Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The next greatest Shakespearean actors

The RSC's Glorious Moment has been one of the triumphs of modern theatre, as fairly acknowledged by countless critics. It is not just the rapport between the cast, developed from two years in rehearsal and rep, nor the clever staging nor even Will's words.

These productions (of which I have seen five, and dreadfully regret not seeing the other three) have introduced me to those who I am convinced are the most brilliant Shakespearean actors of their generation: Jonathan Slinger and Katy Stephens.

Jonathan Slinger is evidently one of the stars of the company, since he opens and closes the series as Richards II and III. His Richard III hit most of the psychotic notes and an entire octave of original ones, giving him a wounded cruelty and a shiver of sadism, a faux vulnerability and joy in his cleverness. It was a monumentally memorable performance, not at all monotonous but highly entrancing (almost).

What really won me over was his Richard II (which, perversely, I saw last of all). I wasn't wild about the play, whose plot doesn't seem fully Shakespearean in its refinement, but there is absolutely no denying the complexity of Richard, which Slinger exploited with skill. The capriciousness which plunges his realm into trouble, the self-examination in his cell, the defiance, the joy, the anger, the cruelty, the rage - Slinger makes you feel every emotion and understand quite how Richard's mind is working.

It is not just with words and face that Slinger succeeds. His hands are constantly moving, as fast as his thoughts, playing out in the air what whirls through his brain. During his last, great speech in his jail cell, as he ponders time, the mind and the body, he focuses you on his words with his body language. In a word, captivating. In more words, he has an ultimately indefinable quality which shoots his vision into your mind and heart.

Katy Stephens has equally significant parts, as Joan la Pucelle in 1 Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI and Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II. These require more energy and passion than you would think could be offered by one actress, let alone the first two roles (less RIII) all in one day.

The turnabout from the violent, liberating maiden of France, down in the dirt and sharp as her knives, to the imperious, calculating queen, requires careful delineation, and Stephens' skill is both to unite but separate her characters, both contained at once in one figure. Her emotional breakdown over her son's body is traumatic, but watching Stephens build to this pitch throughout the last four plays gives it especial punch.

Slinger and Stephens should bestride our [Shakespearean] world like the colossi they are. They turned in epic, brain-branding performances of depth and yet clarity. Memories of them are what will stay with me the longest.

1 comment:

Colin Stephenson said...


Saw them in te complete cycle at verious stages at Courtyard in Sept06 though to Roundhouse in May

Both outstanding & hopefully seriously going places