Obituaries: Robert Chetwyn, Award-winning theatre director

Robert Chetwyn. Picture: Contributed
Robert Chetwyn. Picture: Contributed
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Award-winning theatre director whose work ranged from comedy to the classics

Born: 8 September 1930 in London.

Died: 8 November 2015 in London. Aged 85.

Robert Chetwyn was a theatre director with a wide range of award winning plays to his name. He was best known for the subtle and compelling direction he brought to Bent, Martin Sherman’s 1979 play about the imprisonment of homosexuals by the Nazis – drawing from Ian McKellen an outstanding performance. Chetwyn also gave many comedies a light and irreverent touch and invigorated many of the classics. In the former category he directed the hilarious comedy There’s a Girl in My Soup which was a smash hit in the west end and in the latter Chetwyn directed many of the classics and the controversial world premiere of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw with a cast led by Ralph Richardson and Stanley Baxter.

Throughout his career Chetwyn displayed a knack of discovering burgeoning talent – famously evident when he was a major influence on the early career of McKellen. The two first met in 1963 at the Ipswich Rep where they worked on many productions. As artistic director of the company Chetwyn cast McKellen in many leading roles as diverse as Henry V and John Osborne’s Luther along with lighter fair such as Arsenic and Old Lace and Aladdin. The Henry V gained local fame as Chetwyn devised a way for McKellen to address the heroic speeches direct to the audience as if they were the English soldiers.

In 1971 the two gave an inventive and thrilling account of Hamlet. In 1979 they scored an international success with Bent and the gripping play was given an extra dimension from Chetwyn and McKellen’s deep understanding and commitment to the subject. The drama was harrowing and unrelenting yet the tender relationship that was built up between McKellen and Tom Bell as they carted rocks around the stage was sensitively dealt with. The relationship was unmentioned, unconsummated yet dramatically poignant and realised by Chetwyn with immense tact and style.

In fact, Chetwyn had long connections with Scotland. Not only did Hamlet and Bent have successful tours here but Chetwyn began his career in 1952, as an actor, at the Dundee Rep. He was seen in many plays throughout that season – and was in a particularly memorable production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Geoffrey Edwards. At the 1966 Edinburgh Festival he directed A Present from the Past by John Hailstone with Wendy Hiller and Renee Asherson.

In 1974 Chetwyn directed Ghosts at the Royal Lyceum with Edith MacArthur and Leonard Maguire and in 1978 Chetwyn was offered the post of artistic director of the Royal Lyceum but turned it down because of “a packed schedule”.

Robert Frederick Chetwyn (Suckling) – known as Bob throughout the theatrical profession – was the son of a chauffeur and brought up in Wimbledon.

After drama school and Dundee Rep he worked with other repertory companies – notably with Albert Finney at the Birmingham Rep – before deciding to become a director. His first play was Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise at the Salisbury Playhouse in 1960. He then moved to Ipswich and later to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

In 1966 Chetwyn enjoyed a huge commercial success when he directed Terence Frisby’s comedy There’s a Girl in My Soup with Donald Sinden, Jon Pertwee and Barbara Ferris. Chetwyn gave the play a free-and-easy feel and captured the life of a celeb chef with glorious panache.

Other west end successes included Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound with Ronnie Barker and Richard Briers, Maggie Smith as Margery Pinchwife in Wycherley’s The Country Wife at the Chichester Festival and JB Priestley’s When We Are Married with Peggy Mount and Fred Emney. Chetwyn also breathed life into Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma with a fine cast led by Nigel Hawthorn and Simon Callow.

Chetwyn scored a series of west end commercial successes throughout the Seventies including William Douglas Home’s light political comedy At the End of the Day and Peter Ustinov’s Beethoven’s Tenth with the author and Clare Higggins.

For television, Chetwyn directed Jack Pulman’s comedy Private Schulz (1981) with Ian Richardson and Chanel 4’s The Irish RM (1983).

Chetwyn is survived by his long-time partner, the screenwriter Howard Schuman.

ALASDAIR STEVEN