Peter Craven on the notable inclusions and odd omissions in a history of Shakespearean actors
A history of great Shakespearean actors reminds us of the power of dramatic collaboration, despite some weird omissions, writes Peter Craven
It’s inevitable with the work of any great dramatic genius that the actors capable of realising their vision should be at their level. Think of the astonishing performances Ingmar Bergman could get out of Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow and needed to get if The Seventh Seal and Cries and Whispers were to become what those films were meant to be. Well, Shakespeare wasn’t a movie director (however much he sometimes seems as if he aspired to be) but it’s obvious from the plays that he wrote for — and possessed — actors of genius, the kind we call great.
We sometimes forget how collaborative the theatre is, how much a Stephen Sewell, to write what he does, needs a Neil Armfield or a Jim Sharman or a Geoffrey Rush; how Tennessee Williams needed actors such as Marlon Brando and directors such as Elia Kazan to work at all.
So we have Stanley Wells’s neatly named Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh. Back in the 1970s, there was a handsome edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works — edited by Peter Alexander, the last version to be universally admired — that came with the subheading “Burbage to Burton”. It featured not only the one portrait of the rugged Richard Burbage, who seems to have looked a bit like that tough British actor Trevor Howard — remember him in Brief Encounter and The Charge of the Light Brigade? — but the famous Angus McBean photo of the young, lyrically good-looking Richard Burton, looking upwards at the crown above his head at the moment Prince Hal fully imagines what it will be to become Henry V.
Rather weirdly, Wells leaves Burton out of this book, together with Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O’Toole, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson and (if you want to keep up with the young) Ben Whishaw, a remarkable Richard II in minor key for the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series to coincide with the London Olympics, a superb Ariel in the Julie Taymor film of The Tempest and the young man who took the world by storm when Trevor Nunn made him his teary, runny-nosed Hamlet with Imogen Stubbs as his 40-year-old mum. Whish- aw, who played Keats for Jane Campion in Bright Star, is an actor of the first rank, which is all Will wanted.
He seems to have had it in Burbage, how else could the man have created the roles of Lear and Hamlet, Othello and Richard III? When Burbage died, some poetic hack wrote how the great roles “that lived in him have now forever died”, rather the way people might have thought: how can anyone play Richard III again now that Larry Olivier is dead.
They did, of course, and Wells cites critic Michael Billington on how Ian McKellen’s posh, fascist 30s Richard exhibited what Hannah Arendt in her famous phrase about Adolf Eichmann called “the banality of evil”. I’m not sure about that. When I saw Richard Eyre’s stage production — more mesmeric than the film — what was remarkable about McKellen was how much he played Richard III as a member of the royal family or, as someone said in the Times Literary Supplement, he was the first Richard who looked truly born to rule.
But there have always been Richards that court something other than Olivier’s shrillvoiced, Hitlerian hobgoblin. David Malouf is a great admirer of the Richard III of Ian Holm in the 60s Peter Hall-John Barton War of the Roses history cycle. Holm, another superb actor, has played a lot of the major roles in Shakespeare — he was a dazzlingly plausible Iago — and he is someone else Wells doesn’t devote a chapter to.
Not that we should complain too much. Wells acknowledges the existence of a man who must have been a very great actor indeed because he seems to have shifted the tilt of Shakespeare’s drama and his sense of comedy, the second of his great fools, Robert Armin.
Shakespeare seems to have written his more exuberant comic roles for Will Kemp, the man who, for a bet or a joke, danced from London to Norwich. He must have been a great comedian and it’s possible his repertoire included that greatest of all comic roles, Falstaff, the fat villain who loves the hero Hal.
But then like a shadow there is the figure of Armin for whom he writes Feste in Twelfth Night, the man who sings how like the tears of the world, the rain it raineth every day. The man too for whom he wrote the Fool in King Lear. It’s too easy to mythologise and sentimentalise these shadows and shrouds of Shakespeare’s intimates.
Like the Dark Lady and the Golden Boy of the sonnets, they exist primarily in our imaginations. But it does seem as if Shakespeare started out writing comedy for someone like Harry Secombe and ended up writing it — in its formal and formulaic aspect — for someone like Peter Sellers.
Then again, in the case of the dramatist who put all the world on to his stage, it’s not hard to imagine that Shakespeare’s leading men — his tragedians, as they were sometimes called — could get the dumbfounding sense of desolation that Donald Wolfit or Paul Scofield got in Lear, the ironic self-dramatising wit and plangent poeticism that John Gielgud got as Richard II and (if you can come at a prince in lyrical mode) as Hamlet. Or the sheer electrifying intensity of Olivier as Macbeth with Vivien Leigh sleepwalking through it at his side in the 20th century’s most highly regarded production of the Scottish tragedy. Though the McKellen-Judi Dench Macbeth with Nunn — intense, rhapsodic and urgent — is there on DVD as a testament to other dark stairways.
So too somewhere on the internet you’ll find Australia’s Zoe Caldwell holding murderous hands with the young Sean Connery on American television in the role he said taught him to play James Bond. A Macbeth many people would kill to have seen was in fact directed by Caldwell on the New York stage with her old stage partner, Christopher Plummer — he said her Cleopatra at Stratford, Ontario, was the greatest he knew — with Glenda Jackson as the fiendlike queen. As a prospect would that top Redgrave as Lady M to the Macbeth of the man who used to play God, Charlton Heston, who for that reason had the capacity to represent a titanic villainy?
Wells is good at taking us through the paces of the famous actors of the remote past: David Garrick, who knew Dr Johnson and seems to have had immense virtuosity and wit and grace; the great Mrs Siddons, who visited asylums to try to penetrate the heart of Lady Macbeth’s mystery and who Dennis Bartholomeusz in his book Macbeth and the Players suggests was on the verge of something like the Method.
Wells describes the turbulent career of Edmund Kean vividly enough with the help of those romantic scribblers, one of whom, William Hazlitt, had the power to describe what was before his eyes: “The concluding scene, in which he is killed by Richmond, was the most brilliant. He fought like one drunk with wounds and the attitude in which he stands with his hands stretched
Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh By Stanley Wells Oxford University Press, 308pp, $34.95 (HB)