13 April 1975 | On the Test of Time

First published in The Observer Magazine

Is there a single character in British drama so identified with the actor who first played it that his creation is accepted as definitive? Yes - Dixon of Dock Green is Jack Warner, Callan is Edward Woodward, Elsie Tanner was Pat Phoenix. But these are exceptions. Most characters, even when defined by extraordinary physique, are revived again and again. Tarzan lives! So do Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes (both on stage, film, television and radio); the current Dan Archer is the fourth, and there have already been three James Bonds. 

In the theatre, a role is more durable than any of the actors who may make their reputations playing it. This is especially true in the classics - repetition being partly what defines a classic. Modern actors habitually shift from job to job and from medium to medium in search of regular money and variety of work. They rarely control a plan in their careers, discarding even the biggest successes. They neglect any private repertoire of work such as opera singers and solo musicians depend on. 

Occasionally an interpretation - of a role, speech or word, even - is so acclaimed and strongly remembered that it inhibits audiences and actors years later. Can Lady Bracknell ever escape from Edith Evans's 'A handbag?' or Richard III from Olivier's make-up? These famous stage performances now have a continuing life on film and record and thereby retain their potency. I doubt if a similar influence could be claimed for Dame Edith's celebrated Rosalind or for Sir Laurence's Oedipus. But such exceptions aside, to what extent are modern actors influenced by their predecessors? 

Traditional interpretations have in the past undoubtedly contributed powerfully to stagings of classics and to playing of parts in them. The word 'part' originates in those cut playscripts that gave each actor only his own lines and Cues — his 'part' of the whole. The actions of Robert Atkins and Donald Wolfit, for instance, were sometimes hurriedly rehearsed - much as opera revivals can be today. The leading part would be 'topped and tailed' in rehearsal by The star actor-manager-cum-director, so that his supporting employees heard nothing of the play's centre until it was resoundingly delivered to them and to the first-night audience. Under such circumstances, a Laertes or Ophelia would seek assurance in a well-tried stock character - 'passionate juvenile' or distraught ingenue'. Their elders, having graduated to Claudius and Gertrude, might help from their experience. That is one sort of practical stage tradition. 

In this century the advent of the director as a non-acting objective controller introduced longer rehearsals and an increasing attention to all details of presentation. Nowadays actors (leading and supporting) and designers (of sets, costumes and lighting) ideally, expected to think for themselves while contributing to a unified concept. This modern approach obviously discourages reference to any unified traditional interpretation of one part in a play, unless it proves relevant to the production in hand. 

However, 'Learn the lines and get on with it' can still be lauded as an antidote to more meticulous and demanding methods of preparation. In 1961, my first job was in a rep revival of A Man for Seasons. The director opened the fortnight's rehearsal by distributing our playscripts etc with the moves, business, and property list recorded from the previous West End production. 'If they've been good enough for Paul Scofield for 18 months, they'll do for us!' 

Of course, however individual the approach to a play as familiar as, say, Hamlet, the actor must be aware of treading a well-worn path. Preparing my own, with the director Robert Chetwyn in 1971 (nine other Hamlets brooded over British stages that year), was like climbing Great Gable on Bank Holiday Monday. Also, as in any Hamlet company, ours had collective knowledge of hundreds of other productions - seen, heard about or worked on. Long before I had first read the play at school, or first saw it on stage (at Bolton Little Theatre in my teens) or studied it at Cambridge University, I had shared in the myth-memory of Ghost, Prince in Black, and grinning skull. All such impressions confusingly jostle as one tries to absorb the play afresh until one becomes part of it. When do we first hear of 'To be or not to be'? Yet when do we unravel its meaning? Well, speaking the speech in performance, the actor has to try. He might be tempted, as I was, by the Cambridge don who advised cutting it. He might remember, as I did, Olivier's cliff-edge delivery in the film. He might, eventually, suffer a schools' matinee concertedly joining in. But he will also have to solve its problems, reconcile them to his own Hamlet and to his director's production, and thereby absorb generalisation into the particulars of himself. Any received tradition could only be a hindrance to the ego - to its free and truthful self-expression. 

For that reason, I took the precaution of avoiding other Hamlets, as I had done Richard IIs, for some years before I hoped to play them myself. In preparing for both, I read nothing about previous productions nor any academic analysis. Other actors, conversely, may seek outside advice as a stimulus. Recently I discussed, with a friend rehearsing his Hamlet, my own performance as I now imperfectly recall it. In challenging me on most points, he confirmed and clarified his own contrary views.

Actors are mainly reluctant to interfere with their friends' performances. Michael Hordern asked Gielgud for his comments on playing King Lear. 'Get a small Cordelia', was the cryptic advice. Yet, even so, traditions recur. My Richard II was considered to have broken with the recent fashion of the willowy, effeminate, poetical royal wastrel. But a friendly ex-critic analysed for me specific stage-business and line readings (which others mistook as original to me) already anticipated by Gielgud, Neville, Scofield and Maurice Evans. I had seen only one of these Richards and had read little about the others. Any actor's reappraisal of a Shakespeare hero is likely to be a return, in part, to other performances within the memory of his audience. A play is private property and yet public domain.

It is, of course, regular theatre-goers, led by the professional critics, who feel themselves most qualified to detect influences and traditions. I, for one, find that sort of measurement fascinating, but irrelevant to my, and others', work. To try to extract, for example, details of Scofield's Lear from the integrated context of Brook's production, so as to compare it with Gielgud's performance 12 years previously, cannot deepen the experience of seeing either of them. There is no platonic definitive version of any play against which all lesser productions can be measured. Though when you've enjoyed, say, Twelfth Night as often as I have, you may never wish to see it again, even with a cast of archangels. 

Anyway, the majority of any audience for Hamlet or King Lear will be meeting the play for the first time in the theatre. They won't know who wins the duels, Laertes or Hamlet, Edmund or Edgar. A production's main responsibility is to that ignorance. (That is why I called Polonius 'flesh-monger' rather than 'fish- monger', which gets the wrong sort of laugh. Also why I invariably clarify the Elizabethan 'presently' to its modern equivalent 'instantly'.) 

While climbing Great Gable, a Hamlet may well be tempted to risk suicide by seeking out a less popular route that affords less familiar views. But in my experience even the most radical reassessment is not a search for sensationalism. Nor, equally, is there a conscious deference to any accepted interpretations. What links the exceptional directors I have worked with (from Tyrone Guthrie to John Barton) is a concern for the playwright's intention as they see it and a determination to communicate it theatrically and clearly to their audience. Such an approach, which is my own, may well result in supporting accepted generalities, but it may also abandon them. That challenge to, or contradiction of, tradition is for critics to assess, not for actors or directors to care about.

There must be many a production of a famous play that is virginally innocent. A young Romeo and Juliet, for instance, may know nothing of the play before their first rehearsal. Some classics, like Antony and Cleopatra, are so infrequently revived that the same might be true for those more experienced lovers. 

On the periphery of a classic there are often details of business or costume that link successive productions - some purposeful, others only explicable as tradition. Who was the first Malvolio to carry a long staff of office down which he slipped Olivia's ring - for Viola to retrieve? Why should Lear always have a beard? Or Hamlet those billowing white sleeves? (Who will be the first male Peter Pan?) 

But when is tradition traditional? What appears revelatory to one generation may really be the revival of a commonplace. Thus the RSC's recent doubling of Theseus with Oberon and of Hermione with Perdita was probably a return to Shakespeare's intention. The National's all-male As You Like It and Glasgow Citizens' Antony and Cleopatra acknowledged the tradition, which only boys' schools had previously nurtured.

There is a sense in which theatre tradition is so accepted by actors (and by their audiences) that it is not recognised as tradition at all. We are so inured to elaborate, crowded, four-hour Shakespeare that we forget that Burbage's original productions were mainly modern dress, with small casts (particularly on tour) playing cut versions of what we now hallow as definitive texts. Last season the RSC did King Lear without scenery in a hut at Stratford with a cast of 11, much doubling of parts and cutting of others, surrounded on three sides by an audience within touching distance of the actors. Every innovation was a Shakespearian tradition! 

A theatre's very structure can be the most unyielding instrument of tradition - hence the fashion for new theatres to have adaptable stages, and the extension of the RSC's forestages beyond the limitations of the proscenium arches at Stratford and at the Aldwych. The organisation and administration of a company can, too, have a hold over its ability to break with the norm. The Actors' Company's democracy aims for an overall equality of acting standards - rarely attained in more traditional hierarchical organisations. And it has been announced that the National Theatre's actors are soon to be permitted to replace the director with a chairman.

Nothing dates quicker than acting styles. Irving on record, Forbes Robertson on film, even early Brando, can now seem old-fashioned. But after the critics have detected influences, regretted them, praised them; after a position in the hierarchy of tradition has been assessed; a stage performance is nothing more nor less than the instrument of communication between playwright and audience. It is an occasion for the nonce, and it will be only partially recalled in the memory and inaccurately recorded on tape or film. Its essence can be absorbed only as it happens. Performances, both before and after, are genuinely irrelevant. To that extent, there is no acting tradition.

As Richard II, 1969

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