Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, by Stanley Wells

The first act in an entertaining study of gifted stage performers is the most powerful, says Lisa Hopkins

April 9, 2015

Stanley Wells’ account of those he considers great Shakespeare actors is tactfully dedicated “To all the great Shakespeare actors not included in this book”, so he will not be lynched when he next sets foot in the Dirty Duck. Simon Russell Beale, born in 1961, is the youngest, Kenneth Branagh the second youngest – so no Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston, Maxine Peake or David Tennant, and the book covers only stage acting – and Wells makes it clear from the outset that he himself has seen virtually all the actors from Edith Evans onwards. Paradoxically, though, this makes the first part of the book stronger than the second, because the reminiscences that colour the later sections do sometimes verge on the anecdotal and the self-indulgent, especially when some of the actors start to be referred to by their first names and Branagh is described as “huggable”. Inevitably, too, we come increasingly to actors whom readers are themselves likely to have seen on film or television, even if not on stage: the detailed physical description of Ian Richardson, for instance, is redundant for anyone who recalls Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, even if they never saw him act Shakespeare.

The first half of Great Shakespeare Actors, however, is entertaining and informative. It opens with a brief survey of great parts and a “Prelude” on Shakespeare himself as a possible great Shakespeare actor, followed by consideration of Richard Burbage, William Kempe and Robert Armin. Material here is inevitably scant, but Wells does make something of it, pointing out, for instance, that Burbage clearly could do sword fights but seems not to have been able to sing, while Armin did sing and brought about a change in the way Shakespeare wrote fool roles. Each entry is prefaced by a portrait and by a description of known Shakespearean roles taken by the subject, and the individual lives are interspersed with short sections on more general topics such as female actors, acting in America and the rise of actor-managers. (Wells is particularly entertaining on spectacular theatre.)

Thanks to a mechanical wig, even the hair of Garrick’s Hamlet moved, rising in the air at the appearance of the ghost

The first of Wells’ actors to post-date Shakespeare’s own day is Thomas Betterton, acting under guidance from William Davenant, who fancied himself Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and happily recorded for us by Samuel Pepys, who noted in particular the extreme horror of his Hamlet at the sight of his father’s ghost. Next comes Charles Macklin, who favoured comic parts, possibly because of the fashion that required tragic actors to wear a plume of feathers and what can only be described as a skirt, but who did strike and kill a fellow actor for borrowing his wig. He is followed by David Garrick, and here at last we can begin to glimpse something of the quality and nature of the acting, as contemporary commentators note how his energy and movement contrasted with that of other actors of the time (indeed thanks to a mechanical wig, even the hair of his Hamlet moved, rising in the air at the appearance of the ghost). He also showed a joyous disregard for matching his own age to those of his characters, playing Lear when he was 25 and Hamlet when he was nearly 60.

The first woman Wells considers is Sarah Siddons, one of a group of acting siblings of whom John Philip Kemble is also covered (as Hamlet, Siddons duelled with Kemble’s Laertes). In one of several indications of how even the smallest innovation in stage tradition could excite attention, we are told how Siddons scandalised a theatre manager when her sleepwalking Lady Macbeth put down her candle before washing her hands, thus revolutionising the business associated with her part. Her Volumnia also failed to keep pace with the orchestra when entering, moving instead in a way that Siddons took to mirror the character’s emotions, and she came close to what we would now call method acting when, playing Constance, she kept her dressing room door open throughout the play so she could stay in character. Other actors from the same period considered here include George Frederick Cooke, who allegedly began his Shakespearean career by being inadvertently fired from a cannon; Kemble, who being of a stature “almost too large for a private apartment” brought a simplified and schematised grandeur to the parts he played, but also innovated by having Banquo’s ghost visible only to Macbeth and by creating names for the outlaws in Two Gentlemen to give the actors more sense of their characters, not to mention his Coriolanus, which called for 240 people to march across the stage; and David Cameron’s ancestor Dorothy (Dora) Jordan, who was to comedy what Siddons was to tragedy.

The 19th century is represented by Edmund Kean, William Macready, Ira Aldridge, Helen Faucit, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Booth, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Tommaso Salvini, the only one of Wells’ chosen performers who did not perform in English. Macready inched further towards the method, practising passionate speeches with his arms in a bandage to make sure that he could deliver them with restraint, and introduced further innovations in received business, particularly in his most famous role as Macbeth. Aldridge, “the African Roscius”, suffered shocking and distressing racism, but neatly turned the tables on traditional representational practices by acting Lear, Macbeth and Richard III in whiteface; he also managed to rewrite Titus Andronicus to make his Aaron the hero, and he stands here not only as the first black great Shakespeare actor but as the first American one, since Wells explains in some detail why he does not consider Edwin Forrest to have been great. The second great American is Cushman, a legendary Lady Macbeth and a distinguished Rosalind, as well as a Romeo to her sister’s Juliet. She is followed by Booth, the first Shakespeare actor whose voice we can still hear and whose celebrated Hamlet is exceptionally well documented in ways that might well lead modern readers to conclude that here indeed was what we, too, would consider a great actor.

Irving, who acted with Booth, takes us back to England, along with Terry and Salvini, and Wells’ account of him is particularly delicious, drily conveying the many physical and vocal peculiarities of the first theatrical knight. We have Irving’s voice too, but his finest moments on stage seem often to have been silent, so he eludes us still. Terry, like Siddons, belonged to an acting family (22 of whom appeared in one scene at her jubilee gala); her voice also survives for us, although she seems to be declaiming rather than acting. Salvini, of course, most of us would not understand if we heard him, since he acted his famous Othello in Italian.

There is deep research here, lightly worn but nevertheless offering clear pointers for those who wish to study individual performers more closely, and for the great majority of the book there is also an engaging tone, although a little venom creeps into an account of how “feminist influences” have made The Taming of the Shrew unfashionable. Generally, though, Wells is judicious and restrained and has a dry, crisp style, noting, for instance, that Macklin’s Shylock “allegedly rendered King George II sleepless (after, not during, the performance)”. Wells’ book will assuredly not send readers to sleep, but will entertain and inform them. However, it may well do so most effectively when it takes them furthest from their own theatrical experiences.

Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh

By Stanley Wells
Oxford University Press, 314pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780198703297
Published 23 April 2015

The author

Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of Birmingham and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, was born and raised in Hull. As to the influence of his origins on his personality, he will allow that there is “a distinctly ‘Yorkshire’ cast of mind that I share in – directness amounting sometimes to bluntness, doggedness, practicality”.

As a child, he recalls, he was “serious-minded and studious. I liked to please my teachers. At grammar school in Hull I had an inspiring sixth-form teacher – E. J. C. Large – who ignited my interest in Shakespeare. He also taught at least three distinguished actors – Sir Tom Courtenay, John Alderton and Malcolm Storry.”

During his undergraduate years at University College London, Wells was, he says, “hard-working, not very gregarious, partly because I had to occupy cheap lodgings an hour’s tram journey from college. I chose to go to UCL partly because of the opportunity that London afforded to see plays and to hear classical music.”

Wells worked as a teacher before completing his doctorate. Does he find audiences of schoolchildren watching Shakespeare productions more fidgety than they once were, and are the playwright’s works becoming more foreign to them? “I think children can respond to Shakespeare just as well now as ever before. Shakespeare can enrich lives enormously. It’s good if the introduction can be made when children are perhaps 9 or 10, before they get frightened by the language. Equally, I’m often delighted to hear people say that they have come to enjoy him in later life.

“But,” he adds, “no one has a moral duty to like Shakespeare. Just as I take no interest in quantum physics or pop music or space travel, so other people can lead perfectly happy and useful lives without reading or seeing Shakespeare.”

Asked to name the recent works of scholarship Wells has found most memorable and insightful, he says: “I’m excited by recent developments in authorship studies – the realisation that Shakespeare collaborated with other writers, especially at the beginning and end of his career.

“I write about this in my book Shakespeare & Co, and an excellent recent book related to this is Bart Van Es’ Shakespeare In Company. Our picture of Shakespeare and how he worked constantly shifts in unsensational but subtle and fascinating ways.”

Given his new book’s focus on remarkable actors of Shakespeare, would he care to mention any productions of Shakespeare that he found truly remarkable, moving or impressive for their stage settings, costumes or the places or situations in which they were performed?

“You can have a great performance in an indifferent production, but the greatest Shakespeare productions are totalities in which acting, direction, decor, music and all contribute to the overall impact. I think for example of Peter Brook’s King Lear, with Paul Scofield as Lear, or John Barton’s Twelfth Night, which had great performances from Judi Dench and Donald Sinden.”

And if there were to be a book entitled Quite Bad Shakespeare Actors, would any of the great names of the past or present belong there – Herbert Beerbohm Tree, for example?

Wells replies: “There was an American actor called Edwin Forrest (1806-72) that I thought seriously about including in Great Shakespeare Actors, but rejected after reading accounts of performances that suggested that he was – or at least became in later life – just a great hulking barnstormer with no interpretative genius.”

A perennial irritant for Shakespeare scholars is the group of people who claim that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. Does Wells see them as fools or scoundrels?

“I think some of the Shakespeare deniers are just dyed-in-the-wool sceptics who shrug off any evidence that is put before them. Others are deliberate mischief-makers or attention seekers.”

What gives him hope? “Seeing a diverse audience enthralled, moved, amused and in the fullest sense entertained by a Shakespeare play.”

Karen Shook

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.