Obituary: Roland Amstutz

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The Independent Online
Post-Cannes depression? The young ex-convict actor Patrick Aurignac, whose first film, Memoires d'un jeune con, flopped after being selected for the 1996 Venice Film Festival, shot himself through the head at the age of 32. A few days later, a more mature actor, the Swiss Roland Amstutz, who worked regularly in France and Germany with some of the great directors, and who was about to open the Recklinghausen Theatre Festival in his fellow- countryman Luc Bondy's brilliant resuscitation of a late and little-known Strindberg black comedy, Branda tomten ("After the Fire", 1907), walked out of the final dress rehearsal and threw himself under a goods train.

The production had enjoyed a big success last winter at Peter Brook's theatre Les Bouffes du Nord, a success largely due to Amstutz's performances - dry, sardonic, gruff - as the father of the leading actress Emmanuelle Beart, with Pascal Gregory in the other main role in the cast of six.

Like Aurignac (who had done a seven-year stretch for armed robbery before being rehabilitated by theatre and film work), Amstutz was a man beset by personal anxieties, by inner anguish that gave his acting a fine nervous intensity. He used that repressed emotional energy to great astounding characterisations for directors like Patrice Chereau, Luc Bondy and Peter Zadec, and for the film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, notably in Sauve qui peut la vie (1980). He liked working with younger directors like Louis-Do de Lanquesaing, for whom he played in Synge and Iris Murdoch.

Roland Amstutz had received his training in Switzerland, and was closely associated with the Theatre de Vidy in Lausanne. He moved to Paris and joined the troupe of Ariane Mnouchkine at the Theatre du Soleil in Vincennes, attracting great praise for his performances in her productions of 1789 and the spectacular Mephisto (1979), based on a story by Klaus Mann.

After that, he set out on an independent course, in which he often suffered hardship and solitude, though he became attached to Patrice Chereau's experiments at the Theatre des Amandiers in Nanterre from 1981. He appeared as the Gravedigger in Chereau's Hamlet (1982), in Jean-Hugues Anglade's Great Britain (1983) and in Cheknov's Ivanov in the same year.

His work ranged from Schnitzler's Terre Etrangere to Tilly's Charcuterie fine, from Ibsen's Peer Gynt (Chereau, 1981) to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Peter Zadek, 1991) in which he played Angelo to Isabelle Huppert's Isabelle. In all his parts Amstutz displayed his gift for virtuoso switches of mood and tone, from whiplash laconic wit to brooding indecision. He spent two years at the Comedie-Francaise (1984-86).

He became one of Luc Bondy's favourite actors - perhaps it takes a Swiss to appreciate a Swiss at his proper value. Bondy produced him in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale (1988) translated by Bernard-Marie Koltes and in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkmann (1993). One of his more recent parts was in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's L'Homme difficile - a difficult actor for a difficult man - in Jacques Lassalle's 1996 production at the Theatre de la Colline.

Before the opening in Paris of Strindberg's play (whose French title is Jouer avec le feu) in December 1996, the director, Luc Bondy, gave an illuminating interview in which he talked about Strindberg and Amstutz and suggested they were similar human beings. He called the playwright a "tormented genius" whose aim in the theatre was to strip bare the nervous systems of the players and expose them to the public. This kind of exposure was the basis of his own direction of the play, in which six characters tear each other apart in sudden changes of emotional temperature.

This strange, cruel drama is not without its dark humour, of an almost demonic kind. Bondy describes how one day when he was visiting Ibsen's house in Oslo (now a museum) he saw a portrait of Strindberg, which Ibsen kept hung over his desk, facing him. He particularly appreciated the "demonic eyes" of the playwright, and said: "He is my mortal enemy and he's got to be hung there watching over me while I write." Luc Bondy went on to say that he would be thinking of those demonic eyes during rehearsals.

Perhaps some of that demonic spirit had imposed itself from the beyond upon the actors too. The Swiss have a kind word for suicide: they call it freiwilliger Tod, or "death by one's own free will" - much more expressive than the abstract mort volontaire ("voluntary death") of the French. Roland Amstutz was a man whose intelligence shone through all his life and work. It was by his own free will that he ended it all. The play did not go on.

James Kirkup

Roland Amstutz, actor: born La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland 1942; died Recklinghausen, Germany 20 May 1997.