THEATRE / Ace player finally makes it to King: As Robert Stephens takes on Lear, Irving Wardle surveys the mixed career of an actor without a mask

Robert Stephens has a horror of flashy roles in second-rate plays. He has tried to avoid them, but one has recently been thrust upon him in a sickly romance called The Return of Robert Stephens. This tells the story of a brilliant young actor who marries his even more brilliant co- star; and whose marriage and career then collapse into a mid-life pit of alcoholic waste. He is rescued in the nick of time when a childhood fan who has grown up to direct the leading classical theatre in the land invites his washed-up old idol to essay the role of Falstaff. The comeback is a huge success, garners an Olivier Award, and paves the way for a fairy-tale ending in which the long-dethroned hero ascends to glory, aged 61, as King Lear.

I hope I am exaggerating, and that when Adrian Noble's RSC Lear opens next week there will be no biographical clouds hanging on its leading actor.

'I don't understand,' Stephens told an interviewer last year, 'why people always write that I understand failure. I feel proud of what I've achieved in my life.' Precisely. And the depressing thing about the cheap myth that has sprung up around his life is that it exists in flat contradiction to his work.

Line up his performances and you find a massacre of stereotypes. His big discovery, for he was treasured in the early days of the Royal Court and Olivier's National Theatre and his flourishing partnership with Maggie Smith, is that truth is more interesting than lies. For which reason his award-winning 1991 Falstaff, despite its manifest comic power, left me sitting on my hands. He could have played a man paralysed by guilt or a bastard who ought to feel guilty; but, as an old rogue simply intent on winning, he opted uncharacteristically for ingratiation.

At that word, the mind whizzes back to the performance that first put Stephens on the map as the anti-hero of John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon in 1958. Now there was an ingratiating character; a shy artistic lodger who writhes through the first act oozing gratitude to his lower-middle-class hosts and then, left alone, addresses the photograph of his landlady's dead son: 'You stupid- looking bastard.'

It was a big moment. You could hear the sound of old theatrical rules cracking up all around. Osborne had aligned the truth of stage acting with the falseness of our performances in everyday life. And he found a devastating ally in Stephens, who knew about cringing, knew about treacherous secret thoughts, and looked so ordinary that when his apologetic mumble gave way to that raspingly derisive voice, he spoke for the buried lives of all the nondescript people out front.

As it happens, George Dillon was about failure. But within the next few years Stephens achieved a similar impact with the vigorous Captain Plume in The Recruiting Officer, Peter, the aggressive German cook in Wesker's The Kitchen, Shakespeare's Benedick and others who are anything but failures. What these performances did have in common was a genius for confession, for playing without a mask. There are leading actors, like Paul Scofield or Alan Bates, whose power emerges from some hidden source: they have a secret, and you follow every move and inflection in the hope that they will reveal it. There are others, among whom Stephens is supreme, who express their power by giving everything away - whether as Ibsen's Loevborg making a grab for Hedda's groin under the snaps of the Dolomites, or as Caesar (Stratford, 1991) taking a long accusing pause before deliberarately impaling himself on Brutus's sword. Every action takes you by surprise; every action lets you see to the roots of the character.

The big exception is the most famous performance Stephens ever gave, as the Peruvian sun god Atahuallpa in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun in 1964. If ever a stage figure projected inaccessible mystery it was this unearthly creation. I once asked Stephens where he got it from. 'Inca history,' he said, 'and bird sounds and coyote noises. The dialogue is not good at all: it's like 'White man speak with forked tongue'. So, I thought, I've got to provide a physical presence. If I have a funny way of speaking, if I walk slower than everybody else because I am God, then at least it's eye- catching. I just made it all up.'

What he did not mention there (15 years later) is that Atahuallpa marked the debut of his new body - sculpted by regular gym workouts into the heroic musculature of a Greek athlete. It was as if this most open of actors had taken cover under a mask. It worked superbly for him in Shaffer's play; it fell flat two years later when he appeared stripped to the waist in white leather breeches as the incestuous, matricidal rapist hero of Osborne's A Bond Honoured.

In retrospect, this flop seems a stroke of luck for the actor, if not for his author. Stephens says he went into the play 'not knowing what I was doing'; and that 10 days before the opening Osborne told him: 'I must confess it's a very lazy piece of writing, and I can never rewrite. Rewriting is like wallowing in my own vomit.' After which only a miracle could have salvaged the show. If it had succeeded, Stephens might have gone on to grace the stage with a line of nobly proportioned and impersonally dignified classical leads. Antony and Cleopatra was one on the list, happily forestalled by the fact that his director, Jonathan Miller, informed him that the show was to be in the style of Veronese and that the play was not about Cleopatra but Elizabeth I. Stephens withdrew. He also hatched the scheme for an Othello with Anthony Hopkins. 'I rang Miller and asked him if he'd direct it. He said, 'Yes, and we'll do it in 1956 during the Cyprus War.' I said, 'We will not.' ' That was the end of that.

Instead of such heroic plans, Stephens was thrown back on his talent for showing the unheroic in all its colours. And when he did work with Miller it was in the wonderful 1974 Greenwich season of 'Family Romances' in which he reclaimed Ibsen's bigoted Pastor Manders as a gentle victim of his own beliefs.

Unlike many actors, Stephens speaks with enthusiasm and gratitude about directors. From Ingmar Bergman, who rehearsed Hedda Gabler in concentrated 20-minute bursts, he says, he learned the brevity of the creative attention span; from William Gaskill, who directed George Dillon, the fact that 'if you understand the character's thought process, you will never dry. There's no great mystery about acting. If somebody can release you through the part, it's easy.' In his case, that's also how it looks to the spectator: like someone telling the truth.

'King Lear' previews at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford (0789-295623), from tomorrow, opens 18 May.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there