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Dubbed "The Great Gambon" by Ralph Richardson, Michael Gambon made his Shakespearean debut as a spear carrier in Peter O'Toole's Hamlet at the Old Vic, ultimately rising to fame in plays by Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter. He has frequently appeared in Shakespeare; as Othello, Marc Antony, Falstaff, and most famously as King Lear in a 1982 production directed by Adrian Noble and featuring Antony Sher as The Fool (whose acclaimed performance caused Gambon to jokingly gripe "This play's called King Lear, not King Lear plus a cunt in a red nose"). The New York Times commented "Mr. Gambon never sacrifices Lear's stature, and even as he succumbs to madness he has moments of blinding sanity. Fresh from his triumph last season at the National Theater in the title role of Brecht's Galileo, Mr. Gambon further consolidates his position as an actor of consequence on the broad plane between Britain's acting knights and the youthful generation represented by Ian McKellen. Now he adds an eloquent Lear to his laurels."

Gambon became an acting knight himself in 1998 and has been nominated for twelve Olivier Awards (winning for A View from the Bridge), won four BAFTA TV Awards (most notably for The Singing Detective) and Screen Actor's Guild Awards for The King's Speech and Gosford Park. But he is best known to the public for his appearances as Professor Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

In a West End season which saw Ian McKellen playing King Lear and Patrick Stewart playing Macbeth, the hottest Shakespearean ticket in town starred an actor of Nigerian parentage with an almost unpronouncable name. Chiwetel Ejiofor was a modestly well-known actor based on his performance in the film Dirty Pretty Things and had a respected theatrical reputation after winning an Evening Standard Award in the play Blue/Orange at the National Theatre (although he would do on to greater popular renown for his unforgettable, Oscar nominated performance in the film 12 Years a Slave in 2013). He had played Othello twice before, at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London in 1995 and at the the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in 1996. When he essayed the jealous Moor at the Donmer Warehouse in 2007 opposite Ewan McGregor as Iago and Kelly Reilly as Desdemona, he became the talk of the London Theatre scene, winning the Laurence Olivier Award and a second Evening Standard Award for his performance.

The critics were rhapsodic over his work. "Ejiofor gives as eloquent a shape to heartbreak as to love," wrote John lahr in The New Yorker. " When Othello asks for 'ocular proof' of Desdemona’s transgression, Iago (Ewan McGregor) describes the finagled handkerchief on which Cassio, he claims, has mopped his beard. “O monstrous! monstrous!” Ejiofor says, shaking his head, in a quiet voice that has had the life knocked out of it. He expresses the exclamation points in the text not with his voice but with his body, which is suddenly still, the image of a stunned psyche overcome by trauma." Michael Billington of The Guardian opined "(James) Agate said the three essential qualities for any Othello were nobility, temperament and the capacity to be pole-axed; and Ejiofor has them all. When he announces that he fetches his life from "men of royal siege" you believe him. He also reminds us that Othello's tragic flaw is less jealousy than an excessive idealisation of his beloved. But what Ejiofor gives us, unfashionably, is Othello's word-music. In his talk of 'the spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife' he relishes the Moor's self-conscious rhetoric. At the same time, Ejiofor has the modern actor's ability to isolate key phrases so that his insatiate demand for 'the ocular proof' of infidelity becomes a palpable sign of dementia. Ejiofor's youth is at odds with the text's insistence on Othello's seniority. Otherwise this is a performance that, in its descent from majestic dignity to deluded rage, suggests a great and noble building being destroyed by the wrecker's ball."

Paul Scofield (1922-2008) was an up-and-coming wunderkind at the Stratford Memorial Theater with triumphant performances as Henry V, Mercutio and Lucio in Measure for Measure (among others) when he alternated the role of Hamlet with established actor and dancer Robert Helpmann in a spectacular production directed by Michael Betrothal and designed by James Bailey in 1949. It opened the Stratford season and was sold out before it opened and of the two very different Melancholy Danes, Helpmann was judged to be the more technically proficient while Scofield was considered to be more moving in the role. Siriol Hugh-Jones wrote in a perceptive review in Vogue that Scofield gave "a rare performance, and not one to be described an an excellent attempt that will be improved with maturity — much of Hamlet is immature, and the performance is young and touching ... it releases the imagination and touched the heart with immediate urgency."

Nevertheless, Scofield's Hamlet did improve with maturity when he made history in Peter Brooks' 1955 staging, known as the Moscow Hamlet because it was the first English production to play in Moscow since the 1917 revolution. Memories of Scofield's Stratford success were still vivid during its opening tour of Brighton and Oxford as Kenneth Tynan wrote "As he proved seven years ago at Stratford, no living actor is better equipped for Hamlet than Paul Scofield. On him the right sadness sits, and also the right spleen; his gait is a prowl over quicksands; and he can freeze a word with an irony at once mournful and deadly." When it premiered in Moscow, there were nearly twenty curtain calls on opening night and when it moved to the Phoenix Theater in London, it ran for 124 performances (the third-longest unbroken run of the play in history).

Ellen Terry (1849-1928) had many legendary partnerships with Henry Irving, with one of the most successful being her Portia to his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. She first played Portia opposite Irving in 1879 in one of their earliest teamings at the Lyceum Theatre, with the production being such an overwhelming success that it ran an unbelievable 250 consecutive performances, by far the longest continuous run of the play in history. She returned to it many times in her career, having another success in New York in 1883 and made her farewell to the Lyceum in the role in 1902. Portia clearly had a special place in the great Terry's heart, as she made her final appearance with Irving in a special all-star benefit performance of The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane in aid of the Actors' Benevolent Trust in 1903. William Winter wrote "The stage Portias of the past has usually been a didactic lady, self-contained, formal, conventional, and oratorical. Ellen Terry came, and Portia was figured exactly as she lives in the pages of Shakespeare - an imperial and yet an enchanting woman, dazzling in her beauty, royal in her dignity, as ardent in temperament as she is fine in brain and various and splendid in personal peculiarities and feminine charm."

José Ferrer (1912-1992) played Iago for 296 performances on Broadway, a record that is unlikely to be broken. Paul Robeson's Othello received the lion's share of the notices, but it was Ferrer's Iago that was named performance of the year by the Burns Mantle Theatre Yearbook as well as winning the Donaldson Award (a precursor to the Tonys) for Best Supporting Actor in a Play. Lewis Nichols of the New York Times wrote "Mr. Ferrer is also excellent as Iago. His interpretation taking no sides in the long quarrel as to whether the Moor's 'ancient' had been inspired by thoughts of Cassio's gaining a position he wished, or his wife's having yielded to the Moor. By taking no sides, Mr. Ferrer follows the track that Iago is unexplained evil, and he holds that throughout. The actor has a light walk and a light touch, and his Iago is a sort of half-dancing, half-strutting Mephistopheles, who does what he does probably in good part because there is pleasure in it. He and Mr. Robeson are excellent foils for one another."

Regrettably, Ferrer made only one other Shakespearean appearance (in a poorly-received Richard III at the New York City Center in 1953), although he did play actor Edwin Booth in a Broadway play of the same name in 1958. Instead, he devoted himself to films and modern plays like The Silver Whistle, Twentieth Century, and The Shrike (Tony Award), with his only other classical performance being his signature role of Cyrano de Bergerac, for which he was awarded a Tony for the Broadway production (1946, revived at the New York City Center in 1953), an Oscar for the 1950 film (also playing the role in the 1964 French film Cyrano et d'Artagnan), and an Emmy nomination for a 1956 television production. He made his farewell to Cyrano in 1974 by voicing the character for a cartoon version of the play.

Judith Anderson (1898-1992) is more closely associated with the role of of Lady Macbeth than any actress since Sarah Siddons. Anderson played her first Shakespearean role in 1936, playing Gertrude to John Gielgud's Hamlet on Broadway, and was invited to play Lady Macbeth in London at the Old Vic in 1937 opposite Laurence Olivier. The superstition of the "Macbeth Curse" seemed to be fully grounded in reality on that production, as the opening night was postponed from a Tuesday to a Friday because it physically wasn't ready to open and Old Vic director Lilian Baylis died on the Thursday. To add to the predicament, Olivier (who would go on to give what is arguably the greatest performance of Macbeth in history when he played it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955) aroused controversy by applying an outrageous, Kabuki-like makeup that set him apart from the other actors in the play. While Anderson was considered to be superior to Olivier, she received mixed reviews and was generally thought to be largely ineffectual in the role.

The critical consensus was decidedly different after Anderson returned to Lady Macbeth in 1941, when she played it on Broadway opposite Maurice Evans under the direction of Margaret Webster. Evans and Webster had developed a successful partnership doing Shakespeare on the Great White Way, putting on record-setting productions of Richard II, Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, and Twelfth Night. Macbeth continued the streak, as the staging ran for 131 performances - still the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history - and Anderson's was hailed as the definitive depiction of the role in the 20th century. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times "Miss Anderson's Lady Macbeth is her most distinguished work in our theatre. It has a sculptured beauty in the early scenes, and a resolution that seems to be fiercer than the body that contains it. It is strong without being inhuman. And she has translated the sleep-walking scene into something memorable; the nervous washing of the hands is almost too frightful to be watched. Strange images of death haunt the magnificent acting of Mr. Evans and Miss Anderson in these macabre scenes."

But Anderson still wasn't finished with Macbeth. She and Evans immortalized their Broadway performances in a Spartan production for television's Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1954 (pictured), with Anderson winning an Emmy Award for her performance of Lady Macbeth. Hallmark was so pleased with the results that they returned to the material in 1962, televising a lavishly-produced version that was shot in color on film (as opposed to the standard videotape), which television historians often cite as the first true Made-for-TV film. Though the Hallmark extravaganza guts the text of the play and Evans' flowery performance in the title role now seems self-indulgent and ineffective, it was so well-received in its own time that it was released theatrically in Europe and won five Emmy Awards, including Anderson's second for her chilling performance as Lady Macbeth.

The multi-faceted Jonathan Pryce won a 1980 Laurence Olivier Award for his performance, amazing audiences by not only playing an intense and intelligent Hamlet in a Freud-inspired production directed by Richard Eyre at the Royal Court but by doubling as the ghost. John Kroll in Newsweek wrote "This scene is an astonishing spectacle: Hamlet becomes a giant, unwilling ventroliquist's dummy as his father's voice is wrenched from his mouth in hair-raising sepulchral tones while Pryce's body lashes, heaves, and snaps in a fit of ectoplasmic epilepsy" and Michael Billington on The Guardian opined "Pryce carried off his spiritual occupation with tremendous skill. He also restored a quality often missing in more melodious Hamlets - a genuine sense of danger. There was something about Pryce's razor-sharp intensity and built-in bullshit-detector that made you feel that any moment he might actually overcome his scruples and kill Claudius." Pryce himself said that "I approached Hamlet as someone who had seen his own father's ghost."

Pryce's success as Hamlet allowed him to not only be starred in classical roles like King Lear, Macbeth and Uncle Vanya, but films (an Oscar-nominated performance in The Two Popes) and televison (Barbarians at the Gates). He has perhaps been most successful in musicals including Nine, My Fair Lady, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Oliver!, including his signature role as The Engineer in Miss Saigon (pictured). It was a part he triumphed in on the London stage in 1989 but almost wasn't allowed to repeat in the Broadway production two years later when a furor erupted over a non-Asian actor playing the part. The objections to Pryce's casting were ultimately resisted and he went on to win a Tony Award for his performance.

Henry Irving (1838-1905) was the preeminent tragedian of his generation, essaying definitive performances of Hamlet, Wolsey, and Shylock as well as his signature role of the tortured Mathias in The Bells. He rarely attempted comedy (his 1894 portrayal of Malvolio was considered a failure), but he enjoyed one of his greatest successes with his stage partner Ellen Terry as Benedick opposite her Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. They first performed the play at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1882, where it ran for an astonishing eight months, and he included it in his repertory on his first American tour the following year where it played to equal acclaim. Dutton Cook wrote he was "a valorous cavalier who rejoices in brave apparel and owns a strong feeling for humor; over his witty encounters with Beatrice there presides a spirit of pleasantness; his rudest sallies are so mirthfull spoken as to be deprived of all real offensiveness; he banters like a gentleman and not like a churl; he is a priviledged railer at women, a recognized jester at marriage, but a popular person nonetheless."

One of the most important and influential figures in nineteenth century theatre, Samuel Phelps (1804-1879) did more to return Shakespeare to its orignal text, after eighteenth century adaptors like Cibber, Tate and Garrick ran roughshod over the plays, than any other individual. Phelps was primarily thought of as a tragic actor at the height of his powers, especially for his performances as King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richelieu, when he first surprised critics with the comic effectiveness of his Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I in 1846. While not suited for the sensuality typically associated with the role, Phelps relied on his intelligence and aristocratic suaveness in his interpretation, which was ultimately considered among the finest depictions of the character in the century. Indeed the German publication Gesammelte Werke called Falstaff his finest role, which he altered slightly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, portaying a gentlemanly knight who observed the standards of decorum regardless of the vulgarity of his current surroundings.

Phelps should certainly be listed in the same pantheon as names like Henry Irving and Edmund Kean, but his reputation diminished after his death, in part because his greatest work was done at the highly unfashionable Sadler's Wells Theatre, and in part because his skills declined in old age so that critics no longer cared for his work in tragic plays, approving only his performances in comic roles like Falstaff and Bottom. But in his prime, he was the most versatile actor of his generation. A definitive biography, Samuel Phelps & the Sadler's Wells Theatre, was written by Shirley S. Allen in 1971.

Edith Evans (1888-1976) would seem to be unlikely casting for the romantic ingenue role of Rosalind in As You Like It, having first been rejected by Old Vic Director Lilian Baylis as being too physically unattractive for the company. But after Evans scored a success as Millamant in Love for Love, she was cast primarily in leading character roles like Queen Margaret in Richard III, Mariana in Measure for Measure and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. But Evans was entrusted with some ingenue roles as well, including Kate in Taming of the Shrew and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She scored her greatest success with her offbeat casting of Rosalind, and enjoyed an even greater triumph when she revived the role at the New Theatre in 1937. Her love affair with costar Michael Redgrave may have fueled her romantic performance, which Audrey Williamson wrote "set a standard for our times. As Rosalind. She had a radiance that seemed to proceed from beauty, youth and all the bewitching graces of femininity: she was young love incarnate."

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