Great Shakespeare Actors
Oxford University Press
Emeritus Professor Stanley Wells is recognised as one of the greatest contemporary experts on the life and works of William Shakespeare.
Having attacked the Bard from almost every angle, his latest effort is something fresh and different.
Great Shakespeare Actors, with its chronological subtitle “Burbage to Branagh”, does what it says on the front cover, although those selected are predominantly known for their work in this country.
In sections that typically run to around five or six pages, he profiles 39 actors who have excelled while performing in works from the canon.
In each case, an illustration helps to illuminate the relevant individual and the introductory biographical details run to little more than a list of the roles that qualify them for inclusion in the book.
For the vast majority of the men, these are likely to include memorable performances in some or all of the four great tragedies: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello/Iago.
An alternative route can include Richard III, Antony, Prospero and Hotspur.
More rarefied are the comedians, who might have had a crack at Benedick, Bottom or Berowne.
The great ladies of theatre, including the likes of Dames Ellen Terry, Sybil Thorndike and Judi Dench are generally distinguished for their efforts as Juliet, Portia, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra.
What could easily have been a repetitive book, as a series of actors is connected to a limited number of distinguished roles, is so well written that this never becomes the case.
Professor Wells is good at putting actors into context and draws heavily from contemporary criticism, sometimes amateur in the early days, to create rounded portraits of his subjects.
The style inevitably changes since inevitably Burbage, Sarah Siddons, Garrick and Macready to name but a few get their descriptions entirely from research sources.
Once we get into the second half of the 20th century with Lord Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, direct experience begins to come in and continues right up to the greats still working today such as Sir Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale (surely overdue a knighthood with his sure place in this company) and Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Inevitably, with a list of only 39 actors drawn from everybody that has ever acted in Shakespeare’s plays over the last 400 years, readers might notice what they would regard as some slightly eccentric inclusions and omissions. In particular, one might wonder what Sir Alec Guinness did to avoid being the 40th great name.
The writing is assured and never flags in an unexpected volume that is well worth dipping into.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher