BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Being the daughter of British theatrical royalty was a mixed blessing for Ann Casson. Her father, Sir Lewis Casson, and her mother, Dame Sybil Thorndike, captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic during the first half of the 20th century, when liners and ocean crossings were redolent of a more glamorous age. Her mother, especially, had a very distinguished theatrical pedigree. George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan with Dame Sybil specifically in mind.
Ann Casson got opportunities as a child actress that – notwithstanding any early talent she might have shown – likely never would have come her way without the family connection. At age five, she played Tiny Tim in a production of A Christmas Carol on the West End. Four years later, she appeared with her mother in a production of The Trojan Women. A few years after that, as a young teenager, she toured South Africa and the Middle East with her parents. She was never out of work as an actor. But as The Times reported many years later, Dame Sybil “inevitably if unwittingly overshadowed the daughter who so closely resembled her and who seemed destined to follow her.”
When I met her in 1979, Casson was 64 years old and had managed to create an identity for herself separate from that of her famous parents, mainly by living and working in Canada. She and actor-husband Douglas Campbell had moved to Canada in 1953 to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new Stratford Festival. The following year, they started touring North America with the Canadian Players, a company Campbell co-founded to keep the Stratford actors busy during the off season. One of the venues they played was in Moosonee, Ontario, where curtain time was announced as “8:00 p.m., or one hour after the train gets in.” Casson recalled that one night they did Saint Joan for an audience that spoke only Cree. “That was quite different,” she said. “You wouldn’t get to do something like that in England.”
Casson returned to England in 1971 after she and husband Campbell went their separate ways. By that time, however, she considered herself more Canadian than English and planned to come back as often as she could.
“I’ve always found it more exciting here,” she told me. “There’s more enthusiasm in the theatre here. England is a wonderful place to start because you get a very good classical training there, and more companies are doing classical plays. But there’s far more enthusiasm here for starting new things.”
I asked her about her relationship with her famous parents. She said she had found her mother supportive but subject to sudden, unpredictable mood changes:
“Mother always thought everything the children did was absolutely wonderful. She was very encouraging. But she was also a very volcanic kind of person and, when you’re a child, you tend to shy away from that. Daughters always find it difficult to take things from their mothers anyhow, so I don’t ever remember talking about parts with her.”
Casson did, however, discuss roles with her father. “He was a director and I learned a great deal from him. But Father was also a very stern critic. When he began to seethe, you could learn a lot from what he said.”
She was in Edmonton to star in the Canadian premiere of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, a play about a woman in her 70s recovering from a stroke that afflicted her with severe aphasia, a language disturbance. Casson told me she prepared for the role by attending therapy classes for stroke patients at a hospital near her home in Sheffield. “The experience taught me a lot about the human mind and what a marvellous mechanism it is.” She was glad she had done all her preparation and learned her lines – “all this gobbledygook,” as she called it – before coming to Edmonton. She had realized after reading the script that going into the production cold with only three weeks to rehearse would have left her floundering on opening night. “You’ve got to know it so well that you can do it in your sleep,” she said. “The lines have to be absolutely part of you.”
Wings did well in Edmonton and subsequently toured to Ottawa and Montreal, where it was also well received. Casson told the Gazette of Montreal that she liked working with the small Edmonton company, Northern Light Theatre, because the emphasis there was on ensemble work. She had no time for companies that built theatre around personalities and used plays as vehicles. She’d had enough experience being around personalities while growing up in what The Times called the “almost claustrophobically theatrical atmosphere” of the Casson household. Now she was happy to be part of a team effort.
Wings, because it was essentially a monologue for a virtuoso actress with supporting players, brought Casson more newspaper attention than she would normally get for a theatrical role. Yet she generously opted to spend her interview time in Montreal praising her fellow actors and complimenting director Scott Swan for grabbing the Canadian rights to the play while it was still running on Broadway. “The focus with this company is all on actual work, not on theatricality,” she told the Gazette. “I think ensemble work is the real theatre.”
Ensemble work without headliner status kept Casson busy for the rest of her career. Whenever she returned to Canada after starring in Wings, it was to appear at the Stratford Festival or Shaw Festival as an also-starring member of the company. The only time she rated anything close to top billing was in 1988 when she played Mrs. Higgins in the Stratford production of My Fair Lady and the Duchess of York in Richard III. It was mentioned in the advance notices that Casson had been a working actress for more than 50 years. She died in May 1990 at age 74 at her home in London after suffering a massive stroke. The Globe and Mail obituary said “her reputation was built on being a company actress.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.