West Sussex mourns “one of the major playwrights of the 20th century”

Chichester and the wider theatre world are mourning the passing of “one of the major playwrights of the 20th century.”

Sir Ronald Harwood
Sir Ronald Harwood

Sir Ronald Harwood died at his home in Singleton at the age of 85.

Two of his finest plays, Taking Sides and Collaboration, premiered at Chichester. The former opened in 1995, directed by Harold Pinter and starring Daniel Massey and Michael Pennington.

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In 2005, Pennington returned to play the role of the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (originally played by Massey) in a revival of Taking Sides directed by Philip Franks, alongside a new companion piece, Collaboration, in which he played Richard Strauss. The plays were revived the following year before transferring to the West End.

More recently, in 2017, audiences had the chance to enjoy a new touring production of The Dresser, perhaps Harwood’s best-known play, starring Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.

Chichester Festival Theatre labelled him “one of the major playwrights of the 20th century (who) will be much missed.”

His daughter Deborah Harwood, who also lives near Chichester, said: “It is so sad. He leaves such a gaping hole.”

Sir Ronald and his late wife had lived in Slindon for a while. He stayed in London after her death until telling Deborah a couple of years ago he wanted to move back to West Sussex.

“He came down exactly a year ago to Singleton, the same village I am in. We got him a beautiful house with the most extraordinary views across the Downs. He had all his things around him and lovely carers. And before lockdown, his friends were starting to visit him and he was looking forward to the village cricket…”

In the end, he died “very peacefully, just old age and frailty.”

“I think his first play in the area was Taking Sides. We grew up in a little village called Liss and we would often come to the theatre here, but when he came to do Taking Sides, he and mum rented a little cottage in the area. He loved the Minerva. He thought it was the most perfect theatrical space… which it is. He had wonderful memories of working with an extraordinary cast – and he had a wonderful lifelong friendship with Michael Pennington.”

As for his finest work: “You can’t ignore The Dresser. It is timeless. It is a beautifully crafted piece of writing, but there were also wonderful, wonderful gems like Quartet which I thought was stunning; like Taking Sides which was stunning.

“There were so many wonderful pieces, but there is something that is just so perfect about The Dresser, and it also has that wonderful thing of giving two great actors two of the greatest parts in contemporary theatre.”

As a father: “He looked after us beautifully. He provided for his family over and beyond. He was a remarkable man as a father. Like all families, no one is perfect, and his children weren’t perfect. We challenged him, but he was always there. We were never rejected for our mistakes. In our family, we were encouraged to make mistakes. He was a brilliant dad. He was hysterical, and he was wonderful with our friends. There are wonderful messages pouring in from people from our childhood. You just realise how many people he touched. He was so kind. He was so generous. He believed in human beings. He believed there was always something in everyone, no matter who they were, no matter where they came from.”

The funeral will be family only. As for a memorial, as Deborah says, her father hated memorial services, but the family might consider something once we are past COVID.