A little known fact is that one of the finest Shakespearean actors of the 18th century, George Frederick Cooke, came from Berwick.
Unfortunately, despite his great talent, he was also all too often found to be drunk on stage!
Highlighting George’s colourful life on stage a play ‘The Actor’s Apology’ has been written about his life and, after a successful tour of theatres in northern England, it arrives in Berwick in May.
Written by John Cargill Thompson and adapted and acted by Dean Taylor, ‘The Actor’s Apology’ details how George Frederick Cooke “rose to the very top ... and fell. Dramatically”.
After a particularly drunken performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ George is summoned by his audience and the theatre manager to apologise for his disgraceful behaviour. And it is this drunken apology (which includes by way of explanation the story of his life) that actor and producer Dean Taylor will perform in the Henry Travers Theatre at The Maltings.
George was born in Berwick in the 1750s to a single mother (father unknown) who scrubbed floors for the Berwick gentry. The highlight of his childhood was the one week a year that the Edinburgh Players came to Berwick, which gave him a taste for both Shakespeare and acting.
“George performed ‘Hamlet’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘King Lear’ in fields and yards around Berwick and realised that the only thing he could do in life was act,” said Dean.
“After his mother died he made his way to London and his ambition was to perform at the Theatre Royal.”
George had a successful career performing in Shakespeare plays in the provinces before he got his big break, playing Richard III, Shylock and Othello at Covent Garden, London.
“He became the toast of the town and eclipsed the then star of London, John Philip Kendall,” explained Dean, who himself has an impressive back catalogue of radio, television and theatre roles, forming a touring Shakespeare company in 2003.
Unfortunately, the higher George’s star rose the more erratic his behaviour became. Dean has a theory that George was simply a man ahead of his time and had he been born in the 20th century he would have been included in the stable of great film stars who worked hard and played even harder.
However, he was performing on stage in the late 1700s and his increasing drunkenness did not go down well.
Playing Richard III he was booed off stage, and returning to explain himself, George says: “I’ll die first. Let them burn.
“I’ll not act again in this theatre: You have had the best of me and found me wanting. You have dared to demand an apology. Me art is my apology.”
Having in mind that the biography of an actor is referred to in the industry as ‘an apology’, writer John Cargill Thompson combined this biography of George Frederick Cooke with demands from his audience for an apology and created this wickedly wry study of theatre life.
Thompson originally wrote the role with ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ actor Gordon Rowe in mind. Unfortunately Gordon died before he ever got to perform ‘The Actor’s Apology’ and his widow passed the play on to Dean Taylor of Dean Taylor Productions who has embraced the role of the drunken actor so well that during one performance a member of the audience accused him of actually being drunk on stage. His reply: “Nothing gets passed you.”
Berwick’s most famous actor will be apologising to his home audience on stage at The Maltings, on Friday, May 22.