Bloody English actors! Every time you turn on PBS, it's "Mystery" or "Masterpiece Theatre" or some other damned import.
However, let's face it: The Brits are good. Not all the time. The BBC's Shakespeare series was a frost. Olivier struck out in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Derek Jacobi starred in "The Suicide" on Broadway and was about as Russian as your Aunt Edna.
But think of Jacobi in "Cyrano de Bergerac" at the Olympics Arts Festival. Think of Glenda Jackson and Patrick Stewart in "Hedda Gabler" at the Hartford. Think of Maggie Smith in "The Beaux' Stratagem" at the Ahmanson.
Think of the films and plays you've seen with Albert Finney, Judi Dench, Alec McCowen, John Wood, Alan Howard, Tony Church, Diana Rigg, Anthony Hopkins or the three Ians--Richardson, Holm and McKellen. The years since 1960 have been a Golden Age of British acting, not quite so glamorous at the very top as the Gielgud-Olivier period, but far more solid in the ranks.
FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTION
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 10, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Page 111 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
The caption under the picture of Ian McKellen in Dan Sullivan's article "Bloody Good Showings" last week said that McKellen was playing Richard III in his current one-man show, "Acting Shakespeare." In fact, the actor was playing Richard II.
It's a tradition the American theatergoer can only envy. Not that there aren't plenty of intelligent, well-trained, well-spoken U.S. actors. But our theater doesn't nurture them the way the British theater does, doesn't give them a roof over their heads and let them concentrate on the job of being better artists.
A new book and a not-quite-new show remind us of the excellence of that system. The book is Antony Sher's "Year of the King," Sher's account of how he put together his 1984 performance of "Richard III" with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Limelight Editions: $17.95). The show is a return visit of Ian McKellen's "Acting Shakespeare" to the Westwood Playhouse (through May 10).
Both pieces are the work of educated, self-directed artists. Sher not only wrote his own book, he did the fine, free charcoal sketches that illustrate it. McKellen made his own selections from Shakespeare and links them with a personal narrative that has changed considerably since he first did the show at the Westwood four years ago.
Sher is in his mid-30s, McKellen in his mid-40s. But they speak the same language: Shakespeare. Not just Shakespeare. Sher went into "Richard" from the RSC's "Tartuffe." McKellen last played here in "Wild Honey." But Shakespeare is their batting cage, their practice barre . And it's not just a question of knowing where to breathe.
It's knowing how to read. For example, McKellen ends his show with an analysis of Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech that touches on every element that could possibly affect the way it would land on the ear, even subliminally ("the last sylla-bell of recorded time").
That might seem academic. In fact, the leaders of the English theater since the 1960s--the Trevor Nunns, the Peter Halls--come from an academic tradition. They know about words. Which is where the life of a play begins. The words are the only trail the playwright leaves. The good actor should be able to read that trail like an Indian.
But theater isn't just words. Sher tells how he spent weeks searching for his character's shape. Should the evil Richard be a "bottled spider" or a man with a mountain on his back? Play him in a wheelchair? Play him on crutches?
Sher liked that idea. Crutches suggested a spider's front legs. They could also be used as weapons. And the year before, Sher had been on crutches for months after hurting his leg in a show. They would have "a personal association for me of being disabled."
Bad British Shakespeare (the BBC series) doesn't make that link with the personal. Bad American Shakespeare doesn't get beyond it. Good Shakespeare, on any stage, means building a structure and finding a way to make it your own. So when McKellen played his favorite Richard, Richard II, he decided that Richard wasn't so much a poet as an actor, vainglorious and not terribly sure of his identity apart from his role as king. It worked.
Shakespeare doesn't just give the actor a base line of technique. He provides him a world of parts. McKellen jumps from Jacques to Mistress Quickly to Romeo to Macbeth, and it's wonderful to see each come to life, especially the ones closest to McKellen's rather saturnine nature. Shakespeare can teach an actor who he is, and who else he should be playing. Shakespeare also can provide a British actor a year or two of guaranteed employment at the RSC. McKellen will be back there, just as Sher will leave there--it's like a seminary that sends its graduates into the world and then calls them back for a refresher course.
What the American actor will envy, reading Sher's book, is the sense that the RSC artist has of being among friends. Not necessarily personal friends, but people who share the same assumptions about the theater and the same institutional memories.