The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

PAUL Scofield, who died last month aged 86, was the great­est English ac­tor of his gen­er­a­tion and one of the great­est ac­tors of all time.

He had a long, sculpted face, a face that Richard Bur­ton said it took years for any­one to learn how to pho­to­graph. And he had a voice that pro­voked Ken­neth Ty­nan to quote T. S. Eliot and say it came from empty cis­terns and de­serted wells.

The eyes, so black and won­der­ing, roam like the me­mory of what civil­i­sa­tion had lost in Scofield’s per­for­mance as the art- lov­ing Nazi of­fi­cer in one of his few Hol­ly­wood films, John Franken­heimer’s The Train . The voice, that was able to range from claw­ing rage to the depths of sad­ness and sweet­ness, can be heard on his record­ings.

Un­like Peter O’Toole or Lau­rence Olivier and like John Giel­gud, Scofield gave him­self al­most en­tirely to the classical stage.

Peter Brook knew he had found an ac­tor with a ge­nius par­al­lel to his own. In the early 1950s they did a Ham­let in which some peo­ple ( the Aus­tralian poet Peter Porter among them) thought he failed to project any co­her­ent char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. But his Caed­mon record­ing of Ham­let , done in the early ’ 60s, tal­lies in­stead with the anony­mous Time reviewer who said it lin­gered less long on the ear than Bur­ton’s but longer on the heart.

At the end of the ’ 70s, Scofield played Othello with a deep and stag­gered no­bil­ity. The lit­er­ary critic John Bay­ley thought he was too lik­able ( judge for your­self from the old BBC record­ing with Ni­col Wil­liamson as Iago). He played Mac­beth in the late ’ 60s, with the then Mrs Pin­ter, Vivien Mer­chant, as his Lady Mac­beth. He did Don Quixote in a pro­duc­tion that used the early 1600s English trans­la­tion by Shel­ton; Scofield made it, through his witch­craft, sound like Shake­speare.

His Don Ar­mado in Love’s Labour’s Lost — there is a ’ 70s BBC record­ing — has the depth of poignancy, the height of ridicu­lous­ness that he could get from his grand pi­ano of a voice when he used it in com­edy to sketch that pre­pos­ter­ous Span­ish gen­tle­man who can only ex­press him­self in overblown lan­guage.

Scofield did ev­ery­thing. In 1996 Ib­sen’s John Gabriel Bork­man was one of his great late per­for­mances. Twenty years ear­lier he was full of silk and men­ace and ethe­real in Ben Jon­son’s Volpone .

Re­cently, I heard Scofield in Ib­sen’s When We Dead Awaken , and his voice had all that ethe­real, vis­ceral qual­ity for which he is fa­mous.

When I was at school, in the late ’ 60s, I once chanced on a BBC ra­dio pro­duc­tion of Chekhov’s Three Sis­ters . I will never for­get the scene be­tween Scofield as the army of­fi­cer Ver­shinin and Vanessa Red­grave as Masha, the girl who would like to run away with him. Never in the his­tory of the world did the cracked pen­nies of ev­ery­day prose sound like such gold or yield such cav­erns of sor­row and yearn­ing.

Scofield’s most fa­mous Shake­spearean role was his Lear for Brook in 1962, and for many it is the great­est ever. He was a Lear who brought it on him­self with a power that took away the breath.

Brook filmed this King Lear and had it shot with great aus­ter­ity and beauty by Ing­mar Bergman’s cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Sven Nykvist. And Scofield’s mid-’ 60s un­cut spo­ken word Lear from Caed­mon is the great­est il­lu­mi­na­tion of the text we have. Lis­ten to his en­counter with blind Glouces­ter (‘‘ I re­mem­ber thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squinny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid’’), or the un­earthly sad­ness of his ‘‘ wheel of fire’’ speech.

Scofield got all the Beck­et­tian sav­agery and mad­ness in Lear , but he also got the ab­so­lute pang of a fa­ther’s love for a daugh­ter that is­sues into that ‘‘ Howl’’.

It’s there, like a reve­la­tion, in his record­ing of Per­i­cles , with Judi Dench as his daugh­ter, Ma­rina. ‘‘ My wife was like this maid.’’

Twenty- five or more years ago Michael Hey­ward — now the pub­lisher of Text — and I used to lis­ten over and over to th­ese record­ings of Scofield the way some peo­ple lis­ten to Al­fred Brendel do­ing Mozart or Fis­cher- Dieskau singing Schu­bert: as if the world had no greater reve­la­tion of what had been com­posed.

Scofield rarely made films; he not only left a record of his Lear, but won the Os­car for his per­for­mance as Thomas More in A Man for All Sea­sons . It was one of his two most fa­mous per­for­mances in mod­ern roles ( the other was when he cre­ated the role of Salieri in Peter Shaf­fer’s Amadeus ).

As Robert Bolt’s More in Fred Zin­ne­man’s 1966 film of A Man for All Sea­sons , Scofield has an ex­tra­or­di­nary com­bi­na­tion of mild­ness and hu­mour, a kind of quizzi­cal re­straint, in com­bi­na­tion with a heroic qual­ity which is not at all beglam­oured.

Ty­nan said of the young Scofield that he could have trou­ble with verse, but he could turn prose into the most star­tling po­etry. In the ’ 50s Scofield played ( for Brook) the whisky priest in Gra­ham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and, in a way that awed Greene and ev­ery­one who saw it, turned this ru­ined be­ing into a thing of won­der.

He may have been a char­ac­ter ac­tor, ex­cept that he made his char­ac­ters, his flat- vow­elled hob­gob­lins, look like he­roes on wheels of fire, or his mad­man into lords of chivalry who could joust with the most spec­tral wind­mills in the world.

Scofield re­fused a knight­hood. He said he thought Bur­ton would get the Os­car for Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf? and did not at­tend the Academy Awards cer­e­mony when he won it.

He acts Daniel Day- Lewis off the screen in the film of The Cru­cible ( per­haps wrongly). But there are no prizes for work­ing out why Mel Gib­son said that act­ing with Scofield was like go­ing into the ring with Mike Tyson.

Olivier feared him and would not give him parts at the Na­tional Theatre, while Ian McKellen told me that when he did Amadeus he had to make a con­scious ef­fort not to chan­nel Scofield’s per­for­mance.

We should keep this man’s me­mory alive if we want our chil­dren to re­mem­ber what classical act­ing can achieve.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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