Robert Lang

Actor committed to the ensemble ideal
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The Independent Online

During the glory days of the first National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier based at the Old Vic, Robert Lang for nearly a decade enjoyed the finest flowering of his career, playing an extraordinarily varied range of roles.

Robert Lang, actor and director: born Bristol 24 September 1934; married 1971 Ann Bell (one son, one daughter); died Sutton, Surrey 6 November 2004.

During the glory days of the first National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier based at the Old Vic, Robert Lang for nearly a decade enjoyed the finest flowering of his career, playing an extraordinarily varied range of roles.

Lang was a product of the closing period of vintage repertory theatre, with career-moulding seasons at the Bristol Old Vic in his home city and subsequently at Nottingham Playhouse. Although keen on the theatre as a boy, he worked originally as a meteorologist before belatedly training for the stage at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

It was for the Bristol Old Vic in the beautiful old Theatre Royal that he made his professional début, initially playing minor parts. Gradually his roles improved, including a gorgeously gormless Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer (1957) and the gentle Uncle Ernest in the saccharine family saga Oh! My Papa, which transferred briefly to London, seeing Lang's West End début (Phoenix, 1957).

Nearly a year with the Nottingham Playhouse established Lang as a leading man, confirming his particular ability to humanise slightly pompous characters; he was a suavely misogynistic Charles in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit and hilariously self-absorbed in the title-role of Chekhov's rarely-seen Platonov (both 1959). He had another (also short-lived) West End transfer as a hectoring Sergeant-Major in the undervalued family comedy Celebration (Nottingham and Duchess, 1961).

Lang's repertory reputation was by now attracting attention from the capital. At the Royal Court he stood out in a messy A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962), directed by Tony Richardson (of whose languid drawl he could do a brilliant impersonation), as a somewhat befuddled Theseus. This brought him to the notice of the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company for which he took over the role of Louis of France in Anouilh's Becket and played, with magnificent panache, the broken-down Actor in Gorki's The Lower Depths (both 1962).

When he auditioned for Olivier's company for the first Chichester Festival Theatre, Lang was thrilled to be offered Petruchio in the Jacobean rarity The Chances (1962). He readily returned to Chichester for the 1963 season as Cauchon in John Dexter's production of Saint Joan with Joan Plowright. He also had a juicy role as a thick copper in John Arden's The Workhouse Donkey and, under Olivier, took over the tiny part of the workman, Yefim, in the historic Uncle Vanya alongside Michael Redgrave, Olivier, Plowright and Sybil Thorndike.

Lang was even more delighted when it was announced that the Chichester group would form the nucleus of the first National Theatre Company when it began at the Old Vic later in 1963. He repeated his Cauchon and his Yefim in the initial season, so impressing Olivier by his work and commitment to the ensemble ideal that his parts began increasingly to challenge him.

There had been little chance to shine as First Player in Olivier's dismal opening production of Hamlet (1963) with a pallid Peter O'Toole, but 1964 saw a terrific run from Lang at the Waterloo Road with a beautifully etched ninny of Roderigo in Othello with Olivier's Moor, the touchingly loyal Martín Ruíz in Peter Shaffer's epic The Royal Hunt of the Sun and, perhaps most memorably, the diplomat Richard Greatham in Coward's Hay Fever.

With the cast (one that, according to Coward, "could play the Albanian telephone directory") including Dame Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi and Robert Stephens, Lang was superbly deadpan as Greatham, his carapace of Foreign Office cool gradually disintegrating as the family spiral off into anarchic charades. This was high-comedy playing of rare quality.

Another performance of similar impact was his Scandal in Peter Wood's loving revival of Congreve's Lost for Love (1965). Olivier's fop Tattle was the comic highlight of this evening but Lang came up with a surprising and revelatory performance. This Scandal black-clad and sinuous of movement, like a slithering cobra, was a truly malevolent, dark presence.

Comedy also provided Lang with major opportunities in Feydeau's farce of adultery mostly foiled, A Flea in Her Ear (1966), initially playing a complacent husband and then replacing Albert Finney in the virtuoso double-role of gentleman Chandeboise and resourceful manservant Poche.

Some later National work was in less happy surroundings but luckily Peter Nichols's fine The National Health (1969), which saw Lang's beautifully-observed study of the dying Ash, and the chance to play Shylock in Jonathan Miller's fascinating Jamesian take on The Merchant of Venice (1970) while Olivier was ill, closed his period at the National on a high note.

Although his later career had memorable highlights, nothing ever could quite match the heights of the 1960s. Returning to the West End Lang was well cast as the president of an unnamed Mediterranean country in Thomas Muschamp's The Beheading (Apollo, 1972), but the play was a hopeless mess and quickly closed.

He had a much happier time as Sir Toby Belch, eschewing the roaring sot of tiresome tradition to explore a neo-Chekhovian melancholy, for the New Shakespeare Company at Regent's Park (1973). He directed Twelfth Night for the company the following season and, as Artistic Director of the Cambridge Theatre Company (1975-76), directed a spring-heeled School For Scandal and an ambitious version of Brecht's Fears and Miseries of the Third Reich.

For a lengthy period Lang concentrated mainly on television and film, rarely out of work even if sometimes the roles were less than demanding and the movies were rarely outstanding.

A stubbornly opinionated Bottom, transformed into moonstruck idolatry as Titania's lover in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Regent's Park saw a happy return to the theatre in 1995, and Lang was also extremely fine in the demanding central role of the blind father in John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father (Oxford Playhouse and tour, 1997).

His final Open Air appearance, as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1999), energetically rantipole and handling Shakespeare's prose with admirable aplomb was vintage Lang, as was his irascible Lord Porteous in Maugham's The Circle (Oxford and tour, 2001), a delightful last glimpse on stage of his adroit comedic skill.

His late-career renaissance continued too on screens large and small, with good cameo roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1996) and Wilde (1997), whilst on television he had similarly strong chances in top-flight series including A Dance to the Music of Time (1997) - especially suited to Lang's autumnal, slightly smoky voice - and Our Mutual Friend (1998).

Not long before his death he had completed filming on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a version of Elizabeth Taylor's novel which promises to be a fitting valedictory for Lang.

Alan Strachan



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