Obituary: James Donald
Monday 16 August 1993
BEFORE the post-war cinema took him under its wing, James Donald had been flying as high in the West End theatre as any young actor of his generation. Tall, lean, dark, intelligent-looking, he seemed to have a care for language and a sharp-edged humour which might lead him to the top in a theatrical era ruled by Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave and Co.
Could he be one of tomorrow's men? He had sensitivity and elegance. In some quarters his appeal was rated in the same breath as Scofield's, Burton's, Alan Badel's. There was something Byronic, thoughtful, unpredictable and refreshing in this churchman's son who had quit Scotland and a flirtation with academia (McGill and Edinburgh universities) for that least-known of theatrical quantities, the London Theatre Studio run for the Old Vic by that intellectual offshoot of the avant-garde French theatre, Michel Saint-Denis.
Saint-Denis was a sort of saint to intelligent young theatrical aspirants: a purist, an inspiration and utterly indifferent to the needs of the 'commercial' theatre. Very few of his students ever came to anything. In the days before subsidy and angry young men and social realism, it was Hugh (Binkie) Beaumont who ruled the British stage; but there was still the Old Vic.
After appearing in two of Saint-Denis' pre-war productions, Bulgakov's The White Guard, and Twelfth Night (with Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft) at the Phoenix, Donald found himself with a small part in Granville-Barker's 1940 production of Lear for Gielgud at the Old Vic and the not exactly onerous but surely honourable task of understudying Gielgud.
When the Old Vic was bombed out of the Waterloo Road, Donald toured as the supercilious young servant Yasha to Athene Seyler's Ranevska in The Cherry Orchard and, after the Old Vic's London seasons at the New, in St Martin's Lane, moved over to the Haymarket Theatre to join Noel Coward's company in 1943.
There Donald's success as the comically sanctimonious playwright in Present Laughter put him on the map. Some said he upstaged the self-indulgent Coward himself (as the matinee idol) by remaining so intensely serious as the indignant young writer with the endearing, grating voice.
It was his baptism as a Haymarket actor, and though the bright young men of the next generation might sneer at the label, not all the Haymarket plays in the 1940s and 1950s were 'safe' or 'cosy' or 'elegant'. Indeed, Cocteau's The Eagle Has Two Heads, in which Donald played the lover-assassin of Eileen Herlie's Ruritanian queen was a test of everybody's patience, with her record-breaking first-act speech judged by the stop-watches rather than dramatic interest; but Donald, a good listener, knew how to share the romantic limelight tactfully.
His next West End performance came 'by kind permission of Metro- Goldwyn Mayer' in Shaw's You Never Can Tell (Wyndham's) before his greatest break of all a few months later at - where else? - the Haymarket. In Henry James's sad story he was the cad who, having courted the 'plain' young spinster (Peggy Ashcroft) for her fortune, jilts her. When he comes calling again she turns him down flat. She too has learnt how to be cruel.
It was one of Ashcroft's greatest nights, but somehow Donald found a touch of pathos for the worthless lover; and so Laurence Olivier gave him the title-role opposite the adored Diana Wynyard in his next production as actor-manager at the St James's, a new play by a new playwright, Denis Cannan's Captain Carvallo. It was a high comedy of verbal exuberance and Shavian fancy, and it clinched Donald's reputation as one of the West End's most fashionable actors.
If there was no limelight left for him (or anybody else) to share with Edith Evans in Christopher Fry's The Dark is Light Enough (Aldwych, 1954), his career in films as men of conscience rather than action - The Small Voice (1948), Trottie True (1949), White Corridors (1951), The Gift Horse (1952), Beau Brummell (1954) - was by then going strong.
He also ventured into theatrical management with his wife while continuing as an occasional Haymarket actor (The Doctor's Dilemma, The Wings of the Dove) in an era of sharply changing theatrical tastes. Firing from the West End at Sloane Square and the East End at Stratford East, the enemy of elegant dialogue and elegant acting was at the gates.
James Donald was not the only player of his kind to find an outlet in the cinema in the coming decades, as one of its most familiar, reliable and agreeable actors whose character stood for decency and common sense - The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), King Rat (1965), The Jokers (1967), David Copperfield (1969), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), Conduct Unbecoming (1975). But it was a long way in more ways than one from the theatrical dreams and schemes provoked by Saint-Denis at the London Theatre Studio in the late 1930s.
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