Doctor of Letters
Friday 19 July 2013 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Dr Edward Forman
Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,
The playing area of the Tobacco Factory Theatre in South Bristol is a small space, and Andrew Hilton is a tall man. If I told you, therefore, that the latter had bestridden the former like a Colossus, it would in geometrical terms scarcely amount to a noteworthy feat. However, graduates in the Arts Faculty, and no doubt their parents, are familiar with the histrionic, needing no further guidance from us in recognizing a Shakespearean simile. In Bristol’s cultural life, Andrew Hilton has indeed for some years been a towering figure, metaphorically as well as literally, contributing significantly to the transformation of a landscape which many thought all but derelict. He is artistic director of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, a company which since its inception in 1999 has developed a national reputation for dazzling interpretations of total integrity of both comedies and tragedies, including those reputed the most difficult in each category. The company’s flair for telling the story, for letting the story tell itself; the intelligence and lucidity of their delivery; and the infectious delight which they convey in their inventiveness – these qualities have won them an intensely loyal and growing following. This year, in an exciting new extension of their range, the citizens of Lancaster, Exeter, Cheltenham, Scarborough and Winchester have been able to share Bristol’s good fortune in enjoying their enchanting production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. I hope we can take it as read, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, that a high proportion of this year’s Arts graduates saw this production and can vouch for its entrancing qualities, even though the show was nearly stolen by inspired casting in respect of the part of Crab – the same dog, although very differently interpreted, that so delighted Queen Elizabeth I, if we are to believe Shakespeare in Love.
Andrew Hilton was born in Bolton, and although he cannot remember when he first became hooked, he tells me that his parents were involved in good amateur theatre and that by the age of seven or eight he had been terrified by Hamlet’s Ghost and intrigued by the idea of a pound of human flesh. At school, with his older brother Clive who is with us today, he played Prince Arthur in a scene from King John, and later, daubed in something called ‘Leichner’s Pancake’, he took the role of Othello. He also recalls youthful Septembers spent camping near Stratford and punting downstream to see the productions.
Andrew read English at Churchill College, Cambridge, where he studied Shakespeare under Michael Long, whom he describes as a remarkable Shakespearian and the key teacher in his education. You will be pleased, Andrew, to know that Michael Long’s Critical Introduction to Macbeth is held by our university library, although this personal recommendation comes too late to benefit today’s graduates.
It was as a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company that Andrew first worked with Jonathan Miller, acting in his productions of Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I was there! Little did I think, as an earnest second-year undergraduate at the Oxford Playhouse on 2nd November 1971, that my career and that of Brutus would wend their various ways to this grander stage – or that my nascent collection of theatre memorabilia would feature in a ceremony like this.
Thanks to a recommendation from Jonathan Miller, Andrew moved into the professional theatre, working at the Mermaid with Bernard Miles, at the National with Peter Hall and Albert Finney and then at the Bristol Old Vic, beginning an association with Bristol that spans thirty-five years, so far. Although he acknowledges the element of luck in some of his opportunities – someone dropped out, someone fell ill, an understudy got a better offer and was released – and modestly describes this as the prelude to ‘two decades as a jobbing actor’, Andrew gained wide experience as associate director, as actor and as author, as publisher and promoter: indeed, although today we are celebrating his role as director, his versatility in all aspects of theatrical life matches that of Molière: author, actor, stage director, manager, organizer and animateur – like Molière, he inspires loyalty in his colleagues, and like Molière he knows how to make people laugh. Better than Molière, he induces tears as well.
Before Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol had an enterprising experimental theatre company called Show of Strength, concentrating on new plays and innovative productions of classical repertoire, performed in some unusual venues: the Hen & Chicken pub in Bedminster and the Quakers’ Friars building in central Bristol. Andrew, and his wife Diana whom he had met in his Bristol Old Vic days, joined the Company in 1989, and Andrew was responsible for several exciting ventures, new plays, Shakespeare, first U.K. professional productions. I shall pick out just one, a new play based on Dracula by Dominic Power, entitled Tales of the Undead, because Dominic went on to be Andrew’s regular script editor and valued textual consultant for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, and we are pleased to welcome him today.
Alongside Andrew’s contribution to culture, we must also celebrate his educational work. SATTF’s educational programme – workshops, lectures, talks, a wide-ranging and flexible outreach programme – is an important part of its raison d’être. Theatre-in-education also inspired Andrew to creative writing. Having arrived as a trainee director at the Mermaid with dreams of staging Jacobean tragedies and Shakespeare, he found himself taking over the company’s ‘Molecule Theatre’, which created and performed plays about science for schools audiences. The titles of his plays – Sparks!, Fire Island – suggest how these imaginative melodramas embedded scientific discovery and experimentation into stories designed to catch the imagination of the young. Andrew remains particularly proud of The Patent-Office Robbery, in which the theft of a safe demonstrated the five basic types of machine – lever, pulley, inclined plane, wheel-and-axle, screw. Andrew also taught theatre to American students in London in the ’70s and ’80s, and since 1990 has been a freelance teacher at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
The Tobacco Factory was a Tobacco Factory, the remnant of it saved for Bristol in 1996 by local architect George Ferguson, now our elected Mayor. SATTF itself was formed in 1999 to provide intimate productions of Shakespeare. Andrew himself describes the vision: ‘Intimate without being poky. Shakespeare in close-up: full cast productions with no member of the audience sitting more than twenty feet away. No rhetorical booming, but Shakespeare spoken “trippingly on the tongue”, as the great man required, by intelligent actors who know what they are talking about. When their stories and their passions don’t have to be projected up to the gallery, but just lived as truthfully as possible right in front of the spectator, even kings and madmen and heroes seem real and recognizable. Shakespeare can be performed with the kind of natural, quiet intensity that – when preparing for the big stage – casts normally have to leave behind within the first couple of weeks of rehearsal. And crucially his language is comprehensible.’ Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Hilton made this vision a reality.
Since February 2000, in spring seasons at the Factory and two co-productions with the Bristol Old Vic, the company has mounted thirty productions, covering twenty-three different Shakespeare's and five other plays. These included Andrew’s production of Tony Harrison’s translation of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, and I hope I may be forgiven for dwelling briefly on that, not least because it generated several seminars for me in the Autumn Term of 2010. In the 1970s, Andrew’s stint as ‘understudy for an understudy’ had been for a part in Harrison’s Phædra Britannica, and at about the same time, Harrison transposed Molière’s play to 1966 for The National Theatre. Andrew had long wanted to revive that translation, and Harrison was enthusiastic in his support, inserting iPhones into Molière’s world, and finding more ways than can readily be imagined in integrating into English rhyming couplets the syllables sar, ko and zy.
Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Andrew Piers Marsden Hilton as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.