Obituary: Toby Robertson, OBE, theatre director

Toby Robertson
Toby Robertson
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Born: 29 November, 1928, in London. Died: 4 July, 2012, in London, aged 83.

As artistic director of Prospect Theatre Toby Robertson made many visits to the Edinburgh Festival – between 1967 and 1977 Prospect performed at eight Festivals. Robertson had the knack of attracting big names and this afforded Scottish audiences a rare opportunity to see many epic productions in the Assembly Hall. He was never afraid of introducing a large dose of controversy and did so memorably in 1969. That year he engaged the young Ian McKellen to play both Edward II and Richard II and caused a storm of protest over the enactment of the unseemly death of the homosexual Edward.

Amid his many theatrical achievements nothing demonstrates the breadth of Robertson’s contribution to the Festival more than the 1977 programme. He directed a complete Hamlet with Derek Jacobi, War Music with Timothy West and Anthony and Cleopatra with Dorothy Tutin and Alec McCowen.

Sholto David Maurice Robertson attended Stowe School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He had been involved with university dramatics and made a strong impression with a production of Gorki’s The Lower Depths on the London fringe. That led to an invitation in 1964 from the Pitlochry Festival to direct James Bridie’s Daphne Laureola with Sheila Keith, and Pirandello’s Henry IV. While in Perthshire he met his future wife Jane McCullough.

Prospect had been formed in 1961 and Robertson became its director three years later. He transformed the company into an international group that performed challenging lesser known works and the classics with a rare conviction.

Their first visit to the Festival was in 1967 with The Cherry Orchard and A Room With a View. The following year the company, and Robertson, made their names with Richard 11 and Edward 11.

The latter caused much controversy in Edinburgh and was labelled “an outrage”. Councillor John Kidd took offence at the show of male affection, particularly as the production was held in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall. The Edinburgh Constabulary visited the production and reported “no problem”. Robertson, with a wry smile, commented: “Kept the box office busy.”

In the years that followed, Robertson graced the Assembly Hall with some epic productions – notably King Lear with West and Jacobi in Pericles, Hamlet and Ivanov in the late 1970s.

It was while the company were performing at the 1977 Festival that Robertson hit the front pages. The machinations regarding the building of an opera house in the capital had been chewed over for years. The first plans to develop the Castle Terrace site dated from 1960 but by 1975 the City of Edinburgh Council 
considered the project could prove an expensive white elephant.

The council met during the Festival and Robertson, a passionate believer that a theatre should be built, made a plea from the stage of the Assembly

Hall asked the audience to support a march he was organising the next day. That year I was involved with a Fringe show and Toby insisted, with typical panache, that I carry a banner with him: “We will all step ye gaily to the City Chambers.” I have to admit he had another, less agreeable term, for the latter. The next day The Scotsman led with a condemnation of the council’s actions (“Miscast vote”) and another chapter in the Edinburgh opera saga was put to rest.

In 1994 when the Festival Theatre opened, Robertson was overjoyed. He was a born enthusiast who breezed into your life with gusto and, certainly, left his mark.

Robertson left Prospect in 1979 in rather unhappy circumstances and then directed Theatre Clwyd in Wales.

He worked regularly in opera and for Scottish Opera directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1972), the 1975 world premiere of Robin Orr’s Hermiston and Marriage of Figaro (1977).

Robertson was awarded the OBE in 1978. His marriage was dissolved in 1981 but he and Jane remained close and she and their four children survive him.

Alasdair Steven