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Shakespeare on Stage

By Julian Curry
Nick Hern Books £14.99
255 pages

Dateline: 1st December, 2010

Nick Hern has followed up on yet another a moment of genius in asking Julian Curry to create this book with the assistance of 13 leading actors.

Curry is best known for his performances as Claude Erskine-Brown in Rumpole of the Bailey but has done much stage work, which gives him a special insight into the pleasures and problems that actors experience in creating major theatrical roles. Indeed, he has acted with many of those contributing to the book, sometimes in the productions illuminated.

Shakespeare on Stage comprises interviews with these top stars about their roles as major Shakespearean characters in often legendary productions. These stretch back as far as Judi Dench's Juliet for Franco Zeffirelli and as far forward as Jude Law's Hamlet and Derek Jacobi's Malvolio, both for Michael Grandage as part of the Donmar's West End season last year.

In between, come a stream of fine British stars including the likes of Rebecca Hall (Rosalind), Sir Ian McKellen (Macbeth), Dame Helen Mirren (Cleopatra) and Patrick Stewart (Prospero) as well as that adopted and much-loved American, Kevin Spacey (Richard II).

The book comprises interviews in which Curry uses not only his skill as an interviewer but also an intimate knowledge of acting and building up roles to draw out fascinating views that would be beyond "normal" journalists or authors.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Shakespeare on Stage is the way in which the interrelationship between actors and the parts that they are playing is dissected. Again and again, Julian Curry talks to the actors as if he were speaking to their characters.

In doing so, he brings out points of character and interpretation which says so much not only about the ways in which these experts do their jobs but also elucidates their understanding of how the characters behave and why.

There are great contrasts: for example it seems as if Dame Judi Dench is largely natural actress who can play a part without thinking deeply about it while at the other end of the scale, Sir Ian McKellen, whose Macbeth opposite her for Sir Trevor Nunn (who provides the book's introduction) is one of the chosen performances, intellectualises his own vision of a role both before taking it on and when describing it.

There are many pleasures to be derived from reading this book. It presents portraits of actors in their prime looked at from a particular perspective, it illuminates major Shakespearean roles and, in passing, we learn a lot about the directors with whom these actors worked and their methodologies.

There are also odd pieces of information hidden away that are truly fascinating. For example, it was simultaneously chilling and heart-warming to learn that Sir Derek Jacobi has stage fright but overcame it to play his award-winning Malvolio.

One might expect a book of this type to cover every major Shakespearean role but there is no space for King Lear or Richard III and neither Othello nor Iago makes an appearance. This might suggest an unusual set of selection criteria or, more optimistically, the chance that a second volume will follow.

Either way, Shakespeare on Stage is yet another fine book from the Nick Hern stable and will please any lover of classical theatre or great acting and directing.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010