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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living