Acting genome - The son of James Burbage, builder of Britain’s first purpose-built theatre in Shoreditch, Richard became the star of William Shakespeare’s companies where he played the first-ever Hamlet, Othello, Henry V, Macbeth and Lear. At a time when acting was declamatory, Burbage’s tragedian style was new because he was considered “true to life”, assuming the realistic identity of his characters on stage, even when not required to speak his lines. As a contemporary wrote, Lear and Othello “lived in him” and he acted with rhetorical gestures so that “not a word did fall without just weight to balance it withal”.

DAVID GARRICK (1717-1779)
Acting genome - Actor, playwright, theatre manager, producer and a major influence on 18th-century acting, Garrick became the first theatrical superstar. After his astonishing Richard III and other roles at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, he purchased a share of the theatre and remained in management there for 29 years. Georgian London flocked to see Garrick, whose impassioned, free-flowing style rejected an entrenched emphasis on laboured gesture, gentlemanly diction and heroic deportment. After seeing Garrick’s new style of more realistic performance, one eye-rolling older actor, James Quin, remarked: “If this young fellow is right, then we have all been wrong.”

Acting genome - The Kemble family dominated the London stage at the turn of the 19th century and John was regarded as the finest actor of his day, with a reputation built on great classical roles such as Coriolanus. Reputedly a dignified and precise actor, Kemble personified the noble approach to thespianism. In performance, essayist William Hazlitt described him as a “stately hierogliphic of humanity”, a controlled style of performance that waned when his rival Edmund Kean introduced more naturalistic interpretations.

EDMUND KEAN (1787-1833)
Acting genome - This turbulent, charismatic, romantic actor who began as a strolling player but shot to fame after playing Shylock as an evil monster at Drury Lane. His reputation increased with portrayals of villains such as Richard III, Iago and Macbeth. With his flashes of energy, sudden violent emotions and strange power over audiences, wild boy Kean brought about a radical change in the prevailing classical style of the period and was so stirringly different from anything seen before that the poet Coleridge was driven to exclaim that, “to see him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”.

SIR HENRY IRVING (1838-1905)
Acting genome - One of the mightiest stage icons of the Victorian era and the first actor to be knighted, Irving managed the Lyceum theatre from 1878 to 1898, staging and starring in spectacular gas-lit Shakespeare productions, as well as melodramas, including his haunting The Bells. He also spent a lifetime driven by a burning desire to make his “beloved calling” a respectable art. A Times obituary published on 14 October 1905 argued that the most eminent tragedian of his age mesmerised audiences because he was never an emotional actor: “His first care was to read the part and the play, to find out what the author intended, and to build up for himself a conception of the character he was to represent. He played not for moments, but for general effect.” Visit the Irving Society website ( to hear a rare 1898 wax cylinder recording of Irving declaiming the opening speech of Richard III.

Acting Genome - A major stage and movie star, one of the founders of the National Theatre and the first actor to receive a peerage, Olivier is still considered by many to have been the greatest actor in the English-speaking world and the greatest Shakespearean interpreter. Some position Olivier at the pinnacle of the great 20th-century acting group that included Sir John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft, others view him as the last inheritor of the tradition of 19th-century romantic acting. But his immediate quality on stage was always the sense of danger. Recalling Olivier in action, author John Mortimer once wrote: “You had to watch him closely, every second, because you simply had no idea what on earth he was going to do next. And these magnificent moments didn't come off the top of his head; they were the result of long thought, years of observing people and thinking about them.”

SIR ANTONY SHER (born 1949)
Acting genome - Alongside Michael Gambon, Simon Russell Beale, Sir Derek Jacobi, David Suchet and Sir Ian McKellen, Sher is regarded as one of the great modern stage actors capable of dissolving themselves in the characters they play. But according to Brian Masters’ book Thunder in the Air (Oberon Books, £19.99), in roles such as Richard III, the transvestite in Torch Song Trilogy, Cyrano De Bergerac, Shylock and Macbeth, Sher is revealed as Kean’s heir – the “daredevil firework” in the box, the one intensely physical actor who most resembles the likes of Kean, as well as Olivier and Garrick. When Sher played painter Stanley Spencer in Stanley at the National in 1996, Masters says Sher’s outer transformation combined with an inner psychological truth enabled the actor to vanish behind his performance. “On that night, it was the ghost of David Garrick himself who trod the boards.”

Following a regional tour, Kean opens at the West End’s Apollo Theatre on 30 May 2007 (previews from 24 May). A version of this article appears in the May issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future editions - and also get all the benefit of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!