Seventy years, more than 220 productions in, and the Southsea Shakespeare Actors are still going strong.
The company began as a means of paying tribute to the works of the Great Bard – but from the very start also put on other works, from classics such as Ibsen to Tom Stoppard, Oscar Wilde and even an adaptation of the film Trainspotting.
Based at the Omega Centre in Southsea, and with nearly 40 members on its books, SSA is currently putting together its latest production – the first in this landmark year – of Pericles.
Terry Wiseman has been chairman for the past seven years, but joined the SSA nearly 40 years ago with his then girlfriend, now wife Fay.
The 77-year-old recalls: ‘We were both involved in amateur dramatics with other companies when a friend of ours took us up to Stratford, and as a thank you for driving us up there, they bought us tickets to see the Royal Shakespeare Company.
‘It was the first time I’d had anything to do with Shakespeare since I was at school – back then it was always called a punishment!
‘But when I saw it acted on stage we were just hooked. This friend of ours was already a member of the SSA and she got us to come and audition.’
After passing his audition by delivering speeches from Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shylock in A Merchant of Venice, his first appearance was on stage in Richard III.
Looking back, he jokingly calls the period under founder K Edmonds Gateley and his successor at the helm, Clifford Allen, ‘dictatorships’, where you played the part you were given.
‘The problem was that you tended to be a little bit typecast.
‘If you were first lord from the left in one play, you could bet your life you’d be first lord from the right in the next play,’ he chuckles at the memory, ‘or if you were funny, you’d get the clown’s part.’
When Clifford retired, there was talk of the group folding. But six of the company, including Terry – plus K Edmonds Gateley – formed a committee to run it instead.
They also gained charitable status through their work in schools, putting on plays, giving talks and workshops.
Looking back, Terry is proud of his King Lear: ‘I was little bit young for Lear when I played him – I was only about 50, but I did age up. I grew my beard as long as I could and my hair as long as I could and had it bleached pure white, which looked quite good on stage!’
Back in its early days, the company could fill the large theatres, but Terry is sanguine about changing tastes.
‘Back when we did the Kings, The New Theatre and the pier, there weren’t so many other distractions - people queued up to go to the theatre, and you’d get good houses. But there’s so much entertainment these days, you’ve got to be something special to get a full house at the Kings, for instance. But we go to smaller venues and we manage to fill them. You play to 100-120 people and it’s a full house, which is a wonderful atmosphere.’
There is also fresh blood in the group. Charlotte Thompson, 22, (pictured below) is one of SSA’s newest members. Pericles will be her first production with the group.
Describing the audition process as ‘really good and everyone was really friendly, so I felt really at ease,’ she is playing the key role of Marina.
‘I studied acting at the London College of Music and now I’ve decided to become a teacher, but I wanted to keep that aspect in my life.’
And she’s enjoying the fact that Pericles is one of the less familiar plays in the canon: ‘It’s been really good because it feels like there’s a lot of freedom – you don’t get people saying: “Oh it’s not like that film,” there’s no pressure to play it in a certain way. You can do what you want with it.’
And from here? Terry believes the SSA is here to stay: ‘We strive to do our best and put on good productions and be as professional as we possibly can.’
Tackling one of the lesser known gems from the canon
Given that it wasn’t included in the crucial First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, there has been some debate over the authorship of Pericles.
Academics tend to agree that Shakespeare wrote the latter half, while an inn-keeper and pamphleteer, George Wilkins, wrote the first half. It is, however, included in modern collections and it is the latest play the SSA is tackling.
Nick Downes is co-directing with Vincent Adams.
‘It’s a rattling good yarn, that’s the first thing to say about it’ says Nick. ‘It’s packed full of stuff happening all of the time.’
Nick also directed the SSA’s A Winter’s Tale last year.
‘The thing I really enjoyed about A Winter’s Tale was the fact that there isn’t really a template for what the play is supposed to be and it’s the same here. It’s a bit more of a voyage of discovery than if you do Romeo and Juliet or a Midsummer Night’s Dream – it’s a less well-trodden path.
‘Tackling this one has been a really interesting challenge, and it’s kind of like archaeology - you only really discover the qualities of the play when you try to stage it, the psychology behind the lines – you can’t tell that just from reading the text.
‘Time and time again we found ourselves surprised by just how interesting some scenes were when we asked actors to deliver them.’
* Pericles is at The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth, from April 5 to 8. Doors 7.30pm.
Tickets from ticketsource.co.uk/ssa or on 07391 233525.
Seven decades of performing – the history of the SSA
Southsea Shakespeare Actors was formed in 1947 under the patronage of Sir Donald Wolfit and the directorship of the founder K Edmonds Gateley MBE, starting at St Peter’s Hall in Southsea.
By the mid-1950s the Southsea Shakespeare Actors had moved into the comparatively opulent South Parade Pier Theatre.
In this venue the SSA completed the canon in the 1960s, becoming the first non-professional company in the world to have performed all of Shakespeare’s plays – a fact still in the Guinness Book of Records.
After the demise of the South Parade Pier, the company removed to the Kings Theatre where it performed throughout the 1970s and early ’80s.
From the mid-80s the company performed in a multitude of venues including the Library Theatre, the Hornpipe, The Ashcroft Centre in Fareham, but mostly at the Portsmouth Arts Centre.
The Golden Jubilee Year of 1997 saw the company complete the canon for the second time, with All’s Well That End’s Well, at the New Theatre Royal.
The new century saw the birth and growth of Upstage!, the SSA’s youth company, dedicated to schooling young people in theatre skills, enabling them to present their own performances and to be fully involved in main company productions.
Over the past decade the SSA has pursued a policy of performing in multiple locations, from ‘The Old Benny’, now The Groundlings Theatre to The Station Theatre, Hayling Island, The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth, The Royal Yacht Club and the Pyramids in Southsea.