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

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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.