Paul Rogers: Actor acclaimed for his stage work in Stratford, London and on Broadway


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The Independent Online

When a smart critic described the young Paul Rogers's Old Tardiveau in Labiche's farce An Italian Straw Hat as "a wonderfully exact and penetrating piece of work", he nailed the appeal of one of the most tireless and bewitching stage actors of the 20th century. Rogers, who has died at the age of 96, played everything from a Humpty-Dumptyish Falstaff to a devastating Lear, both before he was 40 years old.

Speaking of his Shylock for the Old Vic in 1953, he said, "To me, every part is a character part. That is not to say that I think every actor ought to be able to play anything. He must of course realise his limitations and be extremely humble about them. But it is fatal to allow himself to be tied to one particular type of part. Though personality- playing is always essential, he must put something else on top of it, however the part is written."

His fierce work ethic, both in terms of how many parts he played and how much he worked on each of them, came from his theatrical education. Born in 1917 in Plympton, Devon, the son of a headmaster, he trained at the Chekhov Theatre School, run at Dartington Hall in Devon by the nephew of Anton. It was a new style of acting in Britain, driven by emotion rather than deportment, and heavily influenced by Stanislavski.

The Russian influence continued when he was hired by Theodore Komisarjevsky for his first seasons at Stratford in the 1930s. A decade earlier Komisarjevsky had converted a Barnes cinema into a theatre with the intention of revolutionising the British stage. His style, like Chekhov's, cherry-picked from Staniskavski, and although history records that Komisarjevsky lacked expertise on the delivery of the verse, his productions of Shakespeare were visually confrontational and emotionally draining. It was change for change's sake, and for once that was a very good reason.

Before war service in the Royal Navy, Rogers was a member of the Colchester Repertory Company. A tough little squad, their productions played in the deceptively named Albert Hall, a cramped space that tested scene shifters and actors to the limit. The space was only available to them on alternate weeks, so in their downtime they hawked the classics around the local district.

Rogers had auditioned before the war for the Bristol Old Vic, then run by Hugh Hunt, and had the gumption to refuse a place in the company because he wanted to act and not be "distracted by stage managing", but he returned to Bristol to join them after the war was over. It was an exciting company, and notable co-stars were Jane Wenham and Nigel Stock, the latter dragging up with him to make a formidable pair of Ugly Sisters in Cinderella for Christmas 1948. His West End debut had come the previous year when the company took a dramatisation of Tess staring Wendy Hiller to the Piccadilly Theatre.

The London stage quickly became aware of Rogers and the glorious reviews he was amassing, in which he was constantly singled out for his detailed, emotional creations. "A brilliant character study as the quack clergyman Dr Priestly" in School for Rivals at Bath Assembly in 1949 was just one example.

Llewellyn Rees, the Administrator for the Old Vic in London, in a drive to seek out new talent, plucked an array of young actors from the provinces, and Wenham and Rogers were chosen from Bristol. They arrived in London with other provincial stars, including the deliciously mischievous Michael Aldridge and the thunderous Leo McKern, to begin a season of classics at the Old Vic, Rogers' debut being a fantastical Armado to Michael Redgrave's Berowne in Love's Labour Lost. It was a role he played twice, described as "pompous and poignant".

The Old Vic had suffered bomb damage during the war, and when it was finally ready for reopening in 1951, Rogers greeted the crowds with a marathon run of Shakespearean roles. Malvolio in Twelfth Night, a sneering Dauphin in Henry V and a Touchstone that the Old Vic took to Dublin in 1955. His Macbeth was tough and vigorous, his witches led by Rachel Roberts.

Away from the classics he popped up in all manner of roles. TS Eliot's The Confidential Clerk at the Lyceum, Edinburgh in 1953 was a Festival hit, later transferring to the Duke of York's, and in Frederick Knott's Volpone-flavoured thriller Mr Fox of Venice, also at the Lyceum in 1959, he relished the Machiavellian antics of a man pretending to be dying to enjoy the behaviour of his inheritance-hungry friends and family.

He was in Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth when it transferred to Broadway from London, and also appeared at the National Theatre in 1975 as Boss Mangan in Heartbreak House. Among his other acclaimed stage roles was "Sir", the actor-manager in Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, in New York in 1981.

He won a Critics Circle Award for his performances in The Importance of Being Earnest and Pinter's A Kind of Alaska in 1982; he had originated the role of Max, the sneering North London widower, in Pinter's The Homecoming at the Aldwych in 1965, for which he won a Tony Award for the Broadway production. He took over from the author in Peter Ustinov's Photo Finish in 1963 and was chosen by Ustinov to play the role in a later television production.

He had a lower profile on the screen, but highlights include a gangsterish Iago in a BBC Othello in 1955 and the Dean in Porterhouse Blue (1987). His appearance in "The Man Who Said Sorry"for ITV's Public Eye series in 1973 deserves a special mention: a suffocating 50-minute two-hander between Alfred Burke's private detective and Rogers as a suicidal stranger, it was fine television and tailor-made for Rogers, the small screen becoming a microscope revealing every intricacy of his typically complete performance.

Ill-health forced Rogers, who enjoyed painting watercolours in his free time, to retire in his eighties.

Simon Farquhar

Paul Rogers, actor: born Plympton, Devon 27 March 1917; married 1939 Muriel Jocelyn Maire Wynne (divorced 1955; two sons), 1955 Rosalind Boxall (died 2004; two daughters); died London 8 October 2013.