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.