John Wood: Powerful stage actor possessed of a sharp and illuminating intelligence
Thursday 18 August 2011
The mighty and passionate actor John Wood communicated wisdom and generated surprise with an originality and intensity that left his performances glowing in the memory like hot coals from which the heat never quite fades.
Blessed with noble looks and slightly naughty eyes, he could be deftly funny or worryingly hostile. Yet Wood never enjoyed success beyond the stage. He was one of a fast-diminishing school of actors for whom the theatre alone all but sustains their career and expresses their greatness. One thinks perhaps also of Eileen Atkins, Janet Suzman, and more recently Simon Russell Beale and Paul Ritter.
John Wood was born in Hertfordshire in 1930, and after National Service attended Oxford, supposedly to study law but already with theatrical ambitions. His self-belief and commanding presence would no doubt have made him a formidable advocate, but he concentrated instead on playing an impressive range of Shakespearean leads (including Malvolio to Maggie Smith's Viola) for the OUDS, of which he became president before joining the Old Vic in 1954.
Under Michael Benthall the Old Vic was embarking on a staging of the complete First Folio of Shakespeare plays with Richard Burton as its figurehead. Wood should have been in his element in a company that also included Judi Dench, John Neville and Michael Hordern, but the experience was, like much of his early theatrical career, frustrating. When he later became a leading player his ability to throw new meaning on a text was criticised by some as self-promoting. Whatever the case, the result was electrifying, but perhaps it was his impatience to occupy centre stage, where he knew he could work wonders, that made those early years taxing ones. Wood certainly saw theatrical triumph as Olympian achievement, and when he received mixed reviews for his Richard III in 1979 at the National, he declared to Peter Hall that he was a failure. "How can it be a failure when you can't get a ticket?" Hall remarked. It wasn't box-office sales that Wood measured success on: he simply felt that his Richard III would not be spoken about a hundred years later. He wanted dearly to unseat Olivier in the role, and nothing less was good enough for him.
His West End debut had come in 1957 when he played Don Quixote in Hall's production of Tennessee Williams's Camino Real at the Phoenix, but his career progression remained jerky. George Devine's setting-up of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court was the beginning of a theatrical revolution, and having joined the company Wood could have been a major force in it, but again he felt frustrated and out of place. He thought little of Look Back in Anger and the flood of other new plays that followed.
Unlike Olivier, who went within six months from dismissing Look Back in Anger to asking Osborne to write a play with a part for him, Wood had to wait a little longer to find a fashionable writer who suited his style. His discovery of Tom Stoppard led to an enduring partnership: he delighted Broadway as one half of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and even bettered himself on this side of the Atlantic with his legendary portrayal of Henry Carr in Travesties. Stoppard was the perfect material for Wood, whose sharp intelligence and wit were always going to be tough to disguise. The dazzling Every Good Boy Deserves Favour for Trevor Nunn in 1977 was another triumph, but simultaneously the classical career he had always envisaged was unfolding for him. There was devastation in Titus Andronicus and as Brutus in Julius Caesar, both for Hall at the RSC, and as he aged Wood became more fascinating still, his energy even more alarming.
Like Sir Michael Hordern, he was destined in his twilight years to give us grand Lears and Prosperos, which he did, but both in styles light years away from that of the gentler Hordern a few years earlier. His Prospero for Nicholas Hytner in 1988 was "rough magic" indeed, Wood finding in the character an unnerving appetite for the self-righteousness and manipulation his revenge has evoked in him. King Lear, again for Hytner at the RSC in 1991, was his crowning achievement.
A stark, frightening production which included a blinding lurid enough to cause a few of those sitting in the front row to scarper, it saw Wood travel from cantankerous pomposity to heartbreaking compassion (even in the curtain call, when he embraced Linda Kerr Scott's feral fool and turned briefly from the embodiment of tragedy into the King of Hearts), and revealed his Lear to be the triumphant destination he had been travelling towards all his life.
John Wood, actor: born Harpenden, Hertforshire 5 July 1930; CBE 2007; married firstly (one son), secondly Sylvia (one son, two daughters); died Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire 6 August 2011.
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