Hanging on the wall in the Drayton (catalogue) Room, next door to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library and Archive Reading Room, is a watercolour depicting a dress rehearsal of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) production of The Fair Maid of the West. This was one of the first productions to be staged in the newly-opened Swan Theatre in 1986. It was painted by the late John Corvin, a commercial artist and enthusiastic amateur actor, who worked with the RSC in the 1960s.
The painting, which shows part of the auditorium and stage of the Swan Theatre, has atmosphere and real energy. It depicts Trevor Nunn directing a scene from his production of Thomas Heywood’s swashbuckling romantic comedy, written in 1631. Centre stage is King Mullisheg, played by Joe Melia, whilst the heroine, Bess Bridges, played by Imelda Staunton can be seen leaning against the rail in the bottom right hand corner. Other members of the cast, which included Pete Postlethwaite, Sean Bean, Simon Russell Beale, sit in the auditorium awaiting their turn, alongside technical staff. There are some nice touches, such as the polystyrene cups dotted around the auditorium or in actors’ hands, which adds informality and humour to the scene.
John Corvin, the artist, was born in London in 1923. During the Second World War, he served for four years in the Merchant Navy in the North Atlantic, staging the odd Shakespeare play, and discovering his ability to draw, but he was set on pursuing a career in acting. In the 1950s living and working in London, he was an enthusiastic amateur actor, playing with the Shakespeare Players, at the City Library Institute. This is where our volunteer Roger Howells, another enthusiastic amateur actor and former stage manager at the RSC, met John Corvin for the first time. Corvin won a scholarship to RADA in 1959, and was a founding member of Peter Hall’s RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon between 1962 and 1966, making his home in the town. After leaving the RSC, he worked at the Oxford Playhouse and also on TV shows such as Z-Cards ad Softly, Softly.
However, his reputation as a portrait and landscape painter was growing and he was much sought after for commissions. But his love of acting never left him and he toured the UK with his one-man show about Buffalo Bill, and even performed it in Buffalo’ Bill’s home town of Cody in Wyoming. John Corvin died on Good Friday 2010.
We have many production photographs in our collections but this unusual watercolour offers a different perspective on “putting on a show.”
With thanks, as always, to Roger Howells for sharing his reminiscences.