Antony Holland has a long and storied relationship with Shakespeare.
The 93-year-old actor first performed one of the Bard's plays at age 12 in elementary school back in England and, instantly, it felt natural. "Instead of like at many schools we didn't have to study the meaning of the play," Holland says from his home on Gabriola Island. "We just acted the scenes from one of the plays, so that's what I did. I didn't realize it was supposed to be difficult because it wasn't difficult."
He later staged his first production — The Merchant of Venice — while in the army in World War II. During some down time in an army camp about 40 miles south of Cairo, Holland recruited his fellow British and South African soldiers to put on the play. "There's all that time when guys have nothing to do but play cards and read pocket books. I had more than enough people to get into my drama stuff. Also, I was fanatical about it and I taught them how to do it," he says.
Another (non-Shakespeare) play he similarly staged was so successful that at its showing at the Cairo Opera House, the Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces was impressed enough to send them out on a tour of the Middle East. "I was anxious to continue my life as an actor and to do that I had to create productions and direct them," Holland says. "And also because I was 21 years of age, I didn't know any better."
Holland will demonstrate 70 years (yeah, you read that right) of honing his Shakespeare skills at the Brackendale Art Gallery June 8 where he'll perform select pieces from some of his favourite plays as a one-man show. The production will include everything from Hamlet to Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. "They are mostly pieces I'm very familiar with," he says. "I think the main asset of the show is I do have the experience and the skill to make the language work for people who are not familiar with it. A lot of people only get the gist of what is being said when they go see Shakespeare because a lot of actors don't have the skill to make it work."
While students have long struggled with the Elizabethan English in those plays, he says the trick is to recognize the musical quality of the writing. "A lot of people don't realize Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter and that's the common rhythm of English," he says. "It turns a lot of people off because of the way it's taught. There are a lot of teachers who don't know how to do it. There are a lot of actors who don't know how to do it."
He's taught his share of aspiring actors over the decades, first as founder of the theatre program at Vancouver Community College. That school later moved to Langara College, where Holland was awarded its inaugural Artistic Director Emeritus this week. He adds the honour to a long list of teaching and acting awards, including his entry into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who is supposedly retired.
"I am the oldest actor in North America playing lead parts," he says. "There are few older than me playing smaller parts. I'm very fortunate I can do it. I enjoy the work. That's the point. It's always been in my lifeblood, all my life. I'm not a terribly wealthy man. I haven't made a huge amount of money, but I've enjoyed the work."