January 1990 | Ian Charleson (1949-1990)

As actors get old, their work is often enfeebled. Disappointed even embarrassed, we would rather they quietly retired and left us with memories of their maturity. So, those who knew only the public man, can be grateful that Ian Charleson's acting powers never declined and that, right at the end, he gave a performance which perhaps he could never have equalled.

When he played in Bent, for just one night in June 1989, was he testing himself for Hamlet? He was already ill and taking punishing medical treatment. His eyes were clearly swollen and he was risking gossip by appearing on-stage, although as Greta he was well disguised by make-up and costume. If his success that night, as the audience laughed and cheered, encouraged him to agree to do Hamlet, he knew that you can't disguise yourself in that part. Of all Shakespeare's challenges, Hamlet is the greatest. You ideally need voice and constitution in immaculate condition but you also need to commit your spirit, so that the audience finds itself assessing the actor's inner character as much as Hamlet's.

As a very young man, he had played Hamlet for the Cambridge Theatre Company, but hadn't been happy with his performance. Hamlet was unfinished business. In the intervening years of success on-stage and on screen, he must have been half-hoping for a return engagement. Hoping too, after Sky Masterson and Tennessee Williams' Brick, that another hit at the National Theatre might properly establish him as a leading stage actor. When the chance came, even as his body was succumbing to the virus, he was determined to take it.

On Monday 13 November 1989, I was as apprehensive as any of his friends, that we might have to make allowances. He had not been strong enough to do every scheduled performance but he was determined to play that night, as the house would be full and many people he knew had tickets. 

The Olivier can seem a beastly theatre for the actors. Its volume is too large for the size of the audience and, from the stage, you feel the need to shout and generally exaggerate, as you reach out to the people sitting yards and yards away. A very few experienced actors are at home there and none more so than Michael Bryant, who was playing Polonius. That night, Ian was his match. He never tried to shout. His voice was firm and sweet. The soliloquies are where Hamlets generally fail but Ian spoke them like conversations on life and death, and shrank the vast auditorium to the intimacy of a drawing-room. That would have been remarkable under any circumstances but as his throat was physically distorted and his lungs impaired, we were witnessing a near miracle of will and energy.

Physically he was conserving his resources but so cunningly that it seemed exactly the performance he would have wanted to give had he been completely well. Only his eyes let him down. It's disheartening when the most expressive part of an actor's face is not working properly. But it genuinely didn't matter and in some moments, as he stepped into shadow, we saw him beautiful as ever.

'O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.'

He covered his face with his thin, white hands. Hamlet was effortlessly aware of his own mortality and, without sentimentality or self pity, he made us all aware that young men, princes, actors — all of us — must die. Hamlet's journey to the fulfillment of the last scene, when he is ready to face his destiny, was clearly charted.

Most Hamlets rush at the journey and the part itself. We display the angst, the bewilderment and the pain so forcefully, that we miss the character's everyday humanity. The revelation of the Charleson Hamlet was to show what he would have been like had he never met the ghost. We knew what he had been like at university, brightly and outrageously witty. It was obvious what a marvellously sympathetic friend he could have been and how easily Ophelia must have fallen for him. We believed her mourning 'that most noble and most sovereign reason', because we'd seen it for ourselves. He cracked jokes, not just the obvious impertinences to Polonius but in the final duel itself, where even the foils made us laugh.

It's not often, despite the plot, that Hamlet's intelligence is quite credible. Ian had a strong cast around him but he out-thought them all.

In the green room afterwards, he was overwhelmed with praise and exceptional enthusiasm. He was hugging a bottle of champagne from an admiring theatre critic. Only when he got safely home did he give in to exhaustion. He didn't work again.

But he knew he'd been remarkably good and during his last eight weeks often talked about Hamlet, with a paperback script of it by his bed. — Ian McKellen, 1990

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