Great Shakespearean Actors: Burbage to Branagh by Stanley Wells

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Reviewed by Harriet

Stanley Wells has been described as ‘our greatest authority on Shakespeare’s life and work’. He’s Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and more besides. So if anyone’s well placed to write about great Shakespearean actors, he’s probably the one. I must admit I had a few doubts about the viability of such a project. Writing about the performance skills of someone who’s been dead for up to four centuries (as in the case of Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary Richard Burbage) would seem to be challenging task. Indeed, when we get to the later sections of the book, which deals with actors who Wells has actually seen in performance, he obviously has more to add. But here, as throughout the book, he is also able to rely on contemporary accounts, and all in all there is a great deal to enjoy and to learn from, not just about acting but also, of course, about the interpretation of the plays, on which the actor must base his performance.

The book is arranged chronologically, with each of the thirty-nine chapters dealing with a separate actor. Truthfully, the earliest chapters (Burbage, Kemp and Armin) have little to say about the acting styles of their subjects, of which no accounts remain, and thus have to rely on biography and anecdote. But as we move forward through time, increasingly full accounts remain of the particularities of interpretation and performance. Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710), for example, was famous for his Hamlet, in which, on seeing his father’s ghost, ‘his countenance, which was naturally ruddy and sanguine’ showed such violent emotions that it actually turned ‘as pale as his neckcloth’. David Garrick, in the next generation, was given some very full descriptions of his Hamlet’s reaction to the appearance of the ghost (there’s even a reproduction of a famous engraving that illustrates this moment):

Garrick turns sharply and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with his knees giving way under him; his hat falls to the ground and both his arms, especially the left, are stretched out nearly to their full length, with the hands as high as his head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower and the fingers apart; his mouth is open; thus he stands rooted to the spot…

Then we have the passionate, fiery Edmund Kean, described by William Hazlitt as ‘presenting a succession of striking pictures, and giving perpetually fresh shocks of delight and surprise’, and the celebrated Victorian Henry Irving, whose rasping voice and limping gait don’t appear to have dented his popularity: he was the first actor to be knighted, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

As for the actresses (once there were any – the first to appear on the English stage was in 1660), there are some famous names here too. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was apparently capable of reducing an entire audience to tears by ‘the intensity of her imaginative responses to the characters she played’, while Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was apparently not a natural tragedienne – her Juliet was said to be played ‘with more tenderness, sweetness and pathos than intensity of tragic expression’, –but she had a great capacity for pathos, as shown in her performance of Ophelia.

But these are all examples from the first part of the book. Moving forward into the twentieth century, we find ourselves in the company of actors many of us (including me) will have been lucky enough to see on stage. One such is Edith Evans (1888-1976), who famously started her career as a milliner but became arguably the most celebrated actress of her generation. Many will have seen her unforgettable and unfollowable Lady Bracknell, thanks to the film of The Importance of Being Earnest, but her Shakespearean performances were equally celebrated. I did see her as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, a part she played many times between 1932 and 1961. One critic who saw her play it in 1935 said she was ‘as earthy as a potato, as slow as a cart horse, and as cunning as a badger’. It would have been great to see her Rosalind (1937): she was already nearly fifty, and never a beauty, but transformed herself ‘in a matter of seconds into a sparkling, adorable young creature’.

Then of course there are the two great mid-century theatrical knights, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, whose ongoing rivalry began with the celebrated 1935 Romeo and Juliet, in which they alternated the parts of Romeo and Mercutio. Gielgud, elegantly beautiful, spoke the verse in his inimitable lyrical style, while the equally gorgeous though more masculine Olivier went for force and realism. That must have been something to see. Their Juliet was, of course, the young Peggy Ashcroft, who played the part many times in the course of her long career. The last time was when she was over fifty, though you’d never have guessed it for the lightness and youth she brought to the part. Her Shakespearan career could be said to have climaxed with her performance as Queen Margaret in the RSC’s 1964 Wars of the Roses, in which she was called upon to age throughout the three plays from a young beauty to an aged crone.

None of these great actors are still living, but we mustn’t forget the ones that are. Judi Dench, of course, is still going strong and probably the most loved actress of her generation. Here Wells is on firm ground as he has seen her perform many times, and is able to comment from his own observation that:

For all the emphasis that she herself, as well as those of who write about her acting, have placed on the contribution to her work of her mastery of speaking, both of prose and verse, she is a mistress too of body language. I felt this in her performance of Perdita in Trevor Nunn’s 1969 production of The Winter’s Tale….Her dancing in the pastoral scene was imbued with a kind of innocent eroticism, a rapt enjoyment of the music and of the sensuous movement of her own limbs…

Then there’s Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellan, and Anthony Sher among others, and finally, of course, the youngest but by no means the least celebrated, Kenneth Branagh, praised as a superb speaker of poetry as well as an actor of great clarity and ‘manifest humanity’. And of course there are lots more chapters, equally informative and interesting.

There are many lovely illustrations, but here lies the one quibble I have about this otherwise impeccable book – two of them are mis-described. In case the publishers are interested, they are the two paintings of Garrick as Macbeth, by Fuseli (p.47) and Zoffany (p.48). Both are said to depict the sleepwalking scene, but of course they don’t – they show Act II Scene 2 (‘Infirm of purpose!/Give me the daggers’ (ll.49-50)).

There’s so much more in this fascinating book that I haven’t been able to cover, so I can only urge you, if this kind of thing interests you, to go out and get a copy soon. You won’t regret it.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and had ambitions to be a great Shakespearean actor herself, until she found she wasn’t very good at it.

Stanley Wells, Great Shakespearean Actors: Burbage to Branagh (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 978-0198703297, 308pp., hardback.

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