Thesp's mastery of anger and mad monarchs

Nigel Hawthorne on Stage
June 18, 2004

Kathleen Riley's Nigel Hawthorne on Stage does more than merely recount its subject's life story: it is, in effect, a survey of postwar theatre in Britain and South Africa. It follows Hawthorne's distinguished career, through repertory, to his work with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, his career with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, his time at the Young Vic, and his eventual fame as one of the stars of Yes, Minister , besides which, he created characters in first productions of plays by Michael Frayn, Peter Nichols and Alan Bennett.

Evidence of Riley's dedication to her subject can be found on every page of this exhaustively researched book. She seems to have gathered every known article or review that mentions her subject. This is particularly advantageous in the opening chapters on Hawthorne's South African beginnings - an area with which most readers are unlikely to be acquainted. I was fascinated by her account of the key role Hawthorne played in the brief renaissance in South African theatre brought about by Leonard Schach between September 1956 and August 1962. Under his direction, Hawthorne appeared in the first South African productions of L ook Back in Anger, Long Day's Journey into Night and The Caretaker . Perhaps Schach's most ambitious enterprise was a production of Beyond the Fringe , for which Hawthorne had to transcribe a recording as there was no published script at the time.

It is impossible not to be moved by Riley's depiction of a keenly intelligent, thoughtful man who worked tirelessly at his craft, enduring years of comparative obscurity before enjoying success in middle age. Even after he had become known, he was no less demanding of himself: as Riley notes, Hawthorne as Lear, in his last theatrical appearance, was "the undisputed authority on the text, and it was (he) who was largely responsible for the final pre-rehearsal cut". He was also responsible for an interpretation that worked, portraying the king as senile from the outset. Its implications were meticulously thought through, as indicated by his annotations to the script, pages of which are reproduced in facsimile.

What happens inside an actor's head when he or she "discovers" a part? It is notoriously difficult to describe, but Riley's use of Hawthorne's commentary, and those of the people who worked with him, takes us about as close to understanding the process as we are likely to get. Hawthorne makes a good subject because he was exceptionally insightful.

When he said "I always believed, particularly in drama, that if I could get as near the truth as possible, that that was the way to go about it", he meant that the key to a character was a lengthy journey to the heart of whomever he was playing. It was a duty he treated with the utmost seriousness, even in comic works. His ability to do this at an early stage on The Madness of George III led Alan Bennett to rewrite the play completely to give greater prominence to the king than originally planned.

One of the difficulties in writing about productions of plays one has not seen is that there is little choice but to depend on the testimony of those who did - which means, in the main, theatre reviewers. Thus, for virtually all of Hawthorne's stage appearances, Riley surveys, and quotes at length, the critics who assessed them. The effect, whether wittingly or not, is to expose most of them (with one or two honourable exceptions) as obtuse, braying fools.

It is a sad fact that most of those who sat in judgement on Hawthorne were woefully ill-equipped to do so, incapable of recognising (let alone engaging with) his originality as an actor. When presented with gold, they invariably wrote it up as dross. This was painfully obvious in their summary treatment of his Lear.

I would have preferred less of them and more of Hawthorne and his colleagues, who are always strikingly perceptive. All the same, there is enough to make this an invaluable volume. As Riley does such a good job of surveying the various contexts in which Hawthorne worked, her book will appeal not just to admirers of this wonderful actor, but to any serious student of postwar British drama, especially those who wish to become actors themselves. It is full of practical insights, and reminds us that, in the theatre, success does not always come quickly; and, even when it does, it is no guarantee against the wrath (merited or otherwise) of reviewers.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, St Catherine's College, Oxford.

Nigel Hawthorne on Stage

Author - Kathleen Riley
Publisher - University of Hertfordshire Press
Pages - 380
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 902806 29 8

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