STAGE ACTOR OF THE YEAR : Growing up in public

The most popular film-maker in history got into history, and stayed popular. Glyndebourne rose again, handsomely. Pop ate itself, but survived. Steve Coogan was everywhere, and so was Hugh Grant; only one of them is praised here. The theatre had a thin time, but television drama serials made up for it. People defined themselves on Mondays at 9pm: were you for `Cracker' or `Chuzzlewit'? And again on Saturdays at 8pm: did you really believe that a 14m-1 shot would win?(Or did you do it for love of the arts?) It wasn't the best of years, but it had its moments. And here they are, in the fourth annual `IoS' Awards
UNTIL HE joined the RSC, Alex Jennings enjoyed an unchallenged monopoly on roles calling for a baby-faced brat. Supercilious effrontery was the immutable Jennings trademark. When you compare, say, the trickster hero of Corneille's The Liar with t he SS saxophonist in Sobol's Ghetto, you can see how various these roles were. But it is only in the past year, with three magnificent Stratford performances, that Jennings has really broken out of the shell and left the brat behind.

You could measure the distance he had travelled from his performance as Angelo in Steven Pimlott's Measure for Measure. Jennings is no stranger to this piece, having twice set his mark on it as the definitively brattish Lucio, the perpetual sneering onlooker. His Angelo, by contrast, carried a sense of personal history: you could look at that dignified magistrate and see the good little boy at the front of the class, always getting top marks, never sharing his sweets; and later, instantly resuming the mask of virtue after pouring out his lust to Isabella. At the same time, it was still recognisably Jennings: an actor who never hides behind make-up. What marks him out as a star is that he does not disappear into character; rather he expands into it, revealing new aspects of the same continuing personality. The same goes for his Theseus/Oberon in Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the Athenian monarch disclosed himself as the most vindictively enraged fairy king within living memory.

But the performance that meant most to me, in a year that included Judi Dench's Arkadina, Toby Stephens's Coriolanus, Kathryn Hunter's Skryker, was Jennings's Peer Gynt. This is thanks partly to John Barton's production which presented the whole play through Peer's eyes as the tallest of all his tall stories. As a result, we did not see him as an old man; but we saw everything else, from his innocent beginnings as a juvenile fantasist to the successive masks he tried on to face the world. It was an actor's autobiography, comprising the politician, the adventurer, the lady-killer, the blank face in the dressing-room mirror, and admitting one farewell appearance of the brat.

Previous winners: 1991 Nigel Hawthorne (George III in `The Madness of George III', National); 1992 Simon Russell Beale (Richard III in Sam Mendes's RSC production) and Barrie Rutter (Richard III in his own Northern Broadsides production); 1993 Robert Stephens (`King Lear', RSC).

Comments