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Shakespeare on Stage

Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles


Julian Curry


 Foreword by Trevor Nunn

London: Nick Hern Books, 2010. £14.99. 255 pages

 ISBN: 978-1-84842-077-9


Reviewed by Florence March

Université d’Avignon



As an actor, Julian Curry has played leading roles in stage performances, in popular television series, as well as in movies. He has acted in twenty-one of Shakespeare's plays and in several of the productions analysed in this book. According to him, "Shakespeare's major roles are amongst the most challenging and potentially rewarding for any actor" [xi].

Curry thus interviews thirteen leading actors on Shakespeare's major roles: Brian Cox on Titus Andronicus in Deborah Warner's Royal Shakespeare Company production (1987); Judi Dench on Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's stage production, eight years before his film (Old Vic Theatre, London, 1960); Ralph Fiennes on Coriolanus, directed by Jonathan Kent (Almeida Theatre Company, 2000); Rebecca Hall on Rosalind in Peter Hall's As You Like It (The Peter Hall Company, 2003); Derek Jacobi directed by Peter Grandage as Malvolio in Twelfth Night (2008); Jude Law directed by Peter Grandage as Hamlet (2009); Adrian Lester on Henry V in Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production (2003); Ian McKellen on Macbeth in Trevor Nunn's Royal Shakespeare Company production (1976); Helen Mirren on Cleopatra, a role she played three times, successively directed by Michael Croft (National Youth Theatre, 1965), Adrian Noble (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1982) and Sean Mathias (National Theatre, 1998); Tim Pigott-Smith on Leontes in Peter Hall's Winter's Tale for the National Theatre (1988); Kevin Spacey on Richard II in Trevor Nunn's production (2005); Patrick Stewart on Prospero in Rupert Goold's Tempest for the Royal Shakespeare Company (2006); Penelope Wilton on Isabella in Jonathan Miller's Measure for Measure (1975).

Each actor anatomises his experience playing the role, giving his own point of view on the Shakespearean character and justifying his aesthetic choices. The reader-spectator is thus allowed to have a look behind the scenes. Curry's questions lead the artist to contextualise his/her interpretation in the general production of the play, taking into account the director's reading of it, the other actors' interpretations, the sets and costumes.

Brian Cox and Adrian Lester both develop the analysis of their roles into more general considerations on performing spectacular violence nowadays. Playing the lead in Titus Andronicus, Cox discusses the ways of suggesting horror rather than actually make it visible onstage, relying on technical examples and their impact on the audience. The strategies resorted to must have been particularly efficient indeed as "people kept fainting" [12] and a spectator even happened to die of a heart attack during a performance in Paris! As for him, Lester considers the problematic staging of war, an object that paradoxically calls for theatre representation while resisting it. Four centuries after Shakespeare, he examines the stage solutions to perform what critics designated as an "urgently topical" production of Henry V at the time of the invasion of Iraq [119]. The issue is appropriately discussed in relation to Lawrence Olivier's iconic film, made during World War II, in 1944.

Curry judiciously composed his panel of actors, making for variety and trying to provide a perspective as complete as possible, although it cannot be exhaustive, on playing Shakespeare. He combines analyses of feminine and masculine roles in all canonical dramatic categories: comedies, tragedies and history plays, referring to successful Shakespeare revivals of the past fifty years.

In this perspective, Helen Mirren's interview is of particular interest as she develops a threefold point of view on the role of Cleopatra, which she played in 1965, 1982 and 1998 under the guidance of three different stage directors. Curry might probably have induced her to weave perspectives and theatrical experiences more tightly together instead of only juxtaposing them briefly before proceeding to the psychological analysis of the character. A criss-cross approach to the role would have provided a particularly original and fruitful insight into this "kaleidoscopic" character, as Curry appropriately defines it [180].

About his role as Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes interestingly explains how difficult it was to reconcile the actor's popularity with the character's unpopularity and to negotiate such a complex performance pact with the audience. In contrast, one may nevertheless regret the confusion between the notions of actor and character that recurs time and again in Curry's questions and tends to obliterate critical distance, turning the interviews into mere descriptions of the productions. This is what happens, for instance, in Curry's interview of Derek Jacobi on Malvolio, in which the fusion of actor and character leads to the confusion of the audience of the play and the audience onstage. The double level of communication that characterises theatre and accounts for its complexity is thus denied:

Another tempting moment, that begs for a gag. What do you do?

Well, I look puzzled at the audience—what could this possibly mean? I look around to see if anybody's watching. I start to look as if I'm going to turn on the spot, and then give it all up as a bad job. [93]

Sometimes, the interchangeability of actor and character in Curry's discourse even leads to absurd statements, such as his question to Judi Dench on her performance of Juliet's suicide at the end of Shakespeare's tragedy: "It wasn't easy to kill yourself, but you had really no option" [34].

The written transcription of the oral interviews remains faithful to the spontaneous reactions of the actors, their enthusiastic replies, the complicity that progressively builds up with the interviewer and, beyond him, with the reader. Yet, some spontaneous statements may seem surprising, like the following exchange between Curry and Cox who discuss Titus Andronicus in comparison to King Lear:

It's a picnic by comparison.


Exactly. Lear is a picnic! [9]

Each interview is introduced by Curry, who situates the play in the Shakespearean canon, mentions the way it was received by Renaissance audiences as well as the most famous English stage productions it has inspired, and contextualises the circumstances of the interview. The synopses of the plays are available in appendix to the interviews [239-255].

In his foreword [ix-x], Trevor Nunn appropriately points to the importance of collecting theatre anecdotes to document the history of stage performance for future generations. Personal and subjective, they remind one that theatre is a live art which allows for incidents as part of the creative process. On the whole, in spite of the few reservations expressed, there is no doubt that this book, conceived as a master class on playing these major Shakespearean roles, will be of great interest to other actors, directors, students and theatre-goers—the wide readership targeted by Curry in his general introduction [xi-xiii]. It is definitely a commendable contribution to the collective memory.



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