘fashionable theatre’. They stood little chance of appearing at the National Theatre, and even today the visitor will be fortunate to find even a single edition of Harwood’s works in the bookshop of that cherished eyesore.”

Harwood’s treatment by the left-wing theatrical establishment curiously mirrors that of his great mentor Sir Donald Wolfit, the inspiration for Harwood’s greatest and most popular play, The Dresser, who gave young Harwood his first break after he had to leave RADA when his mother back in his native South Africa could no longer afford to pay his fees.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Robinson quotes Sir Ralph Richardson’s comment to Harwood after he had seen the original production of The Dresser in 1980: “Lucky fellow, that Wolfit. When we’re all dead and forgotten, he will be remembered because of your bloody play.” And so will its author.

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