The reason Kate Moss timelessly endures as a model is that you never tire of her face, although you see it everywhere, every day. I have the same response to Ben Whishaw, who won an Emmy last week for his role in the BBC's Criminal Justice series. He is acting incarnate, not so much a performer as a lightning conductor for drama.
Some actors see their careers as preparations for the great roles. Whishaw began by playing Primo Levi and Hamlet at the Old Vic, the best Hamlet that I have ever seen. Perhaps he is working backwards and is saving the cameo roles until last.
Of course, youth suits him, and particularly anguished youth. You would not consider casting anyone else for Keats. Trevor Nunn, who directed Hamlet, said of Whishaw that he "has a face of great sensitivity and astonishing youthfulness".
Whishaw is so charismatic that roles become him rather than the other way round. I don't know if Mike Bartlett's Royal Court play Cock is bespoke, but his physical description of the man at the centre of a romantic triangle uniquely fits Whishaw. So there is yet another role he can claim a monopoly on.
You can understand why other actors must have ground their teeth over the defining attributes that Laurence Olivier once brought to his roles. I suspect that same will happen to Whishaw. (Olivier too made his name with a Hamlet at the Old Vic.) As with Olivier, his sexual preferences have been questioned, although this hardly matters. Joan Plowright, Olivier's widow, explained with lofty simplicity on Desert Island Discs: "If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He does not lead an ordinary life."
The difference is that Whishaw's ambivalent sexuality is central to his acting, which is why I think he represents our age – as well as the theatre – so well. London theatre is living through an energetic and original age and I don't think it is a coincidence that many artistic directors and playwrights are gay. Their ease and interest in the subject takes us far beyond stereotyping. If a play such as Cock had been constructed a generation earlier, the anguish, surely, would have been over a man in a heterosexual relationship discovering his true identity as a homosexual. In this play, there is a bracing reversal, so the man in a conventional gay relationship wonders if his true identity is heterosexual.
Whishaw, when not playing dead poets, is wonderfully positioned to convey contemporary sexual complexity. He is physically appealing to both sexes, and it was interesting to watch the combined longing of the audience, male and female alike, at the Royal Court. He is a sacrifice of the sex war, a culturally symbolic role, as well as individually witty and interesting. The author of Cock, Mike Bartlett, like the actor, is in his twenties, which is the age group that is making such waves in theatre at the moment. There are some very clever and talented performers and writers grasping the issues of our times.
Whishaw is the face of this generation. He and his fellow travellers are releasing us all from the cultural grip of the baby boomers. It is the most exciting thing happening in Britain.
Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening StandardReuse content