The English Actor: From Medieval to Modern by Peter Ackroyd - review by Benedict Nightingale

Benedict Nightingale

Taking a Bow

The English Actor: From Medieval to Modern


Reaktion Books 416pp £20

Has there ever been such a creature as a distinctively English actor? In his impressively lively and ambitious study, Peter Ackroyd tries valiantly to suggest so. English actors, he says, tend to be ‘big, expansive, even crude’. Where their American counterparts are still in thrall to Stanislavski and the ‘Method’, drawing on their own private feelings to create characters, adherence to classical tradition has ensured that the English actor is ‘as much performer as transformer’.

Well, not quite. Witness the evidence Ackroyd himself presents. How much did the self-effacing Johnston Forbes-Robertson have in common with the overpowering Donald Wolfit? Or Gielgud with Olivier, the latter saying that he was ‘all earth, blood, humanity’ while Gielgud was ‘all spirituality, all abstract things’? Or the introverted Simon Russell Beale with the ebullient Simon Callow? Or anyone with that unpredictable shapeshifter Mark Rylance, now a skipping Cleopatra, now a shamanic bruiser in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem?

Such differences have been evident from the time professional actors, eclipsing the guildsmen who performed mystery plays, first emerged in numbers and significance. The declamatory power of Edward Alleyn, the Elizabethan era’s ‘fustian king’, was well suited to Marlowe’s mighty verse. His peer Richard Burbage clearly brought far

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