People across the province are reacting to the news of Antony Holland’s passing. He was a most talented actor and still such a force of life when, well into his 90’s, we interviewed him in January. Rest in peace, Antony.
Jessica, my girl,
Look to my house. I am right loath to go:
There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest,
For I did dream of money-bags to-night.
Antony Holland has played Shylock in England and Canada. He has directed The Merchant of Venice, mentored student Shylocks and sat in the velvet as theatrical superstars tried their hand at Shakespeare’s infamous moneylender.
“There are lots of actors who don’t succeed at Shylock,” Holland notes, “because the bastard only has four or five scenes. If you are Hamlet, you are on through the play. As Lear, if you aren’t on stage, they are talking about you. But Shylock – you have to hit that first scene or you’re gone. Shakespeare made it very difficult. You can get stuck.”
Last year, at the age of 93, Holland tackled Shylock once more, this time for a Gabriola Island audience. “For the first time, I think I got it right.” The key, he discovered, is in Shylock’s conversation at home with his treacherous daughter, Jessica, in Act 2, Scene 5.
Shylock cautions his daughter to lock herself safely inside, before he heads out to the supper to which he has been ‘bid forth.’
Well, Jessica, go in;
Perhaps I will return immediately:
Do as I bid you; shut doors after you:
Fast bind, fast find;
A proverb never stale in thrifty mind.
“Most actors when they play the scene with the daughter, they are being very matter of fact about it. ‘Do this and do that.’ I played it as though he had great affection for this child. I wasn’t cold at all. He wants to protect her. I played that element very strongly and then the tragedy is that much stronger, because she doesn’t feel that way.”
Holland believes he owes a great debt to Shakespeare in a career that includes over fifty films, the founding of Langara’s much-respected Studio 58 program and winning the Order of Canada.
He can recite scene after scene of multiple Shakespeare plays. “I have a theory that when you remember lines, you remember rhythm. Shakespeare’s rhythm was so good. I never look to see if it’s a strong beat or a weak beat. Shakespeare has broken down the rhythm for you. It works dramatically.”
As a child in Britain, Holland was excited to learn that his English class would be acting out a scene from The Merchant of Venice. That is, until he was assigned his part. “I was pissed off when the teacher gave me the role of Portia. It was an all-boys school. I resented that some other kid got Shylock.”
Holland soon discovered that he had “this fanatical need to perform,” and, as a young man, decided to study drama. “The war interrupted my theatre studies in London. The whole school closed down. Every guy was due to be conscripted at the age of 20.”
Not yet of age, Holland was being trained in morse code during the day and putting on shows at night. “I found a derelict theatre in South Shields. I gave myself a starring role and directed the rest of them.” When Holland’s time came and he was to be dispatched to Egypt, his commanding officer found out about his theatrical exploits. “He asked me to bring scripts on the ship. We were doing one play a week.”
The plays were welcome relief on the zig-zagging route necessitated by the German submarines. “We travelled twice the circumference of the earth to get to Egypt.”
Holland started out as the “lowest level” of soldier – “the bottom of the heap.” He was encouraged to apply for a position in British Intelligence by an officer who broke rank and socialized with Holland and others who were interested in arts and literature. “Normally, you wouldn’t socialize with an officer. You weren’t allowed in their mess.” Holland passed the requisite tests and went onto intelligence work. “We were a military branch of MI5 – counter espionage, looking for German agents.”
All of those years of war had a profound impact on Holland as a person and as an actor. “Some of the memories are totally obliterated. Some of the memories are so strong that they remain me with every week. Remembrance Day is not the 11th of November for me. It’s every day.”
Holland is angered by the way in which people now talk about death in service. “You don’t get killed, you sacrifice your life. I think it’s such nonsense. He never gave his life; his life was taken from him. He was killed.”
He has developed a successful touring show – One Man in His Time – where he shares stories, poems and songs from his World War II experiences. With such a personal exploration, he cannot maintain the usual actorly distance. “I try to keep control of it, but I can’t control it quite the same way.”
In One Man in His Time, the audience meets many of the incredible characters that served alongside Holland. He relives their ongoing desert play productions and pulls out vivid stories, including one centered on a song: Lili Marlene. “It was written by a German soldier in the First World War.”
Over the years, Holland explains, Lili Marlene became the favourite song of both the Germans and the British. “5 o’clock every night in the desert – every single bloody night – you would hear it in the desert.”
One night, Holland explains: “we were escorting German prisoners of war back to Egypt.” As they were walking, the Germans were singing the German version of the song.
Vor der Kaserne,
Vor dem großen Tor,
Stand eine Laterne,
Und steht sie noch davor,
So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n,
Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n,
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.
The group came upon a unit from New Zealand. When the New Zealanders heard the Germans singing, they too started singing along with the English version.
Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate
Darling I remember the way you used to wait
Twas there that you whispered tenderly
That you loved me
You’d always be
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marlene
“They were a huge choir who had been trying to kill each other the day before.”
“I went to war as a boy,” says Holland, “and came back as a man. We were different. We were sadder, wiser people.” “When you hear a dying man calling for his Mother in English, German or Italian, you realize that we are all the same.”
After the war, Holland served as Vice Principal of Laurence Olivier’s Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before coming to Canada to act and head Studio 58.
With all of the acting work he has done, Holland has collected plenty of post-war stories. Which co-stars, amongst all of those with whom he has worked, stand out upon reflection? “Two who were at the end of their careers: one was Katherine Hepburn. The other was Bette Davis.”
Holland played Judge Schultz when he was acting with Bette Davis in A Piano for Mrs Cimino. “When I first met her she was treated like a Queen,” says Holland. All the Principals were introduced to ‘Miss Davis’ individually by the Director. “We talked a good deal together later.” Holland found his work with Davis both interesting and rewarding.
Holland played another stately role – the Reverend Brooks, the Minister of Katherine Hepburn’s church – in Mrs Delafield Wants To Marry. “It was a little scene, but all the things around it were extraordinary for me.”
On the first day that Holland was due to shoot, he waited two hours only to be told that he was wrapped for the day. “Katherine Hepburn came in and didn’t like the bedroom’s furniture. She told them to change it and I got paid for a day’s work.” A week later, he came back, ready to shoot. “All of sudden, the AD said: ‘its just gone six and she won’t work.’ I was paid another day for doing nothing.”
Finally, on day number three, they were poised to shoot, when Holland lost his cool. “I thought: ‘I had this woman’s picture on my wall when I was 13. This woman is a legend.’ I started to panic; this had never happened to me before.”
Just then, Hepburn emerged from her dressing room and asked Holland if he would mind running lines with her. “Oh I feel much better,” she said. “Could we do it once more?”
Holland believes that Hepburn did this intentionally to put him at ease. Once they started shooting, she had suggestions for the Director. “Couldn’t he bring me into the scene instead of being behind the desk?” “Oh ya. Sure, sure,” said the Director, George Schaefer. Hepburn asked Holland what he thought of the script. When she heard his suggestions for changing one of his lines, she asked about that too: “George? Can Antony change the line.” “Sure, Sure.”
During the camera rehearsal, Hepburn was complimentary to Holland, but offered him one suggestion: “I know what you’re feeling in the scene and you’re absolutely right. But, don’t you think because he feels that, he might try to cover it up.” Holland agreed and changed his approach.
Once they were done shooting, Holland realized that Hepburn “lengthened the scene, got the line back that I wanted and gave me an acting lesson!”
Of course, Holland has given back a great deal to countless acting students in his leadership roles at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Studio 58. His many awards include the Sam Payne Award for ‘Humanity, Integrity and Encouragement of New Talent.’
In Studio 58, Holland was glad to have “created a school without any rigid theory of acting.” He brought in teachers for a broad range of classes: movement, dance, speech, singing. “I gave them opportunities to grow and encouraged them. Their inherited talent did the rest.”
And what does he see in his own future? “Old age is a series of shocks,” Holland admits, but he is still brimming with ideas. “Usually in the small hours of the morning, I get another idea for another show.”
On the horizon is a production that takes him back to his Shakespearean roots. “It is a unique show for me because I’m going to work with a musician. What we are trying to do is connect Shakespeare and music.”
Holland is also developing a show based on work he did long ago using theatre as a therapeutic aid in the Haney Correctional Institute. “I’ve never had such devotion from any amateur or professional group. It meant everything to these guys.”
With such a rich history, what advice does Holland offer to those who are considering a career in the arts? “I just feel if you want to do something in the arts, then do it. Time will tell you if they don’t want you. But, a lot of people who have succeeded, have not succeeded initially.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton