Did Hollywood legend Basil Rathbone act with Newport Playgoers?

September 27, 2012

When ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ opens at the Dolman Theatre on 17th October it will revive memories of Newport Playgoers’ links with the man who, for many, was the definitive Sherlock Holmes – the legendary Hollywood star Basil Rathbone.

Basil Rathbone

The photo of Basil Rathbone that was donated to Newport Playgoers by his first wife Marion who was a leading light in the drama group for many years.

A photograph of the late, great actor adorns the walls of the Dolman Theatre and was a gift to Playgoers from Rathbone’s first wife, Marion, who was for many years one of the leading lights of the drama society. Well-known as an actress, director and teacher, she filled the walls of her home with photos of Rathbone in various roles.

“The connection between Basil Rathbone and Newport Playgoers is a real mystery and we had to think like Sherlock Holmes himself to try to crack it,” says Alex Wilson from Cardiff who is directing ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

Alex and his team of sleuths discovered that Marion met Rathbone when he was touring the UK with his cousin Frank Benson’s Shakespeare Company and appeared with him in productions of ‘As You Like It’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’. They married in 1914 and the following year had a son, Rodion. With the First World War raging, Rathbone joined the army in 1915 and served with distinction, his exploits earning him the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.

The couple divorced in 1926, two years after Playgoers was founded – so the puzzle remains of whether Basil Rathbone ever appeared in a Playgoers production before going off to Hollywood where, as well as making several films as Sherlock Holmes, he appeared in costume dramas such as ‘David Copperfield’, ‘The Mark of Zorro’, and ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ with Errol Flynn.

Chris Bissex-Williams, who plays Dr Watson in Playgoer’s production, shed some light on the subject. “Marion kept the name Rathbone all her life. She would always sweep into the theatre, black cloak flying behind her, billowing scarf and big feathered hat – a real grande dame.

Veteran Playgoer Babs Richards recalled, “I knew Marion very well. She always dressed in black and one felt she was always giving a performance, even when she just speaking to you. She directed many plays, mainly outdoor productions of Shakespeare. I remember their son, Rodion, appeared in a few Playgoers’ productions in the 1930s. He looked very much like his father, very dark, with a little moustache.”

Newport Playgoers present 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'

Newport Playgoers’ atmospheric production features James Symonds as Sir Henry Baskerville, Chris Bissex-Williams as Dr Watson and Steve Drowley as Sherlock Holmes. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Basil Rathbone appeared in a famous film version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and director Alex Wilson is determined to make Playgoers’ presentation just as thrilling.  “Our production will be very atmospheric and evocative of a dank, foggy Dartmoor where the hound roams. We’re sure it will send chills down the spines of the audience.”

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is at the Dolman Theatre from 17 – 20 October at 7.15 pm, with an extra matinee performance on the Saturday at 2.30 pm. To book tickets call 01633 263670 or visit www.dolmantheatre.co.uk.  New members are always welcome to become involved both onstage and behind the scenes.


Amdram Societies Join Forces to Give New Look to Dolman Theatre

September 5, 2012
Dolman Theatre gets a new look

Rosamund Griffiths-Jones adds the finishing touches to the music themed dressing room which she designed and decorated with Newport Operatic Society. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Dozens of people from local amateur dramatic and musical societies have joined forces to give a major make-over to Newport’s Dolman Theatre.

Whilst the theatre has been closed for the summer volunteers have set to work refurbishing the 400-seat auditorium to give it a bright new look. Each society also chose a dressing room to decorate in a style of their own design

Dolman Theatre gets a new look

WAWWA members Brandon Gale and Robin Watts in the dressing room they decorated New York-style. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

“An enormous amount of time and effort has been put into this project and we will be eternally grateful to the people who have dedicated so much time to finish the work before the new season starts with ‘Blithe Spirit’ on 12th September,” said Steve Bissex-Williams, who designed the auditorium’s make-over.

“Working under the guidance of theatre manager  Lisa Aston-Griffiths, we have painted the walls and ceiling, and  re-sanded the floor back to its original state . Most of the seating has been  re-upholstered and all the front stalls have been replaced with brand new seating. It really has been a hive of Industry with all the theatre’s hirers re-decorating the dressing rooms with their own themes and designs,” he added.

Dolman Theatre gets a new look

Volunteers from musical society WAWWA beneath the New York skyline they painted. Pictured are: Bronwen King, Elian West, Brandon Gale, Robin Watts and Sam Bashir. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Dolman Theatre gets a new look

Pictured cleaning the theatre auditorium are WAWWA members Elian West, and Dan Miles, and Playgoer Lauren Brown (PHOTO:PHIL MANSELL)

As well as members of Newport Playgoers Society, which owns and runs the theatre for the local community, volunteers from WAWWA, Newport Operatic Society, Playgoers New Generation, New Venture Players, Centrestage Cymru and Young Venture Players all pitched in to help.

Technology teacher Rosamund Griffiths-Jones designed the room decorated by Newport Operatic Society and used musical notes combined with theatrical quotes as its theme.

“I developed the idea to encompass all the diverse productions put on at the Dolman,” she said.

Dolman Theatre gets a new look

One of the beautiful illustrations created by Playgoers New Generation (PNG) (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Theatregoers will be able to check out the new look Dolman Theatre during ‘Blithe Spirit’ which is on from 12th – 15th September at 7.15 pm, with an extra matinee performance on the Saturday at 2.30 pm. To book tickets call 01633 263670 or visit www.dolmantheatre.co.uk.  New members are always welcome to become involved both onstage and behind the scenes.

A Leading Light of Local Theatre Returns to Newport

September 3, 2012

A Cwmbran man who has travelled the world as a top designer, beaten cancer and recorded four CDs of Oscar-winning songs has returned to Newport to make his mark on the theatre he loves.

Steve Bissex-Williams

Steve Bissex-Williams

Although he has officially retired, Steve Bissex-Williams’s passion for theatre and music means he has never been busier. He is currently re-designing the auditorium of the 400-seat Dolman Theatre as well as directing ‘Blithe Spirit’ which opens the 89th season of plays by Newport Playgoers.

“Theatre is a wonderful, fulfilling hobby and pastime and such a great way to socialise,” said Steve who has also taken on the role of Playgoers’ Membership Secretary. “I want to encourage more people to come and play an active part in our wonderful theatre. As well as recruiting new members and volunteers, I want to ensure that everyone who plays a part in the theatre, whether front of house, part of the production team, or as an audience member all have an enjoyable and positive experience.”

Steve Bissex-Williams directing 'Blithe Spirit'

Steve Bissex-Williams directing the cast of ‘Blithe Spirit’ (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Steve has been  involved with the theatre from an early age. His grandfather was a tenor discovered by the great operatic diva Dame Nellie Melba, his grandmother a world renowned concert pianist and his mother, the late Fay Williams, was a professional dancer and actress.

“It was always my ambition to follow in my family’s theatrical footsteps,” said Steve who began vocal training at the age of twelve and while at school was cast as the High Priest in Verdi’s Nabucco, playing opposite principal artists from both the English and Welsh National Opera Companies. Whilst playing this role, he was awarded a scholarship at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

“To make ends meet I worked on a part-time basis for a well-known fashion chain, while continuing my studies and performing for local operatic societies. In 1980, I was accepted into the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, but, unfortunately, cuts in Arts Councils grants  forced  the D’Oyly Carte to disband,” said Steve who continued in fashion retail, working for some of the biggest names on the High Street.

The pinnacle of his career was being appointed Design Director for a well known chain of department stores. Responsible for store design, promotional activity and marketing, he spent most of his working life on planes to and from China, India and the USA. Steve retired from the retail world in 2001 after a long struggle with cancer – but, undaunted, he and his partner Chris set out on a new challenge. They set up a 5 star boutique hotel in North Devon and established a superb reputation for service, style and great food. Fifteen years later, they decided to sell the business and semi-retire back home in Wales. Since returning, Steve has become totally absorbed in his lifelong passion – the theatre.

Last year he developed a touring one man show about the history of the Oscars and recorded his fourth CD, ‘A Night at the Oscars’ which covers nearly every song that has won the Academy Award.

Steve Bissex-Williams at the Minack Theatre

Steve Bissex-Williams in ‘The Hypochondriac’ at the Minack Theatre (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

“It’s been marvellous coming back to the Dolman Theatrewhere I’ve been a member of Newport Playgoers for over 30 years.”  He has done everything from performing, directing, and designing sets to making costumes and helping on the bar. Steve also designed the new facade of the Dolman Theatre in 2005, for which he was rewarded with life membership of Newport Playgoers. Since returning to Playgoers, Steve hasn’t stopped. He’s designed sets, played five characters in the Alan Ayckbourn play ‘Time of My Life’and in June he headed the Wardrobe team for ‘The Hypochondriac’which Playgoers took for a highly successful run at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall in July.

When he’s not hard at work re-decorating the Dolman’s auditorium, Steve is in the rehearsal room directing ‘Blithe Spirit’.

“It’s one of Noel Coward’s wittiest and best-loved comedies and starts our new season with more than a dash of style and sophistication,” said Steve.

Blithe Spirit’ is at the Dolman Theatre from 12th – 15th September at 7.15 pm, with an extra matinee performance on the Saturday at 2.30 pm. To book tickets call 01633 263670 or visit www.dolmantheatre.co.uk.