Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker tribute: The playwright still packed them in at the Royal Court in an affectionate and celebratory look at his life

jr-arnold_wesker “He shone with the sun”, lilted singer Rosie Archer in a soaring paean that took place as part of many poignant moments during an afternoon of tributes to the playwright Arnold Wesker, who died age 83 on 12 April 2016.

Held at the Royal Court Theatre, Wesker's spiritual home despite the theatre having turned down Chicken Soup with Barley (it premiered in 1958 at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre), the evening was filled with warm memories of the late playwright from luminaries across the arts world.

Mike Leigh spoke of his delight in his teens at discovering this East End working-class dramatist. “What a hero he was. We sought out his plays and read them avidly,” recalled Leigh, reading from a piece based on an article first published in the July 2016 issue of Jewish Renaissance. Later in the Royal Court’s bar, Leigh told me that he had been approached to participate in the event after Wesker’s wife Dusty had shown the organisers the piece.

David Edgar spoke of Wesker’s groundbreaking representation of “political disillusion”; director Fiona Laird remembered her surprise at finding the playwright “charming,” instead of the curmudgeon she had been led to expect. A frail looking Bernard Kops, one of the last of those ‘angry young men’, recalled Wesker’s desire to broaden the reach of culture with his Centre 42 project.

There were some great performances too: Samantha Spiro’s delivery of Sarah Kahn’s final speech (she played Kahn in the Royal Court’s revival of Chicken Soup in 2011) brought tears to my eyes, although puzzlingly she omitted the ultimate rousing imperative, “You've got to care, you've got to care or you'll die!” Ian McKellen performed an excerpt of Chips with Everything with gusto, and Henry Goodman made a mischievous Shylock in a speech from the 1976 play of the same name. Finally, Jessica Raine, who played Beatie in the Donmar Warehouse’s 2014 production of Roots, movingly reprised that character's astonishing final speech.

And there were surprises: who knew Wesker had written lyrics for a Eurovision Song Contest entry? Sadly, Jonathan King rejected Shone With the Sun as “too classical”, otherwise Britain’s Eurovision history might have told a different story. He had been a talented artist too, said set-designer Pamela Howard, who presented several of his fine ink drawings.

As the audience left, speakers played Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a favourite with the playwright, and a reminder of the compassion at the heart of Wesker’s own art.

By Rebecca Taylor

CLICK HERE to read Mike Leigh's tribute to Sir Arnold Wesker from our July 2016 issue

British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker died aged 83 on April 12th: JR's arts editor Judi Herman recalls the pleasure and privilege of sharing lunch and confidences with the great man

Sir Arnold Wesker Sir Arnold Wesker, who has died at the age of 83, first came to prominence in the late 1950s as one of the playwrights dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, though he later rejected this label. I would say advisedly so, for his famous trilogy of plays drawing on his background in the Jewish East End and upbringing in a family with a strong Communist identity, introduced one of the most memorable positive heroines of post-war literature. Beatie Bryant, the Norfolk-born heroine of the middle play in the trilogy, Roots (the first being Chicken Soup with Barley, and the last is I’m Talking About Jerusalem).

I was lucky enough to meet Sir Arnold when Roots was wonderfully revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and I was invited to meet this great, delightful and erudite man at the Brighton home he shared with his beloved wife, the supremely resourceful and devoted Dusty, on whom the radiant Beatie was modelled. I say invited, because the hugely hospitable Dusty made what she called "a light lunch", to which my husband Steve was also invited and it was truly memorable – both for Dusty’s cooking and for the conversation over lunch. And that’s on top of what I was privileged to record for JR OutLoud with Arnold while lunch was cooking, when he spoke at length about the inspiration for Roots and much more about his life and work.

Arnold was still supremely articulate despite the Parkinson’s Disease that dogged his later years. I had also had the pleasure of speaking to him on the phone some years before about Shylock, his take on The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and the Merchant of Venice are close and supportive friends and the pound of flesh the result of a nonsensical bond, genuinely made as a gesture to the draconian Venetian authorities, that goes horribly wrong. But meeting him in person and being welcomed into their home by this wonderfully complementary pair will always be a very special memory for me. My heart goes out to Dusty and I am sure all readers will join with me in wishing her long life.

By Judi Herman

Listen to Sir Arnold Wesker discuss his life and works in 2013 on JR OutLoud.