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‘When HBO want a gritty, hard-bitten, authentic American, they think: Old Etonian’

7 May 2014

10:54 AM

7 May 2014

10:54 AM

You don’t expect to find a slice of Eton College in deepest Dalston, but tonight a distinctly posh Waiting for Godot opens at the Arcola Theatre. The Beckett play is being directed by Eton’s former head of theatre, Simon Dormandy, and his Vladimir and Estragon are Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, two of his past pupils. Together Palmer and Stourton (son of BBC’s Ed) are sketch comedy duo Totally Tom – perfect casting for Dormandy’s ‘reimagined’ production of the play, with its frequent references to music hall, the artform Beckett so loved.

Dormandy, an actor as well as a director, has worked with Cheek by Jowl and the Royal Shakespeare Company and taught at Eton 1997-2012; former pupils with successful acting careers include Tom Hiddleston (recently an acclaimed Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse), Eddie Redmayne (Marius in the Oscar-nominated Les Misérables), Harry Lloyd (BBC’s Robin Hood), Henry Faber (BBC’s The Hollow Crown), Julian Ovendon (Downton Abbey) and Harry Hadden-Paton (godson of Sarah, Duchess of York, who received rave reviews in his National Theatre debut in She Stoops to Conquer).

But even before Dormandy joined the Berkshire school, its drama department was attracting attention, having produced previous generations of acclaimed actors including Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis, all of whom have achieved huge success in major American TV dramas – House, The Wire and Homeland, respectively. As Eton’s head master, Tony Little, quipped: ‘When HBO want a gritty, hard-bitten, authentically American character to head up a mini-series, they instinctively think: Old Etonian.’

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Hailz-Emily Osborne, the current director of drama at Eton, is overseeing the next crop of talent, and says we should expect to hear about more OEs winning plaudits in theatre and film very soon. Such is the school’s record in developing young actors that some in the theatre industry say it’s in the same bracket as drama schools such as RADA or Central – so much so that in recent years agents and producers looking to sign the next Dominic West or Tom Hiddleston have inveigled themselves into productions normally staged just for pupils and parents.

During his time at Eton, Dormandy also occasionally invited agents to see work at the college, but I understand that since his departure this practice has stopped as the college believes the boys are too young to be thrust into the professional spotlight.

Most schools, whether in the state or independent sectors, must look with envy at Eton’s facilities; a 400-seat state-of-the-art theatre and studios spaces, a full-time designer, a carpenter and a manager, as well as a part-time wardrobe mistress and a director-in-residence who oversee several productions each term, as well as taking a company to the Edinburgh Fringe each year. This professional set-up must help in developing young talent, so it’s surely no surprise that so many talented young actors first trod the boards at Eton.

But who knows if it’s the talent driving the enterprise, or vice versa; as leftie comic Alexei Sayle waspishly observed (even if did confuse an Old Harrovian for an OE): ‘Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor, but if my cat had the facilities he had at Eton, my cat could be in Sherlock.’

Waiting For Godot is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8, from 7 May to 14 June

Veronica Lee is an award-winning writer and critic who contributes on theatre and comedy to the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Observer and London Evening Standard.


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Show comments
  • http://charlesfrith.blogspot.com/ Charles Frith

    Old Etonians have been bred to be sadistic. Human life is nothing. Profit is all.

  • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

    The blonde guy in your photo is an exceedingly nasty individual, a real bully.

    • Maurice_Gosfield

      Evidence?

      • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

        TRUST ME

        • Maurice_Gosfield

          Actually, no. Why on earth would I do that?

          • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

            Give one reason why I’d make it up….. if I told you how I know I’d be revealing too much about myself.

            • Maurice_Gosfield

              So, anonymous denunciations is it? Pretty contemptible.

              • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

                Why would one say such a think if it were not true?

            • Fergus Pickering

              Presumably he bullied you. How old were you when this happened? I feel for you. .Still, you would have to have gone to Eton for that to happen, so it’s not all bad. Why don’t you go to Dalston and throw nuts at him during the performance?

              • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

                He didn’t bully me personally, but from what I know he is a very nasty piece of work.

  • willshome

    You do realise under “Austerity (for you chum, not for us)” most working class kids can’t afford to go to drama school any more, don’t you? Or learn to play musical instruments at school? Fortunately spray cans are cheap so they can still paint.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I think the basic troubl ewith your average working class lad is being a talentless layabout. Don Bradman became the greatest batsman the world has ever seen without being able to afford a bat as a child. He managed a stump and a tennis ball.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Grievance is always a good excuse for failure and prized by the left as the silly comment you have so aptly responded to demonstrates. In reality it is not about those deprived working class kids at all. They are merely a useful emotive vehicle by which Labour’s drones and drongos can pursue their main aim in life of attacking the Tories whilst at the same time pretending that they are oh so morally superior.

        If they really cared about the educational prospects and social mobility of working class kids they would not have abolished grammar schools.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Ever right, Colonel. Ever right.

          • Maurice_Gosfield

            Not right at all. (And a pretty hateful original comment from you – the kind of class based bile you’d abhor if it came from a hard left socialist.) Fact is that studying at drama school as a post graduate vocational option attracts little or no funding support and is therefore beyond a vast majority of already debt-laden middle class applicants, let alone those from even poorer backgrounds. A previous generation of talent – Finney, O’Toole, Courtenay etc. came from working class backgrounds and were products of British drama schools. Without the means to pay and train, who will replace them? Cumberbatch, Lewis, Redmayne, Hiddlestone et al are all fine actors but the dice are heavily loaded in their favour.

            • Inverted Meniscus

              Hateful! Get over yourself mate it was just an opinion.

      • Inverted Meniscus

        It was a Golf Ball Fergus and thus he developed unparalleled hand/eye coordination.

        • Fergus Pickering

          You are right of course. It WAS a golf ball. Imagine being able to do that.

          • Inverted Meniscus

            Sorry to be pedantic but what a player.

            • Fergus Pickering

              You are not pedantic at all. A gold ball would be MUCH more difficult.When I was little I used to lay cricket with the actor next door. He would bat with a stump but I still couldn’t get him out. He took me to the Oval to see Peter May bat.

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