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Paul Rogers was a stalwart member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, most famously for his Tony Award-winning performance of Max in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming and his Broadway turn as the imperious Sir (based upon Donald Wolfit) in The Dresser. He made many distinguished Shakespearean performances including King Lear, Bottom, Mercutio and John of Gaunt, but his greatest success was as Macbeth in the 1954/5 season of the Old Vic Company. Eric Porter played Banquo, Robert Hardy was Duncan, John Neville was Macduff, and Ann Todd was Lady Macbeth, in a very traditional production that eventually was taken to Broadway (Time Magazine wrote "Paul Rogers' Macbeth was a heroic enough figure of evil, and at moments a man of intense, Hamlet-like imagination"). While never rising to to the level of stardom achieved by some of his contemporaries, Rogers' Macbeth was enormously popular within the acting profession and influenced the interpretations of John Neville and Ian McKellen, who wrote "Generations of Macbeths have worn the kilt and the most convincing I have seen, Paul Rogers, was accompanied across the Cut at the Old Vic, by a piper." Even though Rogers received mixed reviews when he played Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon, London, and New York, the best of them were raves. Ivor Brown wrote in The Observer "...Paul Rogers gives us a superb Macbeth. Never have I seen the part grow so vividly through nervous ambition to uneasy triumph and then to aging disillusion and the bravest end. Here is the whole Macbeth, reflective word-spinner as well as noble scoundrel, with a voice to render it and the physique to endure the most exhausting of Shakespearean roles."

David Garrick (1717-1779) added the part of Hamlet to his repertory in 1742, when he first played the role opposite the Ophelia of Peg Wolfington. Garrick employed tricks that would reduce modern audiences to fits of hysterical laughter, such as a chair that was rigged to fall over when the Ghost appears in the closet scene causing Garrick to topple over in terror, or a special wig which Garrick wore that would stand on end at the appearance of the Ghost on the embankments. And as was typical with Garrick, he introduced his own adaptation in 1772 which eliminated Hamlet's departure for England, the gravediggers, Ophelia's funeral, and Claudius' plot with Laertes, all in an effort to refine the character of Hamlet and remove what Georgian audiences regarded as vulgarities in the text. "'Whether in the simulation of madness," wrote the playwright Hannah More "in the sinkings of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion, or in the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince; and in every variety of situation, and transition of feeling, you discovered the highest polish of fine breeding and courtly manners."

Though modern readers may find such descriptions of Garrick's approach quaint, these devices were embraced by the audiences he performed for as the work of unparalleled genius and his Melancholy Dane was regarded as one of his finest performances which he continued playing the role until 1776. Georg Lichtenberg wrote in 1775 of Garrick's Hamlet, "What an amazing triumph it is. One might think that such applause in one of the first playhouses in the world and from an audience of the greatest sensibility would fan into flame every spark of dramatic genius in a spectator. But then one perceives that to act like Garrick and to write like Shakespeare are the effects of very deep-seated causes. They are certainly imitated; not they, but rather their phantom self, created by the imitator according to the measure of his own powers. He often attains to and even surpasses this phantom, and nevertheless falls far short of the true original."

John Stride was only 26 when he was selected to play Romeo in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Romeo & Juliet at the the Old Vic opposite Judi Dench. Obeying Zeffirelli's admonition that "verse speakers would be shot," Stride delivered a naturalistic interpretation that proved a revelation to audiences (much like Laurence Olivier attempted in John Gielgud's historic 1935 production at the New Theatre). Unlike the inexperienced Leonard Whiting (who played Romeo in Zeffirelli's 1968 film), Stride was an accomplished Shakespearean actor whose performance was lauded as one of the best in the history of the play. "Mr. Stride is unmistakably a young actor on the rise," wrote Howard Taubman of the New York Times. "He speaks the radiant lines as if poetry glorified rather than shamed in a modern player. He has verve, humor and romantic fervor. He knows how to modulate the voice, and can even tear into a passion and make it believable rather than an old-fashioned, tattered thing." The production ultimately became so famous that Stride and Dench were pictured on a British postage stamp in their roles.

Stride became a founding member of Laurence Olivier's National Theater company and took part in such noteworthy NT productions as Othello (featuring Olivier's legendary performance in the title role), The Rercruiting Officer, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Love for Love and The Three Sisters but he became best knowm to audiences during the 1970s and 1980s for his television (notably as the star of the popular BBC series The Main Chance) and film (The Omen, A Bridge Too Far) work. His most famous Shakespearean performance of the period was in the title role of the rarely produced Henry VIII for the BBC's Complete Works of William Shakespeare series in 1979.

Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991) made her first appearance in Twelfth Night in 1938 in Michael Saint-Denis' London production, under whose direction she had recently performed in an historic staging of The Three Sisters at the Queen's Theatre. But the magic failed to reignite for Saint-Denis at the Phoenix, and Twelfth Night (and its companion piece The White Guard) was met with critical indifference (despite a cast that included George Devine as Toby, Vera Lindsay [pictured] as Olivia, and a young Michael Redgrave as Sir Andrew Aguecheek) with the exception of Ashcroft's exquisite performance of Viola. Despite the tepid critical reaction to the production, it was immortalized on January 2, 1939 as one of the earliest Shakespearean plays to be televised by the BBC.

Far better received was Ashcroft's return to the role at the Old Vic Theatre. The building had been severely damaged by bombing in 1941 and the Old Vic Company was forced to relocate to the New Theatre for the duration of the decade. But the repair work was finally completed in 1950 and the theatre was reopened with a production of Twelfth Night that feature a cast that included Leo McKern as Feste, Paul Rogers as Malvolio, and Alec Clunes as Orsino. Though Hugh Hunt's direction stressed the low comedy antics of the play, the production was an emotional experience in part because of the poignant circumstances of its premiere but mainly due to Ashcroft's sublime interpretation of Viola. W.A. Darlington wrote in The Daily Telegraph "Peggy Ashcroft (is) the most delightful Viola of my experience. She has passion, she speaks the verse exquisitely, she has her own gift of perennial youth, and she makes a really credible boy. As for the lighter scenes, she has an enchanting gaiety."

Anthony Quayle (1913-1989) was one of the seminal figures of the Royal Shakespeare Company, serving as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from 1948 to 1956 and taking it in that time from a respected local company to an internationally acclaimed regional theatre, ultimately becoming the RSC in 1960. Quayle's method was to build his seasons around the appearances of major stars like Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, and Peggy Ashcroft, giving the company box office clout with the popularity of the famous names appearing there as well as critical notoriety through such legendary productions as Peter Brook's remarkable stagings of Measure for Measure and Titus Anronicus, Gielgud's long-running Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft's remarkable performances in Antony and Cleopatra and Glen Byam Shaw's Macbeth featuring Olivier's historic performance of the title role.

The down side for Quayle was that he was often forced to give up roles to major stars that he would have preferred to play himself. But even with these compromises he appeared often at Stratford, playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in 1949 (with Gielgud taking over the role the following year), the title roles in Henry VIII and Othello, and Aaron in Titus Andronicus. His most famous Stratford role was Falstaff, which he played to coincide with the Festival of Britain in 1951 in the historical tetralogy of Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV. Quayle also co-directed the cycle with John Kidd and Michael Redgrave, casting the rising young matinee idol Richard Burton (pictured) as Prince Hal, in a lavish presentation that climaxed with Hal's coronation in which he humiliates Falstaff with a terse rejection - the most opulent staging of the ceremony since Charles Kemble was crowned Henry V in a spectacular pageant in 1821, a tribute to the actual coronation of George IV. Quayle's Falstaff was a sensation in Stratford, as well as on a company tour of Australia and New Zealand. John Barber wrote "With a large body, deep voice, and winning smile, he is obviously cast for Falstaff...not even a Halloween turnip makeup could disguise the electric quality without which Falstaff must seem a heartless poltroon." Quayle returned to the role at Stratford in The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1955.

Quayle immortalized his Falstaff on television on several occasions. He first played the role in a BBC telecast of Henry IV, Part I in 1951, and also telecast his performance in The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1955. His most famous depiction of the role was in the BBC's The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series in both Henry IV Part I and II. Quayle's brilliant performance emphasized the darker aspects of the character, with an eye on Falstaff's alcoholism and selfish scheming as opposed to the harmless, jolly rogue that the character is generally thought of.

When Judi Dench played Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo And Juliet at the Old Vic and spoke the line "Where are my father and my mother, nurse?" her father was said to have called out from the audience "Here we are, darling, in Row H." It is a charming (if unlikely) story that is highly characteristic of Dench's unpretentious personality. She had been playing secondary roles at the Old Vic for three years when Zeffirelli (who had only directed one Shakespeare production before, a disastrous Othello with John Gielgud) reimagined the play as being peopled by the youthful characters in the text, rather than the middle-aged character actors that had played the roles for generations. Jane Cowl was 38 when she played Juliet for the first time, and Katharine Cornell and Julia Marlowe were 41. But Dench was a schoolgirlish 25 and brought a freshness to the role that enchanted critics and audiences, starting her career as one of the greatest classical actresses of her generation. Zefferelli directed his cast to play their parts in a realistic, non-poetic fashion that resulted in one of the most influential productions of the decade. Some audiences didn't care for the approach, feeling that Shakespeare's poetry was short-changed, but most felt that the energetic style gave new life to a musty old museum piece. Kenneth Tynan said that Zeffirelli had 'worked a miracle' by making the characters into real people and the Evening Standard singled out Dench's ""extraordinary agility of body and mind."

By 1990, Kenneth Branagh was spoken of as the heir apparent to the mantle of Laurence Olivier as the Greatest Shakespearean Actor in the World when, at the age of 24, he became the youngest actor to be cast as Henry V by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Branagh was acclaimed for the performance of one of Olivier's most famous roles in Adrian Noble's sold-out production, receiving a nomination for an Olivier Award for Best Actor after it was transferred to the Barbican in London for a long run. Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote "Kenneth Branagh, a 24-year-old actor with a big future, provides a boyish, idealistic Henry who may arouse American theatergoers' ambivalent feelings about John F. Kennedy. At once religious and intemperate, dashing and vain, he joins Mr. Noble in unlocking the personal and political complexities of what has often seemed an opaque chronicle of national glory."

Dissatisfied with the policies of the RSC, Branagh formed the Renaissance Theatre Company with his friend David Parfitt and became one of the hottest names in British theatre on the strength of his performances as Touchstone, Hamlet, and Coriolanus, as well as a huge success in the British miniseries The Fortunes of War. Branagh bravely took on the growing comparisons to Olivier by the throat by starring in and directing a film of Henry V. While Olivier, shooting his film while World War II drew to a close, interpreted the play as patriotic propaganda full of fairytale heroism and stirring oratory, Branagh's film was much darker, offering a much more pacifistic viewpoint. Both films were brilliant, and Branagh won richly deserved Oscar nominations for his direction and moving performance.

Then things began to go wrong. Unlike Olivier, Branagh "went Hollywood" by devoting his energies to big-budget, big payday atrocities like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Wild Wild West and artistically-challenged debacles like Dead Again and Celebrity. His Shakespearean work grew increasingly vulgar and has included such dubious achievements as directing a crude and poorly acted repertoire of A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear in which Branagh played a hammy Peter Quince and a forgettable Edgar (pictured with Emma Thompson in an appalling performance as a hunchbacked Fool), uneven film versions of Othello and Much Ado About Nothing (although Thompson was magnificent this time as a brilliant Beatrice), an overlong and conceited film of Hamlet (which included a tasteless nude sex scene between Hamlet and Ophelia - who was later shown in a straightjacket - and a ridiculous duel (obviously attempting to outdo Olivier's famous leap from a tower in his film) that features an apparently magic rapier that has a tracking device to run through Claudius from across the room, an As You Like It supposedly set in Japan yet featuring a cast of entirely Caucasian actors in the principle roles, and a best-forgotten musical version of Love's Labor's Lost; although his return to the stage after a decade away in Olivier's signature role of Richard III was given a positive, if guarded, critical response (the London Times said "What's still somewhat lacking is venom, darkness, and the sense of evil; yet Branagh's performance is well worth catching"). As if these diminishing results weren't disappointing enough, to raise the money for these big-budget lemons, Branagh grew increasingly reliant on casting ill-equipped Hollywood stars to butcher Shakespeare's poetry, including a mush-mouth Michael Keaton as Dogberry, an incomprehensible Gérard Depardieu as Reynaldo, a plywood Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, a Valley-Girl Alicia Silverstone as the Princess of France, and an incompetent Keanu Reeves (in what is surely the worst Shakespearean performance in movie history) as Don John.

Branagh has redeemed himself somewhat in recent years with acclaimed performances in Edmond, Ivanov and The Winter's Tale and co-directed and starred in a sold-out production of Macbeth (although his portrayal of the title role was little more than servicable); still mixed with misfires like his film All is True (2018) in which his performance as Shakespeare is glum and offputting, a dull remake of Sleuth (one of Olivier's great successes) in which no one seems to be having any fun with the material, and an appearance as a generic foreign bad guy with a generic foreign accent and a hot young girlfriend (winning an award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists for "Most Egregious Age Difference Between the Leading Man and the Love Interest") in Tenet, perhaps the most interminably boring movie ever made. But Branagh entered rarified territory when he received three Academy Award nominations for his film Belfast in 2022, setting the record for most categories to be Oscar-nominated in, with seven (and winning the award for Original Screenplay). One of those categories was for Best Supporting Actor for My Week with Marilyn (pictured), in which he played (you guessed it) Laurence Olivier.

Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) played Bottom in three productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, returning to it more than any other Shakespearean role. He first played it at the Old Vic Theatre in 1931 and revived his performance in a phenomenally popular Old Vic revival in 1938 that also starred Vivien Leigh as Titania (pictured). Richardson rarely reappeared in roles he had already played (refusing, for example, to revive his legendary Falstaff despite numerous appeals to repeat his performance) but he played Bottom a third time in 1964, at the Royal Theatre, Brighton and then on a tour of South America and Europe. James Agate wrote of his first appearance in the part "...his present performance of Bottom is very fine indeed. In the fairy scenes he abandoned clowning in favor of a dim consciousness of a rarer world and of being at court there. This was new to me, and if Mr. Richardson had not the ripeness of some of the old actors, his acting here was an agreeable change from the familiar refusal to alternate fruitiness with anything else. Most of the old players seem to have thought Bottom, with the ass's head on, was the same Bottom, only funnier. Shakespeare said he was 'translated,' and Mr. Richardson translated him."

One of the most highly anticipated events of the 1964 Broadway season, Richard Burton's performance of Hamlet directed by John Gielgud, proved to be a wildly uneven disappointment. Weighted down by its own celebrity following the scandalous affair (and subsequent marriage) between Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra, the staging suffered from an ineffectual production concept of a "rehearsal" in contemporary dress (to pacify Burton's dislike of wearing period costume), an incompetent Claudius in musical comedy star Alfred Drake (at one point in rehearsals, director Gielgud seriously considered replacing Drake with himself in the role), and a frequently self-indulgent performance by Burton in the title role which often resorted to vocal pyrotechnics that were ultimately meaningless.

The one outstanding feature of the production was Hume Cronyn's (1911 - 2003) superlative interpretation of Polonius, described by Howard Taubman of the New York Times as "an unfaltering realization of aging garrulity and fatuity." Best known for his work opposite his wife Jessica Tandy (who was an historic Ophelia in Gielgud's 1934 production at the New Theatre), Cronyn had significant experience in Shakespeare (memorably as Bottom and Shylock at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival and as Richard III at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis) and his wise and witty Polonius was universally regarded not only as the high point of the production but the high water mark of interpretations of the role, winning Cronyn the Drama Desk Award as well as the only Tony that he would ever receive in a competitive category during his distinguished career.

The history of the legendary 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet featuring John Gielgud (1904-2000) and Laurence Olivier alternating in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio becomes all the more enticing when considering how its celebrated chips fell into place by the slightest of chances. Gielgud was set to direct a production of A Tale of Two Cities by an up-and-coming playwright named Terrence Rattigan at the New Theatre when he got a letter from the elderly Victorian actor Charles Martin Harvey angrily stating his intent to come out with yet another "farewell tour" of The Only Way, his own adaptation of the Dickens novel that had been his signature role for decades, and he considered Gielgud' s production unfair competition. Against his better judgment (and to Rattigan's great disappointment) Gielgud decided to shelve A Tale of Two Cities, concluding that the sets that had been designed for that production would serve for Romeo and Juliet. Having already played Romeo twice and feeling that directing and taking on the lead role might be spreading himself too thin, he decided to play Mercutio and cast one of most promising rising stars of the British stage as Romeo - Robert Donat.

As chance would have it, Donat was in the midst of undertaking his own production of R&J, and after meeting with Gielgud he graciously agreed to drop his plans. He declined to play Romeo for Gielgud however, and suggested instead a popular young matinee idol named Laurence Olivier, who had appeared under Gielgud's direction at short notice in the play Queen of Scots and who was planning his own production with his wife Jill Esmond as Juliet. Gielgud was unconvinced, as Olivier had no experience in a major Shakespearean role at the time, so he allowed him to take the part only if they alternated as Romeo and Mercutio in case Olivier's notices were mixed as Romeo and hurt the box office (details of the production and of Olivier and Gielgud's wary lifelong relationship are brilliantly examined in Jonathan Croall's superb biography Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000).

In fact, Olivier's notices were mixed, with most critics admiring his passion but deploring his speaking of the verse (which Gielgud had bullied him about a great deal in rehearsals). No doubt with hindsight Olivier later claimed that he was "trying to sell realism in Shakespeare," but the reality is that he was probably held back by his own inexperience at the time (his 1940 appearance as Romeo on Broadway under his own direction was a fiasco). The experience served him well however, as the phenomenal success of the production launched his career as a Shakespearean actor and won him an invitation to be the leading man of the Old Vic in 1937 (in which he enjoyed the first of his many triumphant successes that would ultimately crown him as the greatest classical actor of the twentieth century) as well as the role of Orlando in Elizabeth Bergner's film of As You Like It.

Modern opinion of the production is that performances with Olivier's passionate but rough Romeo and Gielgud's lyrical Mercutio were considered considered superior to when the actors swapped roles (Peggy Ashcroft later said that she considered them the definitive performances of those characters), but an analysis of the reviews indicates that Olivier was greatly preferred as Mercutio to Romeo, with Gielgud was largely thought to be better than Olivier in both roles. Of his two performances, he was certainly more praised as Mercutio (particularly for his reading of the Queen Mab speech) and his performance of the role in that legendary production has had more praise heaped upon it than any other actor's attempt at it.

It is one of the great disappointments of twentieth century theatre that Gielgud and Olivier never acted together on stage again. Olivier was said to have greatly resented Gielgud's direction of him and maintained an aloofness towards him for the rest of his life. Yet their paths nearly crossed numerous times again. In 1940, Olivier approached the great London impresario Binkie Beaumont about producing him in a season of the four great Shakespearean tragedies Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Beaumont said he was only interested if Olivier and Gielgud alternated as Hamlet/Laertes, Othello/Iago, Lear/Gloucester, and Macbeth/Macduff; a proposal Olivier bluntly turned down. There are later letters between Olivier and Gielgud discussing productions they might appear in together, but they were either in plays that were fresh for Olivier but that Gielgud had already made numerous historic appearances in (The School for Scandal, Love for Love), Olivier was ultimately too ill to appear in (The Pretenders, Tartuffe), or fanciful suggestions that came to nothing (Julius Caesar). Gielgud did direct a 1955 production of Twelfth Night at Stratford with Olivier as Malvolio (which was considered a great disappointment in part because Olivier arrived at rehearsals with highly mannered - and controversial - preconceptions of the role and refused to take direction, and Gielgud's typical indecisiveness as a director threw the production into chaos) and they appeared onscreen in Olivier's film of Richard III (pictured) and in Wagner (references that say that Gielgud provided the voice of the Ghost in Olivier's film of Hamlet are incorrect, as Olivier performed the voice himself). Perhaps their most intriguing potential pairing was in Olivier's celebrated film of Henry V, in which Gielgud lobbied to be cast as the Chorus, but Olivier declined the offer, preferring Leslie Banks. He did offer Gielgud the tiny role of the King of France. This time, it was Gielgud's turn to decline.

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