The Half Moon Theatre’s first new play was a workshop play about Wat Tyler and the peasant uprising of 1381. It told the peasants’ side of the story – the side not normally told in history books. It found the peasants up against Edward III’s militarism, the increasing ambition of the rising merchant class, the Black Death and the notorious Statute of Labourers – the first legal restriction in England on the free bargaining power of labour. The uprising followed, from spontaneous and almost accidental beginnings, and a leadership gradually emerged, including Wat Tyler and the lay preacher John Ball.
Irving Wardle in The Times said: “As this is only the third production of the Half Moon Theatre it may be premature to start talking about house style. But if this rough and passionately intelligent production gives any index of future policy, then London has gained a new company worth treasuring”.
John Mortimer in the Observer called it: “One of the best things in my term as a critic”.
Guy Sprung, co-founder and first Artistic Director of Half Moon Theatre, talks about the theatre’s production of Will Wat, If Not, What Will? Interviewed by Ollie Nesbitt.
Yvonne Gilan was an actor and founder member of Half Moon Theatre who appeared in eight productions with us in the early-seventies.
Guy spurred Maurice and Michael on to turn the Old Half Moon from a rehearsal into a performing space, which opened with In the Jungle of the Cities. The actors asked me in to help at one point because they were using an American translation and were having difficulty making sense of the lines. It was then that I first made the acquaintance of actors like Mary Sheen who were, in the democratic spirit of the times, closely involved in what direction the theatre should take.
It was also in this spirit that Guy invited me to write what he opted to call Will Wat, if not, What Will? He and I decided on what happened in the scenes together, I drafted from this, we presented the draft to the company, and I then wrote it into a workable script. The resulting production drew this response from playwright John Mortimer, on The Observer at the time: “Will Wat doesn’t just show you the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, it involves you in it … By the end of the evening I felt proud to have shared history with the peasants of Erith, Brentford and Romney March, and ready to raise a billhook against all oppressors.”
Click here to read the full interview with Steve Gooch.
One of my memories is that to play a stray knight – bit ‘upper’ and patronising – someone had the great idea of cutting in half a small barrel, nailing straps to the closed ends into which i could push my feet, and tying rope to the two halves that I could hold like reins. Thus I had some extra height of a man on horseback, the reins, and the clopping sounds of the barrels on the wooden stage floor. All went quite well, I got a few laughs and the scene worked – until the night that all the staves in one half-barrel burst apart, I lurched (and maybe fell, I can’t remember) and all my assumed dignity disappeared in gales of delighted laughter from the audience, and probably my fellow actors too!
We were quite a happy company, and our planned two week (?) run had to be extended when the John Mortimer review came out and the box office was, if not besieged, under great pressure. I think we could have done another week too, but the next production was already advertised, and possibly some of our cast had other commitments.