A guest post by Dr Victoria Lowe, Lecturer in Drama and Screen Studies, The University of Manchester:
Robert Donat (1905-58) was an actor, best known for his film roles in the 1930s, including Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) and his Oscar-winning performance in the title role of Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). Like many of his contemporaries, Donat’s early career was conducted on stage and throughout his life he always sought opportunities for theatre work, both as an actor and as an actor-manager.
The poster above was for a two-week season of plays produced by and starring Donat in September 1946 at the Opera House in Manchester, the city of his birth. During the Second World War he became more involved in theatre work, partly because of a dispute with the film studio MGM, with whom he had signed a contract in 1937. He had initially sought to engage the actress Gertrude Lawrence, (1898-1952) to play Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing but she was unavailable (see a telegram from Donat to Lawrence in the archive FRD1/8/1/92) The part was eventually taken by Renée Asherson, (1915- ), a young actress who had appeared as Katherine in Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V (1945) and was later to become the second Mrs Donat. The other production in the season was a new play by a young and relatively unknown actor and writer, Peter Ustinov, about the life of Simon Bolivar. Donat wrote in a letter to the author on 26 March 1945 that The Man Behind the Statue was ‘the best thing that has come my way for years and years and years’ (FRD1/1/437).
Although Much Ado about Nothing opened to reasonable reviews in Manchester, the Ustinov play was a critical disaster (see press reviews in FRD1/6/3/17) and Donat withdrew it before the season moved to the Aldwych Theatre in London in October 1946. The West End run of Much Ado fared little better and barely two weeks after the opening night, Donat informed the company that the play was to close. In a message on the Aldwych board he wrote, ‘I am more than sorry that there is no real public interest in Much Ado. Every possible consideration has been carefully weighed but the box office gives us no hope at all. Under the circumstances there is no alternative but to take the play off, and the run will finish on Saturday 9th November.’ (Trewin, 1968:174) At the end of this theatrical venture, his last as an actor-manager, Donat had lost £12,000.
He went on to star in more films during the 1940s and early 1950s and the occasional play, but became increasingly hampered by the asthma that afflicted him throughout his life. He died in 1958, not long after completing his scenes as the Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958).