I grew up theatrically watching John Gielgud in the 1930s, but it's his famous role-swapping 1935 Romeo and Juliet that left the greatest mark. It began with Olivier playing Mercutio, and Gielgud Romeo. Then they swapped. It was very instructive because their styles were so different. John was the more musical, Larry the more vital. The thing is, Larry should have been better in both parts but he hadn't mastered the verse like John. John had the speaking voice, but also a capacity to illuminate the text by his speed of thought. Larry, in those days, was more deliberate. When I played Romeo at drama school, John's tunes rang in my head. I should add I'd become an actor because in 1937 Gielgud co-directed Richard II at Oxford University, bringing the young Vivien Leigh to play the Queen. Before, I'd never wanted to act. Afterwards, I wanted nothing else.
That no one speaks verse like Gielgud any more is a loss. Of course, tastes in verse-speaking change. Today's mood is more down-to-earth. But that doesn't automatically mean it conveys subtle emotion better. It's interesting that every generation's great stars are seen as more "real" than their predecessors. It's like hemlines. The mini-skirt was a shock. Then we got used to it. Now young women have skirts to their ankles again. Likewise, Gielgud's delivery might sound unrealistic today, but realism is always relative.
n Michael Denison is in 'An Ideal Husband', Theatre Royal Haymarket, London(0171-930 8800)