Page 9, 2nd February 2001

2nd February 2001
Page 9
Page 9, 2nd February 2001 — The player's the thing

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Organisations: Shooting Party
Locations: London, New York


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The player's the thing

History may judge that Olivier was a greater actor than Gielgud. Margot Lawrence knows better

Gielgud: A Theatrical Life by Jonathan Croall, Methuen £20

READ1 NG Tills absorbing biography. I was reminded of the words of an astute theatregoer of my acquaintance: "Olivier has been clever — he got his best Shakespearian roles on film for posterity. Gielgud missed getting his greatest work on record. So it is Larry Olivier who will be judged the greater of the two". That is, I think, a fair judgment of what is likely to happen. Yet those of us who have followed the two men's careers know differently.

As Jonathan Croall clearly shows, Gielgud was by far the greater of the two, with a wider range, deeper sympathies, greater intelligence and a more beautiful voice, altogether making an unforgettable inipact on all who saw him in the flesh. Few playgoers ever saw a Gielgud performance without coming away enchanted and enlightened by some new insight, aspect of character or grace of delivery. Moreover his overall service to the world of theatre was far greater than Olivier's, notwithstanding the latter's place as first director of the National Theatre.

Gielgud by his early appearances there put the Oxford Playhouse on the map, and he later performed the same service for the Old Vic. He made Shakespeare acceptable, commercially speaking, in New York and in London's West End. As producer and director, he gave a whole generation of actors a good start in their careers as well as inspiring them with genuine ideals.

Acting was in Gielgud's genes. His mother was a Terry, the fatuous Ellen Terry his great-aunt; other celebrated figures were connections or the greatest of friends. His voice was a rich musical instrument from the start and he never stopped studying to make it better, but his lanky figure and clumsy gait gave him trouble for years.

One reason Gielgud disliked film work was that a performance, once completed, is fixed for good, whereas he was the type of perfectionist who believes further improvement is always and everywhere possible and desirable. As well as being a great actor himself, he was seized and held for life by an enthusiasm for the theatre as an art form in itself, which led him, as Croall shows, to devote huge amounts of time and effort to producing and directing.

To read this book is to be reminded of so many wonderful moments in the theatre as well as of brilliant players like Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, James Mason, Alec Guinness and others who appeared with him.

Myself, I have always been able to fox people (though it wouldn't, I'm sure, have foxed J G himself for a minute) by saying that the very first line of Shakespeare I ever heard him speak was "How now, you secret, black and midnight hag" which of course doesn't come until Act IV of Macbeth. The explanation: I didn't hear it in Macbeth — earlier I'd seen him in The Good Companions in which, as the rebel school teacher lnigo Jollifant he played the piano, brilliantly, before, on the entrance of the snooping school matron, slamming the piano lid shut, leaping athletically to stand upon it, then greeting her dramatically with the line I've quoted. A magical memory indeed. Another was when I did see his Macbeth, opposite Gwen FfrarigconDavies, when his rendering of the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech changed my ideas about life and about the play for ever.

One never saw a Gielgud performance without gaining a degree of such real revelation from it, and that was true from his first West End appearance in Charley's Aunt right down to his recent TV and film cameos as James Ryder in Bridesheaci Revisited or the splendidly dotty animal rights' campaigner Cornelius Cardew in The Shooting Party.

Croall reminds us of all of this and conveys a character of enormous charm, one who delighted in life, art, and friendship, and conveyed this delight to all who knew him Angela Baddeley, known best in recent years as the cook in Upstairs, Downstairs, and Jessica Tandy. now most often seen in repeats of Driving Miss Daisy, were two whose careers took off after being his. leading ladies in Shakespeare.'

It is not only a record of Gielgud in Shakespeare that we have missed through his aversion to filming. Besides declining a Hollywood offer to play Romeo, he refused the chance to appear in the fihn of The Importance of Being Earnest (for which Michael Redgrave then played John Worthing) while a planned film of Richard of Bordeaux Was dropped when war loomed in 1939. The Good Companions was of course filmed and has an absolute gem of a brief scene between the piano-playing Gielgud and Max Miller as a theatrical agent, both of them at their wonderful best.

Croall builds up a total portrait of this acting genius very well, from recollections of those who knew him throughout his career. The writing is careful and thorough but not inspired, so that it often shows its origins as basically a superior cuttings job, and where his sources are wmng or inadequate, he fails to correct their deficiencies. It cannot possibly be. true that actors arrived at Golders Green theatre in the summer of 1940 wearing gas masks, nor were V2 bombs falling in London in June 1944.

HE IS, THOUGH, good on the struggles of the theatre to free itself from censorship and open up the whole area of what could be portrayed. I had not realised that for years "drugs" were used as a symbol for homosexuality in many plays.

Any student of the theatre or admirer of John Gielgud will want to read this fascinating biography which is also a history of the theatre in the 20th century.

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