Obituary: Duncan C Weldon – ‘formidable theatre producer with the Midas touch’
If any producer could claim to have had the Midas touch, it was Duncan C Weldon. Responsible for more than 700 classic plays, new works and pantomimes in regional theatres, the West End and Broadway, he had the creative knack of seeming to choose the right play at the right time and the commercial nous to attract marquee names that drew in appreciative audiences. Simply, The Stage declared, he had “legendary pulling power”.
A prominent figure in the theatrical landscape for nearly five decades, Weldon was artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket for 20 years – during which he produced 63 plays – to 1995, when he took over management of the Chichester Festival Theatre and transformed its fortunes in the space of two years.
In a defining partnership of modern British theatre with Paul Elliott – “one of the great post-war producing teams” said The Stage; “the true odd couple of British theatre” opined The Spectator – they turned Triumph Productions into a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Born in Southport, Merseyside to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Weldon showed an early interest in theatre, taking lessons at the Northern School of Speech and Drama and running amateur theatre groups in the town’s synagogues. This was much to the chagrin of his father, who expected Weldon to join the family-owned chain of photography shops.
His first theatre experience was as a call-boy at the Garrick Theatre in his home town. It changed his life. In a characteristically shrewd move, he appeased his father while advancing his theatrical ambitions by taking night classes in photography. It was, he later confessed to The Stage, “my sneaky way back into the theatre”. After completing the course, he became the in-house photographer for Manchester’s Library Theatre and worked for Peter Hall at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.
Initial ambitions to act were quickly quashed when Weldon realised “I was not a very good actor. By the time I was 20, I wanted to produce”.
He produced his first play in 1966 and was still active at the time of his death with Arthur Miller’s The Price, starring David Suchet, running at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Prolific from the off, in his first year as a producer Weldon sent six shows on the road but got into his stride after forming Triumph in 1970 with Elliott and the actor Richard Todd. The company launched in style, Peggy Mount and Fred Emney leading a glorious revival of JB Priestley’s When We Are Married at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud before coming into the Strand (now Novello) Theatre.
Weldon hit the ground at a sprint rather than a run, Triumph’s first year of operations seeing him involved in a world tour of John Chapman’s Oh Clarence!, a revival of Mary Chase’s Harvey starring Harry Worth, the first tour of the Mermaid Theatre’s legendary Treasure Island with Bernard Miles as Long John Silver and no fewer than nine pantomimes. If that wasn’t enough, he and Elliott also oversaw the renovation of the Ashton Theatre in St Annes, Lancashire.
By the middle of the decade, Weldon was flexing his producing muscle by coaxing Rex Harrison to play Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the Hollywood star going on to appear in another eight shows for him over the next 25 years.
As the decade changed, he continued with a sure-footed sense of gravitas and commercialism with Janet Suzman’s Hedda Gabler (Duke of York’s, 1977), Topol in Fiddler on the Roof (its 23-week run at the Apollo Theatre in 1983 raking in £2.1 million) and Peter Terson’s Strippers with Bill Maynard and Lynda Bellingham (Phoenix Theatre, 1985).
Weldon had a long affiliation with his associate director at Chichester, Derek Jacobi, notably with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean (Old Vic, 1990), Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code and Jean Anouilh’s Becket at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1986 and 1991, Macbeth (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1993) and William Congreve’s Love for Love (Chichester, 1996).
His ability to attract star names was legendary and the luminaries he attracted legion, from Hollywood icons Liza Minnelli, Charlton Heston, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman to venerable stage actors such as Maggie Smith, Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave. His casting of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 2009) was one of the biggest theatrical events in recent times.
Alongside his penchant for the classics, Weldon also proved a champion of contemporary playwrights as diverse as Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter. He also had a nose for the new, taking Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice from the National Theatre to the Vaudeville Theatre in 1995 and presenting Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets in London and on Broadway in 2001.
Between 1983 and 2011, he produced 19 plays on the Great White Way, acquiring seven Tony award nominations, victorious in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives starring Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, first seen at the Albery Theatre the previous year.
His few forays on to screen included co-producing the Jack Gold-directed Into the Blue starring John Thaw in 1997.
In 2018, Weldon and Elliott received a special recognition Olivier award, when Kenny Wax, president of Society of London Theatre, adroitly described Weldon as a producer who “added class to the classics”.
Duncan Clark Weldon was born on March 19, 1941 and died on January 30, aged 77. He was married three times: to the singer Helen Shapiro, actor Janet Mahoney and former Miss World Ann Sidney, who survives him with his daughter with Mahoney, Lucy.