The first of the William Poel commemorative performances was presented by the Society for Theatre Research in 1952. It was a special matinee at the Old Vic theatre organised by leading theatre figures of the time who had worked with Poel, such as Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Robert Atkins, Lewis Casson, Nugent Monck and Donald Wolfit. From this developed a series of annual competitions between two established drama schools with a prize for a best speech or Shakespeare duologue. The aim was to develop 'good stage speech'.
After more than half a century, 'The Poel' continues to evolve, responding to the times but keeping to its aims. From private verse-speaking recitals within a few drama schools, the Festival changed to become a public performance on our major London stages. From 1983, an annual performance was staged in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre. At the start of the 21st century, it moved to Shakespeare's Globe and the last Festival performance was given in 2005 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
For over two decades acting students from all over the country presented scenes from an increasingly wide repertoire of early English, Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. In celebrating Poel we were also celebrating the newest talents entering the acting profession, testing their skills in the emerging glories of our early drama.
If Poel ever worked out a system for speaking Elizabethan texts, he never wrote about his methods. Many of those actors who worked with him recalled his emphasis on speech and an apparently eccentric vocal approach. But there is a lack of consistency in the details and so we must conclude that, like many theatre directors, while he may have had a consistency of purpose, when working he suited his approach to the individual performer.
He did write often of the vocal results he desired: speed, lightness, musicality and the effect of true speech. Although he seems rarely to have taught, in the formal pedagogic sense, you get a sense that his way of giving his actors the means to improve their approach to speaking these texts was informal, personal and practical. After more than half a century of celebrating William Poel's achievements the Society for Theatre Research believes that any event in his name should now focus on encouraging practical methods and outcomes within the theatrical profession itself.
26th May 2010