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Randle Ayrton (1869-1940) might have been considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the first half of the twentieth century if he had played his greatest roles in London (a city that he detested and rarely performed in), but instead he was a stalwart member of the then-little regarded Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon. He almost single-handedly took the theatre to new heights with his performances of Shylock, Ford, Leontes, Macbeth, Henry IV, and Peter Quince, as major critics gradually made the trek to the banks of the river Avon to see him act. His greatest role was as Lear (a part he had played in Stratford twice before) in Theodore Komisarjevsky's revolutionarily stark 1936 staging that featured an emerging Donald Wolfit as Kent. "Those who saw it," wrote Sally Beauman in The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades, "and those who acted with him, agree that Ayrton was one of the greatest Lears of this century. There was, perhaps, something of Lear in Ayrton's own strange temperament; difficult, crotchety, remote, suspicious, capable of conveying such passion on stage that it could galvanize an audience."

Barry Sullivan (1824-1891) made his name at Drury Lane playing Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richelieu, earning the title of "the leading legitimate actor of the British stage" from the London Times and the admiration of George Bernard Shaw who considered him the greatest tragedian in Britain, far outclassing Henry Irving (whose dominance eclipsed Sullvan's brief tenure as the country's leading tragedian). He opened the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as Benedick (and donated a hundred guineas to its construction), but he was considered to be at his best as Richard III (which he claimed to have played 3,500 times), which he played in London, Australia and the United States. Robet M. Sillard wrote in Barry Sullivan and his Contemporaries that "Shakespeare says 'There is a divinty which shapes our ends'; if Sullivan had the shaping of the close of his professional life, which he had not, he could not have desired anything better than his own last performance as Richard the Third, or the fervent and unbounded expression of the attachment of his last audience."

The Scottish-born Robert B. Mantell (1854-1928) bridged the gap between the "old school" of classic actor managers like Henry Irving and Samuel Phelps (who taught him his craft as a Shakespearean actor at Sadler's Wells) and their more modern successors. He toured primarily in the United States with a repertory that included the usual stable of actor-manager showcases like Othello, Shylock, King John, Macbeth and Richard III (he made his final appearance as Hamlet at the age of 62), but it was as Lear that he made his greatest impact; playing the aged king in New York on six separate occasions and ultimately being considered by many as the first great interpreter of the role in the 20th century. C. J. Bulliet wrote "Mantell's Lear, taken all in all, is his masterwork. There is a tremendous force of genius in it that never fails to stun the onlooker. However blasé the theatre-goer may be — however he may despise or affect to despise the elocutionary art of Shakespeare in this age of stage realism, he cannot sit in the theatre when Mantell is playing Lear without being caught in the cyclonic swirl of tragic emotion."

Orson Welles (1915-1985) is so famous for films like Citizen Kane (1941), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), The Third Man (1949), and A Man for All Seasons (1966) that it is easy to forget that he was not only a highly regarded actor and director for the stage long before his movie success, but he continued to do important work in the theatre for decades afterwards. He had a long career in Shakespeare, playing Cassius in Julius Caesar in a 1928 school production and quickly graduating to the Ghost and Fortinbras in Hamlet at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1931 at the age of 16 and Malvolio in Twelfth Night the following year. He made his Broadway debut as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet with Katharine Cornell in 1934 and then returned to the Gate Theatre to play Claudius in Hamlet opposite Micheál MacLiammóir as the young Prince of Denmark, who was 16 years older than Welles. The Federal Theatre Project was launched in 1936 and producer John Houseman invited Welles to be his partner at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. Welles was a sensation, directing now-legendary productions of The Cradle Will Rock, Macbeth with an all-black cast which was set in Haiti, and Dr. Faustus which he also designed and played the title role. His most famous production for the FPA was his 1937 Julius Caesar, staged in modern dress which was pointedly directed to comment of the rise of fascism in Europe. Welles also played Brutus in the production, a performance that was lauded for its sensitivity and intimacy.

Welles' greatest Shakespearean performance was initially considered to be a failure but has been vindicated by time. He played Falstaff in his own staging of several of the Shakespeare history plays he titled Five Kings (with Burgess Meredith as Prince Hal, above left) in 1939, and was so pleased with the result that he made the journey to Hollywood to pitch a film version, only to be sidetracked by Citizen Kane. He returned to the role and concept in a new production, now titled Chimes at Midnight, at the Grand Opera House, Belfast in what proved to be his final theatre appearance in 1960. Making the film was his typical uphill battle, but he assembled a brilliant cast that included John Gielgud in a definitive performance as Henry IV, Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, and Keith Baxter as Prince Hal. But the critics chose to concentrate on Welles' usual soundtrack problems and gave the film largely negative reviews, resulting in a financial failure that derailed Welles' plans to film The Tempest with himself as Caliban and Gielgud as Prospero. But Chimes at Midnight was Welles' own favorite of his films, and its reputation has risen significantly over the years with frequent showings at film festivals and revival houses. Welles' performance as Falstaff is one of the greatest since Ralph Richardson and his direction is imaginative and compelling. Despite its limited release, it won Welles two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for a BAFTA Award as Best Foreign Actor. Roger Ebert recognized the film's quality on its premiere, awarding it four out of four stars. But Ebert refined that opinion in 2006, raving "This is a magnificent film, clearly among Welles' greatest work, joining Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons,Touch of Evil and (I would argue) The Trial. It is also magnificent Shakespeare."

The senation of the Mercury Theatre's 1938 radio production of The War of the Worlds took Welles to Hollywood and immortality with Citizen Kane in 1941, but he returned to Shakespeare on both stage and screen many times. When he started gaining a reputation as a maverick filmmaker who was incapable of working with the front office or in bringing his movies in on budget, he made a film of Macbeth for low-level Republic Pictures in an effort to prove that he was capable of doing both. But the film was assigned the budget and logistics of a typical Republic Western (with titles like a Desperadoes of Dodge City and The Gay Ranchero) and was not only a critical and commercial disaster (despite moments of genius in both Welles' performance and production), but dissuaded Laurence Olivier from filming the play himself (one of his greatest roles) and instead prompted him to make his overaged and badly butchered film of Hamlet. Welles fared better when he played Othello in London in 1951 (under the management of Laurence Olivier with Peter Finch as Iago), and though his film version suffered financial problems which required three years to shoot and resulted in frustrating soundtrack inconsistencies and an atrocious performance by Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago, it is pictorially splendid and won Welles the Palm d'Orr at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. Welles had more problems with King Lear, starring in a sloppy television version for CBS in 1953 (for director Peter Brook, who had much greater success with the material a decade later) and returning to the play at the New York City Center in 1956 in his own production, which was by many accounts a total disaster and proved star-crossed when Welles broke his ankle prior to opening and played Lear in a wheelchair. His final Shakespearean project was directing and playing Shylock in a highly truncated film of The Merchant of Venice in 1969, a film that wasn't screened for the public until twenty years after his death at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland

But Welles had decided on what was truly his masterpiece long before. Asked which of his film he would submit for entrance to heaven, he responded that "The one I would offer up to God would be Chimes at Midnight."

John Gielgud (1904-2000) made his first attempt at Lear at the age of 26 (pictured) as his farewell performance after two remarkably successful seasons at the Old Vic, and returned to it in a 1940 production that was directed by the legendary Harley Granville-Barker, which prompted James Agate to write that Gielgud's performance was one of "great beauty, imagination, sensitiveness, understanding, executive virtuosity and control." The London Times wrote "The particular strength of the performance rests upon the boldness - bold recognition from the first that this tragedy we are borne through realms of fantasy in which cold reason cannot find satisfaction. Mt. Gielgud concerns himself little with the corporal infirmities of the old King. Such detail he sketches in lightly and adequately, but they are not to be suffered to become a load fettering him to a realistic plane. He trusts the verse and had the power to speak it, as a solitary silver figure in the dark loneliness, he speaks the storm, and his trust is never at any vital point betrayed."

Gielgud played the role again in 1950 as part of a landmark season with the Stratford Memorial Theater, and finally in a controversial 1955 production (pictured) designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Gielgud accepted the role after Michael Redgrave turned it down (after being quoted as saying "when I play Lear, I'll play my Lear and not Noguchi's Lear") and co-directed with George Divine, but ultimately felt he made an error in judgement in allowing Noguchi (who had never designed costumes before) to clothe the actors in outfits that were impossible to move or act in (many of the critics referred to Lear's line "I do not like the fashion of your garments"). The production received mixed reviews in London (where some critics admired its inventiveness but most skwewered it on the basis of Noguchi's design), although when it later toured Europe in repertory with Gielgud's perennial Much Ado About Nothing reviewers embraced it as a bold and original staging and which Peter Brook credited as serving as the genesis for his own celebrated production with Paul Scofield in 1962.

Gielgud considering returning to the role many times in the ensuing years, particularly in the 1980s, but abandoned the project so as not to compete with Laurence Olivier's brilliant television production. He did finally play Lear in a 1994 radio telecast in celebration of his 90th birthday opposite an All Star Cast that included Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi and Simon Russell Beale.

Harley Granville-Barker staged only three Shakespearean plays before retiring to devote himself to scholarship and his landmark Prefaces to Shakespeare, but his productions of Twelfth Night (1912), The Winter's Tale (1912) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1914) were among the most influential of the century through their use of uncut texts and simplified staging. And though Granville-Barker favored an ensemble approach which was the antithesis of the star system of the time, the actor who made by far the greatest impact among the company was Henry Ainley (1879-1945), who was a rising matinee idol when he played Malvolio and Leontes. Ainley was already an accomplished Shakespearean actor when he worked with Granville-Barker, having worked with Frank Benson, Oscar Ashe and Herbert Beerbohm Tree in such roles as Orlando, Shylock, Cassius, Laertes and John of Gaunt, when his complex rendering of Malvolio as a simultaneously conceited and pathetic middle-aged figure upset not only the contemporary conventions of how the role should be played, but theories about Shakespearean acting in general that continue to be influential to this day. After his triumph as Malvolio, Ainley continued as a Shakespearean actor for the remainder of his life in parts like Prospero and Macbeth. He alternated his theatre work with roles in number of silent films, including Buckingham in Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1911 version of Henry VIII and Rudolf Rasendyll in a popular 1915 adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda. His final film role was as the exiled Duke of Milan in the 1936 version of As You Like It, which became all the more enticing when letters were discovered which indicated that Ainley had a passionate crush during filming on Laurence Olivier, who played Orlando.

Though Ainley was an acclaimed Hamlet (giving a Royal Command Performance in the role in 1930), he was at his best in character roles despite his matinee idol looks and magnificent voice (which was, along with Johnston Forbes-Robertson and John Gielgud, one of the most highly-praised in the history of the English stage). James Agate wrote "I blame nature for having giving this near-great actor too much and not enough. For having lavished on him a form like Hamlet's father and a voice like a cathedral organ but then drawing back her hand and giving a man physically endowed to play tragedy, the instincts of a comedian. Only in the lower reaches did Ainley achieve anything that could be called greatness." But Ainley also had supporters such as S. R. Littlewood, who opined No other actor of his time was better equipped for greatness than Ainley. In the romantic charm of his early performances and in the forceful and appealing character creations of his later years he remained unexcelled... his personality gave distinction to every part he took .

Mark Rylance is one of the most accomplished Shakespearean actors of the period encompassing the last quarter of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st. He rose to prominance in the title tole in Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988 and played Romeo and an Olivier Award-winning Benedick (as well as playing Ferdinand in Prospero's Books, the muddled film of The Tempest which proved to be John Gielgud's final Shakespearean performance) before finding true renown as the artistic director of London's Old Globe Theatre in 1995. In the ten years that he filled that post in the lavish recreation of Shakespeare's theatre erected closely to where the original first stood, Rylance was responsible for a number of memorable Shakespearean revivals and played many of the leading roles himself.

His greatest achievement at the Globe was an all-male staging of Twelfth Night in which Rylance played Olivia. The production itself was somewhat overrated; a pleasing, if conventional, depiction of Shakespeare's play which was acclaimed for the gimmick of having male actors in the female roles. Critics praised the staging for recreating the convention of Shakespeare's era in which the enitre cast was male, although in the Bard's time the female parts were played by boys and not middle-aged men. The acting was a mixed bag; the usually wonderful Stephen Fry lacked menace as an uninspired Malvolio, but the performances were for the most part remarkably effective and Rylance was astonishing as Olivia, bringing to the role a depth of feeling and comedic inventiveness that had never been drawn from the part before. The production had many exquisite touches but only when Rylance was onstage could the audience completely forget that they were seeing a play about relatable human beings and not a curiosity of cross-gender casting. Rylance was nominated for an Olivier Award for his Olivia and when the production was brought to Broadway in 2012, he won the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Play. The staging received universal raves in New York (which ran in repertory with an all-male Richard III with Rylance in the title role), especially for Ryland's Olivia. Charles Spencer in The Telegraph wrote that "As the grieving Olivia, even the way he moves make you laugh. He seems to glide across the stage as if on castors, at times executing what looks like a nifty three-point turn. It is wonderful to see this sad but also absurd figure waking to the wonder of love, entirely unaware that the youth he falls for is actually a woman in disguise, a deception given added piquancy in this 'original practices' production by the fact that, as in Richard III, all the female characters are played, superbly, by men." Ben Brantley in the New York Times said simply that Rylance s Olivia was "the best I ve ever seen."

Rylance and Derek Jacobi inspired controversy in 2007 when they unveiled a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt on the authorship of Shakespeare's work. It was an Internet petition signed by over 3,000 people which named twenty prominent figures from the 19th and 20th centuries whom the coalition claimed were doubters, including Mark Twain, John Gielgud and Charlie Chaplin. The theory that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays has been around for centuries and has been derided by the overwhelming majority of academics as having no support in serious scolarship. But it made for a fun headline and was well in keeping with Rylance's reputation as a master showman.

Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991) was expected to be out of her element as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antory and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1953. She had played the character in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra at the Old Vic (and had such a resounding success in the Shavian version that Old Vic director Lilian Baylis said she was jealous for Shakespeare's reputation), but critics anticipated that the sluttish element of Shakespeare's version would be outside of the demure Ashcroft's range. But her technical ability, wit, and intelligence overrode audience expectations, and the production became one of the greatest triumphs of one of Stratford's greatest decades. After finishing its Stratford run, the production toured Europe and then returned to London for a run. Ivor Brown wrote in The Observer that "We are so used to seeing her in domestic affliction and the tranquilizers of homespun tragedy that her power to show tyrannical caprice and loose-mouthed lickerish dominion over her Antony is the more remarkable. That she should triumph in the poetry of Cleopatra was a natural guess; that she would so rise to the display of spite, rage and bliss in fevered fury one did not surmise." T.C. Wolsey gushed in the New Statesman and Nation "The point about her is that, in spite of her natural disadvantage, she achieves the role; and, having waited twenty-five years to see that done, I am at her feet. Her success has the additional spice of being a triumph over general expectation."

Christopher Plummer (1929-2021) played almost every major Shakespearean role with distinction, appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Richard III, Benedick) the American Shakespeare Theater at Stratford, Connecticut (Hamlet, Henry V/Chorus, Mark Antony), the Stratford Festival of Canada (Leontes, Benedick, Phillip the Bastard, Romeo), on Broadway (Macbeth and his Tony-nominated King Lear) as well as an Emmy-nominated Hamlet for television that was actually filmed in Elsinore, Denmark. His greatest Shakespearean success was probably his Iago, which premiered at the American Shakespeare Theater at Stratford, Connecticut in August of 1981 opposite one of the great Othellos in history, James Earl Jones, and was universally acclaimed as an even greater achievement that Jones' Moor. "Its most distinguished and most painfully, playfully sustained vision comes with Christopher Plummer's Iago," wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Times. "To be sure, Iagos generally do run away with Othello. The part can be played in a dozen or so ways, all of which seem to be good. But I have never seen it played this way. When I speak of something 'painful' in this villan's slyness - 'painful' even when he is dancing in glee about a Roderigo who might just go drown himself - I mean to suggest that there is a curious quality in this too clever man that could make you ache for him as he aches for himself. There is no obvious bid for pity, or any sort of sentiment. Nothing like that. The surface of the role is agleam with secret humor, with a liar's exhuberant delight in his ability to fabricate tales so earnestly that he must be called 'honest.'"

The production moved to Broadway the following February, only the second staging of the play to reach the Great White Way since Paul Robeson's historic record-setting appearance in 1943 (Moses Gunn played the Moor for 16 performances at The American National Theatre and Academy in 1970). Again, Plummer stole the show. This time Frank Rich wrote the Times review, "Mr. Plummer, a sensational actor in peak form, has made something crushing out of Shakespeare's archvillain. He gives us evil so pure - and so bottomless - that it can induce tears. Our tears are not for the dastardly Iago, of course - that would be wrong. No, what Mr. Plummer does is make us weep for a civilization that can produce such a man and allow him to flower. We weep because the distant civilization that nurtured Iago is all too similar to the one that has given us a Hitler or two of our own."

The Jones/Plummer Othello played for 126 performances, less than half of the Robeson production but still the second-longest run of the play in Broadway history. It won the Tony Award for Best Reproduction of Play or Musical, while Plummer received a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play as well as a Drama Desk Award.

One of the preeminent actresses of the twentieth century, Edith Evans (1888-1976) played a wide number of Shakespearean roles, including Rosalind in As You Like It , Katharina in Taming of the Shrew, Volumnia (opposite Laurence Olivier) in Coriolanus, and Katharine of Aragon (opposite John Gielgud) in Henry VIII. She first played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet during her first season at the Old Vic in 1926 and returned to it more frequently than any other Shakespearean role.She made her Broadway debut in the hudely successful 1934 Broadway production directed by Guthrie McClintic with Katharine Cornell as Juliet, Basil Rathbone as Romeo, and Brian Aherne as Mercutio. Brooks Atkinson wrote that she "played a guileful, temperamental, bawdy Nurse that was as fresh as if the part had never been played before."

Even more celebrated was the New Theatre production the following year in London directed by John Gielgud in which Gielgud and Laurence Olivier famously alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio. That legendary production had a cast of actors who would become so celebrated - Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet, Glenn Byam Shaw as Benvolio, Harry Andrews as Tybalt, George Devine as Peter, and a very young Alec Guinness in the tiny role of the Apothecary - that it can be ranked almost without question as the greatest cast of a Shakespearean play ever assembled. Every aspect of the production was praised by the critics (except, perhaps, for the young Olivier's Romeo, who many critics admired for his passion but condemned for butchering the verse), particularly Evans' Nurse. James Agate wrote "To crown all, remains the Nurse, knocking the balance of the play into a cocked hat, just as would happen if the Porter were the centre of Macbeth. Miss Evens rules the entire roost."

Evans returned to play the Nurse a final time for the RSC in 1961, which appropriately turned out to be her final Shakespearean role. She made sporadic stage appearances after that (including a famous revival of Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the National Theatre) and received Oscar nominations for her performances in Tom Jones, The Chalk Garden and The Whisperers.

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