SO MANY of our actresses want to be loved that the arrival in Britain in 1957 of Madge Ryan from Australia in that earthiest of sexual comedies, Summer of the 17th Doll, made all lovers of acting sit up.
So, of course, did Ray Lawler's play - the first fruit of Tyrone Guthrie's and Hugh Hunt's efforts to provoke Down Under a tradition of dramatic writing which it could call its own. Hitherto Australia had depended mainly on extensive tours by British classical companies or stars, such as the Oliviers, the Cassons, Ralph Richardson, Robert Helpmann, Googie Withers et al. While not putting a stop to that, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was set up 'to make the theatre the same vigorous and significant force in our national life that it was during the reign of the first Elizabeth'. And it was Laurence Olivier's characteristic taste and enterprise as a London manager that brought Lawler's play to the West End with its original cast. Ryan, then in her late thirties, was an established player in Sydney, but the success of this study of lust among the Australian cane-cutters brought her into the London spotlight and she never looked back.
It was a simple enough role she played. Two burly workers in the cane fields take their five-month break every season by entertaining two easygoing women of their choice in a round of almost unceasing sexual dalliance. The ritual had been going on for 16 years. Why should it not go on for ever?
With its atmosphere, humour, energy and comment on the sexual immaturity of such 'manly' men, the play - coming a only year after Look Back in Anger - might be celebrating a new wave in Australian dramaturgy; and the new actors were as warmly received, especially Ryan as a hoity-toity barmaid. In the face of her presumed sexual duties and the degrading company, all her pseudogentility rose to the surface with a wonderful disdain.
After the Broadway transfer, instead of returning to her native country, Ryan settled in London and won a reputation as an actress who preferred the challenging role, the unpopular character, the misfit, the monster even, to the charmer; though she could buckle down to classically sympathetic characters like Gertrude in Hamlet (to Richard Pasco's Prince) or the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, both for the Bristol Old Vic, without loss of integrity.
What set her apart from the others was a certain, often powerful, independence of spirit and humour never better demonstrated than as the dreadful Kath, ageing seductress and murderous landlady, in Joe Orton's first play to reach the West End, Entertaining Mr Sloane (Wyndham's, 1964). It went on to provoke the controversy that came to be known as the 'dirty-plays debate'. Madge Ryan's cruel, cool but undeniably comic acting provoked one critic to describe her work, though horrid, as 'something very close to perfection'.
Something very far from perfect followed. It was Mother Courage, and it must have taken all of Ryan's courage to play at the Old Vic in 1965 the leading role which had been acted so vividly in the West End only nine years earlier by the author's widow, Helene Weigel.
Brechtians in Britain were then so enamoured of the master that William Gaskill, the leading Brechtian under Olivier's aegis at the Old Vic, believed (as Kenneth Tynan did not) that Mother Courage had no need to be acted by a star. Not that Ryan had seen Weigel but everyone else had, and the timing was disastrous.
She proved infinitely more at home as O'Casey's Maisie Madigan in Juno and the Paycock, or as the garrulous Lizzie Sweeney in Brian Friel's first play to get to the West End, Philadelphia, Here I Come] (Lyric, 1967), and especially as the maternally menacing, not to say demonic Mrs Weston in Colin Welland's Say Goodnight to Grandma.
A streak of mischief or wickedness in a theatrical character adds spice to everybody's evening, and Madge Ryan knew it and often found it where even the experienced playgoer least expected to see it.
In the 1970s and 1980s she had to move out of London to the reps to satisfy her appetite for the stronger stuff, as Madam Arkadina in The Seagull at Exeter, Shaw's Mrs Warren and Wilde's Lady Bracknell at Birmingham and in the Fry- Anouilh collaboration, Ring Round the Moon, at Chichester.
Only a few months ago she was back in the West End as the Nurse to Diana Rigg's Medea. It was a fulfilled career.Reuse content