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Bernstein in Chichester
British actor Peter McEnery tells us about his play, part of Chichester’s 2018 Leonard Bernstein celebrations
You’ve had a distinguished career on screen and stage, you were with the Royal Shakespeare Company?
It was early days at the RSC. I was a founder member under the company’s first artistic director, the late Peter Hall. In those days young actors were signed up under three year contracts, which gave a great sense of security in an otherwise insecure profession, and in that time one was influenced by the greatest writers, directors, actors of past and present. Rather like the great privilege of a university education.
How did you come up with the idea of Walter & Lenny?
For many years I had been searching for the perfect one-man play. There must be a sense of universality either with the character or the subject, for instance, Shakespeare, Dickens, Agatha Christie, even the gospel of St Matthew. Certain characters from history may interest me, but not necessarily fulfil the criteria. Bernstein does just that, he does meet those criteria.
In the summer of 2014, an old friend lent me his copy of The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone. This was a sizeable tome, and to be honest I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it all. Nigel’s account is very readable, I couldn’t put the book down. I felt I was on to something. I didn’t need to add or edit anything, it was all there.
Letters? How does that make a play?
It was whilst I was flicking through the pages before settling down to read, that my attention was caught by correspondence to and from Chichester, England, in the early 1960s. I was intrigued. What connection could Leonard Bernstein have had with a provincial cathedral city in the south of England? I read on. Here, intact, was the story of the commissioning of The Chichester Psalms, from the first approach by Walter Hussey, his tenacity in the face of Bernstein’s sometimes agonisingly slow responses, to the eventual flowering of a friendship between two men whose backgrounds could hardly have been more different. I read excerpts to my wife and some friends: and they were drawn in. I had my show.
I imagine Bernstein hadn’t really been on your original list as a potential source for a play?
No! But Bernstein and these letters were completely entrancing. It had all the drama of a piece of theatre; there were setbacks, delicate negotiations, surprises - Bernstein’s decision to set them in Hebrew threw up challenges for an English cathedral choir to meet, and his inclusion of the Psalms in a programme of his own music by the New York Philharmonic two weeks before the Chichester premiere was a painful hurdle for Hussey to overcome.
So you were drawn to Bernstein?
Most definitely! I realise that the idea of the play started to fall into place when I thought back to my first experiences of Lenny and his music. I had seen the original New York production of West Side Story in London as a teenager in 1958. I was rendered speechless. Subsequently, stories of Candide began to trickle through. By who? By Leonard Bernstein. Neither the original New York or London productions had been particularly successful, and yet the power of this amazing music by Leonard Bernstein again drew me in. I know nothing about music, but “I know what I like”. Years later, Bernstein was appearing at the Barbican, but on hearing that he was doing a book signing at Harrods, I wanted to be there: not necessarily to obtain a signed copy of his book, but just to be in the same room as him.
But you are playing two characters on the stage in one show. What is that like?
It is the very diversity of these two characters - cultural, vocational, spiritual, that in fact makes them easier to play. I must emphasise that this certainly is not an impersonation piece - I don’t resemble either man. It’s an illusion. A conjuror - nothing up my sleeve.
And you are bringing this play back to Chichester, UK?
Yes, Walter & Lenny had its debut in 2015, the 50th anniversary of The Chichester Psalms, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, however this year, for the centenary of Leonard Bernstein I was invited by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Stephen Waine to perform the play in the cathedral as part of the Bernstein in Chichester festival. I was very honoured to receive this invitation - to perform Water & Lenny in the cathedral, the very venue for which The Chichester Psalms was composed, and where Walter Hussey is commemorated in the very fabric of the building. We’re in good company. What an inspiration to perform the play with The John Piper Tapestry (another of Hussey’s significant commissions in Chichester Cathedral at the High Altar) almost as a backdrop for the play! And world famous conductor Marin Alsop will also be conducting the fruit of this flowering in the cathedral to end this festival just a few months later!
Tickets for Walter & Lenny can be purchased at the Chichester Box Office: http://www.thenovium.org/boxoffice
This event is part of the Bernstein in Chichester Festival. The full programme can be found at www.bernsteinchichester.uk