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From Hamlet to the gold watch

Jonathan Pryce’s well-timed King Lear

Irving Wardle | July/August 2012

Jonathan Pryce, who returns to the Almeida to play Shakespeare’s King Lear in August, is the latest in a long line of British actors to have the role bestowed on them like a gold watch, marking a lifetime’s distinguished service and the prospect of imminent retirement. It is both an honour and a death sentence; and the lesson to be learnt from Ian McKellen and other recent Lears is not to leave it too late. Old as he is, the king must have something to lose.

At 65 Pryce has got his timing right. He looks ravaged, but still has a quarrel with the world. No one, as yet, is likely to write his work off as magisterial. He remains the most eye-catching actor of his age group, both for what he does and for what he is. When I first saw him, in Brenton and Hare’s “Brassneck” at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1973, he personified danger; he had the psychotic’s sparkling eye and every gesture carried the threat of violence—which fully erupted in his nightmare portrait of Gethin, the class-war stand-up comic in Trevor Griffiths’ “Comedians” (1975, also Nottingham). Then came the 1980 “Hamlet” at the Royal Court (above), in which Pryce amazingly doubled as the Prince and the Ghost of his father, taking the play to a new level of anguish.

Since then he has had a prolific film career, ranging from the hapless lead in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” to the megalomaniac media mogul in the Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”, while making carefully chosen returns to the theatre, where he excels equally as power figures and as the wretched of the earth. The defining image of Pryce is of a man seared by some atrocious memory, doing all he can to behave with the utmost gentleness, while still harbouring his own store of volcanic rage. To sum up these qualities in two words: King Lear. ~ IRVING WARDLE

King Lear Almeida, London, Aug 31st to Nov 3rd

THEATRE AT A GLANCE

Richard III/Twelfth Night (Globe, London, in rep to Oct 14th). London won’t be short of chaps this summer. As well as Propeller’s excellent all-male Shakespeare double bill at Hampstead, the boys-only Original Practices returns to its old home at the Globe. Front of stage is the transcendent Mark Rylance, reprising both the hunchback impostor-king, and his tottering, tricksily female Olivia.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Aug 3rd to 27th). A one-man play about Hitler, a one-woman play about Marilyn Monroe, sixth-formers taking on Pinter: there’s much that’s familiar at the world’s biggest arts festival. But also, not: where else could you see a “tragi-comical musical” partly performed by a Barbie doll?

Surprises/Absurd Person Singular (Minerva, Chichester, Aug 8th to Sept 8th). Alan Ayckbourn doesn’t get out much; even before a debilitating stroke in 2006 he rarely worked outside Scarborough. So this double bill—one new play, one old, both directed by their author—at Chichester is a doubly big event: his swansong, perhaps?

Jumpy (Duke of York’s, London, Aug 16th to Nov 3rd). A West End transfer for April de Angelis’s spry comedy about a left-leaning mother bashing up against the wall of wh’everness that is a teenage daughter. Tamsin Greig is the mum flip-flopping in a net of liberal guilt.

Hysteria (Theatre Royal, Bath, to Aug 18th). Terry Johnson, master of post-modern farce, revives his own stinging comedy about consciousness, dreams, and—like all the best jokes—death. Antony Sher plays Freud, dealing with cancer and an appropriately surreal visit from Salvador Dali. ~ ISABEL LLOYD

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