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The kingmakers

 

The Guardian, 21st May 2005

 

Olivier and Gielgud set the template for portraying Shakespeare’s heroes. But their performances would baffle us today, says Michael Pennington.

 

In Michael Blakemore’s memoir ‘Arguments with England’ there is an account of Laurence Olivier’s 1955 performance as Titus Andronicus. The description is as good as anything Kenneth Tynan wrote about the great man – the power, the courage, the intuition that only a live audience could elicit from him. Blakemore was in the company as a small-part actor and watched him every night – it’s a vigil many young actors keep, but generally not with the eye of a major director in the making. He also comments that nobody today can make an iambic pentameter thrill as Olivier did, or phrase one as gracefully as Gielgud.

 

As a teenager I saw both Olivier’s Titus and his Coriolanus, and although I left extremely impressed, especially by his famous death fall, I also felt a little uninvolved. This was unlike Michael Redgrave’s Hamlet, who even at 50 touched the heart with his scathing, tender intelligence or Paul Scofield, able to make the imagination fly with some apparently random cadence, not even, perhaps, to be repeated the next night. Maybe I already felt there was something tyrannical in Olivier’s supremacy over his audience, something unyielding. Unmatched as Shakespeare’s self-confident heroes – Henry V, Richard III – he disliked the “complainers”: the inner collapse of a Lear or Hamlet tended to evade him, and his best studies of failure lay outside the world of iambic pentameters, as Archie Rice or Chekhov’s Doctor Astrov.

 

A brief clip exists of him in live performance as Archie, and it is one of the most astounding pieces of acting I have ever seen. Olivier had a gift for play – for believing that he could become anything he wanted – and an ability to spring any number of physical surprises. In comparison, John Gielgud, who transformed himself brilliantly elsewhere, in Pinter and Chekhov particularly, played Shakespeare as if in unending rapturous tribute, the language harrowing him like fire. Live, his great gift was a speed of thought that saved him from the sentiment that creeps in on surviving recordings such as his ‘Ages of Man’. I have never known a performer put so much passion into the act of speech as Gielgud, but his Prospero and Lear, and his Benedick and Mercutio, sound somewhat the same as each other.

 

Everything has changed today – the industry, the audience’s expectation of the classics, standards. Professionally, these men swam in far less crowded waters: Gielgud, who played Hamlet more or less when he wanted to, generously used to reel off a list of parts that he thought I should ask the National Theatre to mount productions for, just so I could play them. Olivier not only ran the National Theatre but, with his knack for capturing the mood of a country, was able to turn ‘Henry V’ into superb propaganda during the war and personally rallied the nation from the stage of the Albert Hall.

 

Such privileged positions are no longer available to the classical actor. The term itself, with its slight ring of superiority, has even become a shaky compliment. And audiences look more sceptically both on heroic acting and on the grand characters it portrays. They are more likely to be caught by the sinewy arguments and subversive ironies of Shakespeare than by the ring of a beautiful line. An instinctive populism means they enjoy seeing the tragic hero being tripped up by an ordinary person, a player, a grave digger or a fool. Drawn to ‘King Lear’ to experience the exceptional suffering of the perplexed old man, they will come out feeling short-changed if they haven’t also felt sympathy for Goneril and Regan, driven to revenge by his paternal bullying.

 

In ‘Hamlet’, they will watch Claudius with eyes attuned by ‘Newsnight’, observing the fast decisions a political leader takes in the face of an unexpected question, noting how swiftly he can call up his data and override interruptions – something Claudius does in his court by the simple expedient of rarely finishing a sentence at the end of a verse line. They may also reflect that, guilty or not, Claudius was a better leader than either the belligerent old King Hamlet or his over-complicated son, who leaves his country stripped and ready for annexation by Fortinbras, whose drums threaten to drown Hamlet’s beautiful death speech.

 

And, more alert than previous generations to dark themes in comedy, modern audiences will enjoy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ all the more because it starts with the most unnerving premises in Shakespeare – the possibility that a father will have his daughter executed by the state for disobedience. In the same play, Oberon’s speech about the little purple flower he will vengefully apply to Titania’s eye used to be dressed up in gratuitous splendour by Gielgud, but it works much better if it can also be seen as a great piece of espret d’escalier; having managed little in his argument with Titania beyond monosyllables and spite, Oberon finds, now she’s gone, a purely poetic supremacy. He becomes for the moment as small a man as Leontes in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ or Ford in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ – unable, like many of Shakespeare’s heroic fools, to cope with a woman’s vision.

 

And we speak differently in these plays now, hoping to find as conversational a form as possible for the complex patterns of tension and release, lightness and weight, in Shakespeare's verse – not to mention the taxing architecture of the prose. This without betraying its soft, heavy beat, the way the melodic line sometimes strains against the rhythm, and the moments it takes off metaphorically. The actor needs to enter the language, not feel he has to massage it into life.

 

Olivier and Gielgud gave their times a vital new sensibility and naturalness. The skill with which they adapted to changing styles, as well as creating them, was a remarkable feature to both actors. But both had finished with live Shakespeare by the mid-1970s, and so stood apart from the many revisions that followed. Who knows what either would have thought about the three very different Macbeths earlier this year; or what Gielgud would have made of the audience breathing down his neck from three sides, having parked their plastic tumblers on the edge of a tiny studio stage; or how eagerly Olivier would have welcomed the kind of rehearsal in which the Duke of Exeter’s opinion can be rated as highly as that of King Henry.

 

Just as in the Mechanicals’ play at the end of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the novice Flute perhaps outshines Bottom the star, we have become used to many people achieving greatness for a moment, in one part, on one night of the run. I can remember moments of absolute trueness in Shakespeare from dozens of unsung heroes; exposing the heart of these plays has become a matter of profound teamwork.

 





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