In leading teaching posts with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School in New York, Norman Ayrton was a telling influence on successive generations of would-be performers on both sides of the Atlantic.
A specialist in the plays of the 17th and 18th centuries, he paid strict and illuminating attention to shifting period styles in text and movement, the latter so eloquently that he might have considered an alternative career as a choreographer.
Regarding the theatre as a vocation, Ayrton was a stickler for discipline, insisted on his actors being prepared for rehearsals and stressed the importance of listening and responding in the moment of performance. These qualities benefited a veritable galaxy of future theatre stars, including Brian Cox, Harriet Walter, Patricia Hodge, David Suchet and US actors Kevin Kline and John Lithgow.
Born in London, the son of a wine merchant, Ayrton was smitten by the theatre while on a school trip at the age of 11. He later trained under Michel Saint-Denis at London’s Old Vic Theatre School and joined the main company on graduating in 1948.
After spells in rep companies in Oxford and Farnham, Ayrton returned to the Old Vic School in 1951 as an assistant director and to teach movement. The following year he opened his own studio in London. Its success led to his appointment as assistant principal of LAMDA in 1954. He was promoted to principal in 1966, a position he held until 1972.
In the intervening years, Ayrton continued to direct and moved into opera, striking up a formative partnership with the young Joan Sutherland, whom he directed in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Sadler’s Wells for the Handel Opera Society in 1963. He later directed several productions for the 1965 Australian tour of the soprano’s own Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Company.
For the Royal Opera, he directed revivals of Verdi’s La Traviata (1962) and Massenet’s Manon (1963).
After his departure from LAMDA, Ayrton served as a consultant to the Australian Council for the Arts, directed Moliere’s The Misanthrope for the Melbourne Theatre Company (1974) and Leo Delibes’ Lakme (again partnering with Sutherland in 1976) and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (1983) at Sydney Opera House. During the same period, he was also a guest director at Vancouver Opera in Canada.
Ayrton’s professional US theatre productions included Twelfth Night at the Dallas Theater Center (1967) and Moliere’s The Learned Ladies Off-Broadway in New York in 1982. He directed Sheridan’s The Rivals with students at Harvard in 1974 and five years later joined the teaching staff of the Juilliard School’s opera department.
In 1985, he was appointed dean of the -British American Drama Academy, remaining in the post until 1996.
Norman Ayrton was born on September 25, 1924, and in later years was a resident in the actors’ retirement home, Denville Hall, where he died on June 22, aged 92.