John Wood: Powerful stage actor possessed of a sharp and illuminating intelligence

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.

News
Actor Burt Reynolds last year
peopleBurt Reynolds, once among the most bankable actors in Hollywood, is set to auction his memorabilia
News
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game