Magazine article The Spectator

A Year of Farewells

Magazine article The Spectator

A Year of Farewells

Article excerpt

Everything's different, nothing's changed; only maybe slightly rearranged.' Stephen Sondheim of course, whose 70th birthday is currently being celebrated in a long-delayed London premiere of his Merrily We Roll Along. So what have been the slight rearrangements of this theatrical start to the new century?

Mainly it seems to have been a year of farewells; in a Buckinghamshire garden on a late-spring Sunday afternoon, Sir John Gielgud died quietly, a few weeks after his 96th birthday and his last screen appearance in a short Samuel Beckett play: the classicist was a modernist after all. With him he takes the century of which he was clearly the greatest actor, one moreover who had seen Bernhardt and Duse and his own great-aunt Ellen Terry; Gielgud's career was not only the history of 20th-century theatre, but also our last surviving link to the 19th.

His last public appearance was to have been at a memorial for his old friend Ralph Richardson's widow, and only a few weeks after that his greatest discovery, the actor Alec Guinness, also went quietly offstage. Asked how he would like this event to be recorded, Alec had once murmured, `Thick fog, and people walking into a railway station at night. Dimly through the gloom one sees an evening-newspaper headline: Actor Dead.'

John was always Prospero to Alec's Ariel, Oberon to his Puck; only Scofield now lives on, albeit in self-imposed exile, to remind us what great acting was once all about, and never will be again. Television and the movies and the new supremacy of directors and even designers all have conspired to dethrone the player kings and queens; never again shall we see a generation of actors to equal that of which Gielgud and Guinness were the last survivors, and the British theatre, indeed world theatre, will always be the poorer.

Elsewhere, a year of other new departures, happily less permanent: Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent bid farewell to the Almeida this week with The Tempest as the theatre goes into a marathon rebuilding project; Cameron Mackintosh threatens never again to produce a new musical; the Old Vic bids farewell to Shakespeare as it gets reborn as the permanent dance home of Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures. Meanwhile Jeffrey Archer, forced out of politics and into the theatre, stages his own courtroom thriller ahead of the real-life one which still awaits him; presumably if found guilty in that, he could always be replaced at the Haymarket by Jonathan Aitken.

We also start now to bid farewell to the Hollywood movie stars who have been swamping our stages; Macaulay Culkin and Jessica Lange go home in triumph, which is rather more that can be said for Donald Sutherland or Darryl Hannah or indeed Jerry Hall, who at least had the grace never to pretend to be an actress in the first place. Nevertheless, the New Year still promises (or threatens) Calista Flockhart and Farrah Fawcett, while there could be many more if the imminent Hollywood strike proves long-term. And even in exile the Almeida still promises Anna Friel as Lulu, Oliver Ford-Davies as King Lear and a new David Hare Platonov.

Performances of the year? Simon Russell Beale's chubby, unusually endearing Hamlet, Corin Redgrave's weary, wasted Oscar Wilde, Bill Nighy in the brilliantly psychiatric Blue/Orange, imminently into the West End from the National, Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour and Tilly Tremayne as Coward's Fallen Angels and their infinitely superior maidservant, Patrick Ryecart as the cynical author in a hugely welcome Arts revival of Julian Mitchell's Another Country, Louis Dempsey and Sean Sloan as the entire cast of Marie Jones's Stones in His Pockets, Michael Gambon as The Caretaker and the childmaster in Cressida, Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus and Richard II. …

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