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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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)

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