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