Alan Riach introduces John Purser’s vignettes of recollection, taking us back to the 1960s, some great days of Glasgow theatre and a small-scale performance never-to-be-forgotten for its intensity and power

JOHN Purser today begins a new intermittent series of – what shall we call them? – vignettes, bagatelles, a collection of observations, moments, anecdotes, memorable instances, portraits of characters, people in a history on the point of disappearing over a horizon and into a past that may be irrecoverable without some account of them.

In the first, we travel first to the Citizens Theatre in 1963 for a recollection of a commission to compose music for a performance of one of the great plays in western drama, Racine’s Phaedra, translated by the great American poet Robert Lowell.

The play was – and is – deeply shocking and Lowell’s own poetry, confessional, bitter, dark, is among the most disturbing of the last century. How should a composer produce music that would match the challenge of such a story in such words and performance?

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Then we move to an even more intimate theatrical setting, Glasgow’s long-gone Close Theatre, where the former star of Phaedra at the Citz, Zoe Hicks gives a reading of the poetry of Sylvia Plath, even more shocking and literally awe-inspiring than Lowell’s, and we get an extraordinary insight into the artist as the trembling servant of the art, whether that art is poetry, musical composition or performance … ALMOST as soon as I graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in 1963, and while still studying composition on a Caird scholarship with Hans Gál, I had the privilege of working with some of the leading directors, actors and singers in Scotland.

The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow commissioned me to compose music for a number of productions, some of them of Shakespeare plays.

Why they ever approached me remains a mystery. I was in my early 20s, inexperienced and with a short track record. Someone must have spoken a good word.

One production was particularly striking because of the lead actress, Zoe Hicks. I first encountered her when I was asked to write the music for Michael Meacham’s production of Phaedra – Racine’s Phèdre as translated by Robert Lowell (below). It is a shocking story in which, in the absence of her husband Theseus, Phaedra falls in love with his son, her stepson, Hippolytus.

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His rejection of her, indeed disgust at her desires and his declared love for the younger Aricia so inflames her jealousy that when Theseus unexpectedly returns, she accuses Hippolytus of molesting her.

This brings about his father’s fatal curse upon him, leading to Hippolytus’s death fighting a sea monster.

When Phaedra is ultimately exposed, leaving behind her a trail of “collateral damage”, she takes her own life. That’s classical drama for you – they didn’t hold back.

Lowell was a controversial figure in his day and Phaedra was a controversial translation of Phèdre. Indeed, it was brave – nigh foolhardy – of Lowell to attempt to render this great and refined French masterpiece into English.

Just how difficult was the task can be indicated by quoting the 17th-century composer Jean-Baptiste Lully on the subject of translating French classical drama into opera: “Si vous voulez bien chanter ma musique ... allez entendre la Champmeslé.”

Which tells you that Lully went to listen to a famous actress of his day, not to a singer, to understand the rhythms and inflections of her delivery and attempt to do them justice in music.

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A translation could never reproduce the poised beauty of Racine’s rhythms and fortunately the script did not call for me to have any of the lines sung. But Lowell’s translation had its own strengths and with an actress such as Zoe Hicks speaking the lines, an incontestable power and its own verbal music.

Born in 1922, Hicks was one of the artist Augustus John’s many love children and she had the strength and depth of character one might expect from one who managed to emerge totally as herself from such a background.

The playbill has a short article by Hicks describing what it was like to sit for her father as he painted her portrait, reproduced in the programme (in black and white only). Hicks was, of course, Phaedra, and she was beyond magnificent. She inspired fear – fear of her all-consuming desire and her inability or refusal, whichever you prefer, to yield one jot of it to reality.

Her description of her father is, however, full of affection and admiration. He told her not to waste her time going to drama school and instead, from him and his wife she “learnt a little about perseverance and a direct and simple approach; the constant search for truth, and about generosity of spirit, and these qualities, it seems to me, are very much concerned with acting”.

The production took place in November 1966 and was, for her, a triumph. Her performance was described by Cordelia Oliver: “... her face, with its high cheek-bones and large eyes, might have been made for tragedy, and her voice can rise as easily to a howl of rage as it can drop to a thrilling throbbing murmur . . .”

Christopher Small in The Glasgow Herald did her even better justice: “As Phaedra, Zoe Hicks gives, indeed, a quite hair-raisingly good performance, the most powerful individual piece of work that has been seen on the Citizens’ stage for a good while. “Clothed in scarlet (a Nessus-shirt of desire), consumed with lust, love and hatred equally destroying her, this queen appears in a proper sense beside herself, endowed with qualities more than ordinarily human.

“‘Do not imagine,’ she cries, ‘that my passion is voluntary!’ No, we do not: in her we do indeed see the impersonal power of the goddess, ‘Venus toute à sa proie attachée.’”

I went through the script with Michael, taking rapid pencil notes. Act I scene 2 has this: “Loathing. Muted desire. Weary thrusts of hot-house pain.”

That got 30 seconds. And this is what appears at the start of Act 2: “A lurch of optimism. Love, turgid, dangerous, palpitating, 20 seconds.” I think I had bargained it up from 10 seconds. Just as well as this was to be the main theme music at another crucial moment in the play:

“Why do my people rush to crown me queen?

Who can ever want to see me? They have seen My downfall.

Will their praise deliver me?

Or bury me at the bottom of the sea?”

What is one to do in music, confronted with such demands?

I decided to create an instantaneous effect by novelty of sound and scored it for pinned piano, oboe, clarinet and cello.

The pinned piano was a good idea. An old upright had drawing pins pushed into the hammer heads so it sounded like a harpsichord which had been transformed into another state and this gave the whole a surreal sound for what is a surreal drama bedded in a classical world.

The results were described as “haunting and veiled” by Small, ever a kind commentator on my efforts. Michael thought it “beautiful and excellent but for myself, I recollect frustration at the time limits imposed, more suited to the cinema than the theatre, and would gladly have done more. But on the other hand, I got to hear my music introduce Hicks, though she required no setting up. From the moment she appeared on stage you were her prisoner.

She came to our house for a party once, along with many of the company, the two Michaels, and the business manager, Andrew Leigh whose father Walter Leigh was a fine composer. Hicks somehow commanded a chair in the very middle of the room, her presence dominating us like a hawk hovering above smaller creatures, her mind on matters beyond our grasp.

It was almost uncomfortable and she didn’t stay long. But I was to see and experience her own profound vulnerability on a night – a single night – never to be forgotten.

Sylvia Plath, Wilma Paterson and Zoe Hicks (Close Theatre, Glasgow, 1967)

WHEN Sylvia Plath’s book of poetry Ariel came out in 1965, it was both thrilling and shocking in its direct assault upon convention. It had a particular resonance for women, not least the Scottish composer Wilma Paterson, to whom I was then married.

She planned a reading of the poems to which she would compose music, and Hicks would be the reader. It took place sometime in March 1967 in the Close Theatre – but most of the records of those days were burnt down with the theatre in 1973, though we do remember for certain that it was a late-night show, kicking off at 11.15pm and for which we did have an audience.

Although Hicks was one of the most memorable and striking of women, with awe-inspiring stage presence, she was awed by Plath (below).

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So were we all. Hicks decided she could not present these wrenching poems without buying a new dress proper to the occasion.

She spent £70 – a small fortune in those days – on a long white dress that followed her fine upright figure and in which she looked quite wonderful. And she stood there right beside me. I was playing the cello, my wife Wilma at the piano with her back partly to Hicks. There was also a flute and a clarinet.

We were all wrought to a high pitch by the intimacy of the poems of this revolutionary new venue, a tiny theatre in the round, the audience able almost to reach out and drag you on to a seat beside them. I remember Wilma’s music as simple, direct and poignant, almost healing, set against the horror of some of Plath’s lines, particularly in the poem Daddy:

“There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Hardly surprising that it was with real trepidation that we set forth on this journey of poetic exposure. As I played, I watched the side of Zoe’s long, beautiful dress trembling all the way through the performance, the white material shivering in a kind of eerie breeze of its own, for her actual leg was concealed.

She had the other leg under control but that this most experienced and, indeed, dominating of actresses found herself in nigh mortal combat with nerves still impresses upon me the enormous sacrifices that artists make for the love of art. Quite simply she gave more than she had.