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Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh
Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh
Stanley Wells
Oxford University Press, 2015
288 pp., $29.95

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Brett Foster and Mark Lewis


“Inheritors of the Text”

An eminent scholar’s tribute to the great Shakespeare actors.

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Editor’s Note: This year, as we did a year ago to mark Shakespeare’s birthday, we are featuring a conversation between a poet who is also a Renaissance scholar (Brett Foster) and a theater director who also has extensive experience as an actor (Mark Lewis).

Brett: Mark, I have been on the lookout, after the pleasures of our exchange last year around Shakespeare’s birthday, for that next book that we could profitably discuss together to mark the same occasion. We needed something new that engaged with both your and my respective disciplines in theater (both acting and directing) and literary scholarship. Stanley Wells’ Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh fits this description very nicely.

Mark: I am thankful once again, Brett, to wish our friend William the happiest of birthdays by drawing attention to this new book about him.

I was taken with Wells’ new volume, in which he offers a series of meticulously researched essays identifying the actors he considers to be the greatest ever to act in Shakespeare’s plays. It is a thrill to follow the line of those whom my Shakespeare teacher Eloise Watt might refer to as great “inheritors of the text,” stretching forward from members of Shakespeare’s own Company and ending (in a time frame that some might find a premature foreclosure) with Kenneth Branagh and Simon Russell Beale, born in 1960 and 1961 respectively. It’s especially fun to consider the careers of actors who were (or are) contemporaries, and to see how their careers, personalities, and acting styles interplay with one another.

Brett: Yes, and to see how the actors variously interplay with their dramatic and poetic source, Shakespeare himself, the writer of their scripts. At one point Wells quotes James Agate’s rationale for the same plays being ever watchable and rewatchable for the playgoer. Agate speaks of the “two-fold joy of one fine talent super-imposed upon another.” That is, we love to watch a fine actor in partnership with the literary genius who provides the material there to be shaped into an individual performance, a more fully human dimension compared to what we find on the page, however dazzling those findings.

And yes, even my less expert awareness of the acting world led me to wonder about Wells’ “premature foreclosure” (as you deftly call it), ending with Branagh and Beale. Though he is timely enough to nod toward Branagh’s recent return to the Shakespearean stage, in the title role of a Macbeth which was performed in a church in England and then in The Armory for its New York run. (The show was in production when Wells was writing.) Coverage-wise, however, where is Mark Rylance? It takes a certain obstinacy to leave him off a present-day list of great Shakespearean actors, though perhaps Rylance’s uniqueness is not to Wells’ taste.

Mark: Of course there are limitations to any such list, and Wells’ version is no exception. Are we really to believe that there are no living actors of Shakespeare under the age of 50 to be considered great? I too, Brett, was struck particularly by the omission of Mark Rylance, whose leadership and performances at London’s Globe Theater have been magnificent and widely heralded for decades.

Perhaps a clue to this particular choice lies in some of the criteria Wells lists in his introduction. He seems enamored by the conscious manipulation of the actor’s voice and body in ways that most modern practitioners of the craft would perhaps consider overstated. It is one thing to say, as Olivier did, that he owed some of his great success to that fact that his eyes were shallowly set, enabling them to be “read” at the back of very large houses, and quite another to say, as Wells does, that “actors must be able to control their facial muscles so that they can register changes of expression, sometimes in large spaces, conveying through physical means a sense of what is going on in the character’s mind.” Well, yes, in a way—but overt and conscious changes of facial expression (or for that matter changes of pose) are not any longer widely held as an earmark of great acting. An actor like Rylance, whose vocal instrument is reedy and whose line readings are often subtle, might have fallen off Wells’ list for just that reason.

Similarly, I will betray here my own prejudice by saying that there just have to have been great American Shakespeareans since, well, Edwin Booth, who died in 1893. (He is the most recent of the three Americans to make Wells’ list). I readily acknowledge that the American theater has not supported the development of great Shakespearean acting in the way the British theater has, and the numbers are certainly nowhere near comparable. But I might offer John Barrymore, Orson Welles, Stacy Keach, and Kevin Kline as examples of names to at least consider for inclusion.

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