Who Remembers Wappy now?
How can I even begin to describe Wappy? Father Wulstan Phillipson had been attached to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before, as he always implied though never quite said, abandoning a glittering dramatic career to join the monastery. His English classes consisted largely of reading the plays of J.M. Singh and the works of Yeats and Lady Gregory. “The Gaul is in the glen, have you a dish of tay woman of the house?” I remember to this day, for he endowed me with an abiding love of Singh’s glorious language. He survived all criticism and mockery, and hung on grimly to his unrealized life as a giant of Irish theatre. Being in a Wappy play was a kind of rite of passage, no Downside education complete without it. I was in Christopher Fry’s The Boy With a Cart, one of his mainstays. He patiently rectified over and over the inevitable The Boy With a Fart with which his rehearsal notices were regularly defaced, for the Gaul was, I fear, a philistine, but Wappy stubbornly soldiered on with his mission to defend civilization. He didn’t believe in movement on the stage. If anybody moved too much he would emerge with red and roaring face from out of the Celtic mists and shout “Schtop the play!”. These things stay with you. When I once saw, decades later, Simon Russell Beale rolling around on a London stage simulating a sex act with the Duchess of Malfi I wanted to shout “Schtop the play!”. His courageous exploits in the drama culminated in his production of Hamlet, inevitably known as Wamlet, which he staged both at Downside and, astonishingly, at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Part of his mystery was that he seemed to know so many famous actors, and during the period of Wamlet a notice would go up on the school board every day, Alec Guiness, it might be, or Micheal Mac Leommoire has become a patron of Hamlet, although experienced dectectorists realized that they were paying not to have to go. In the Downside production King Claudius was wheeled onto the stage on his throne through a double door in the massive walls of Elsinore to a great braying of trumpets, but through some directorial misunderstanding the ghost (Evans Freke, what a performance, he certainly sent any ghost I have seen on the professional stage scuttling back to purgatory) tried to enter at the same time and they got stuck in the doorway, causing the whole castle to shake and totter. An unintended metaphor for so much of life, for indeed so much of it is but flats and paint, it tested one’s suspension of disbelief to the limit. The spectacle of Hamlet’s two warring fathers stuck in the same door was one of those moments when comedy almost passes into the sublime, but like all the highest comedy laced with hidden sorrow. Tragical comedy and comical tragedy indeed. He was a man who somehow transcended himself, animated by his love of dramatic literature and love of Ireland. He felt his exile acutely, although as with many great patriots (Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin spring to mind) it was rumoured that he was not a native of the country which he esteemed so much at all, but that his father was an English dentist and his mother Austrian, or so it was said, but perhaps this was a malicious rumour put about by his detractors. A brave and sad and noble figure. He gave me, a Gaul and the less of a philistine for his options classes when we listened to classical music, a love both of Mozart and Haydn and Yeats and Singh and Ireland that I have not lost.