WhatsOnStage Logo
Home link

Michael Coveney: Actors following in famous fatherly footsteps

'Father's Day is a good excuse to celebrate the passing of the flame from one generation to another in the theatre'

Family trade: James and Jack Fox in publicity image for Dear Lupin

On the 30 January 1937, Laurence Olivier stepped forward at the curtain call of Hamlet at the Old Vic and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born: Laertes has a daughter." Laertes was Michael Redgrave and his daughter was Vanessa, and Olivier was assuming, presciently, that a dynasty was in the making.

Father's Day this Sunday - on both sides of the Atlantic - is a good excuse to celebrate this most enduring of traditions, the passing of the flame from one generation to another in the theatre. Only the other night, at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, this happened quite literally when, at the end of his last ever solo performance of Beowulf, Julian Glover passed a torch to his actor/director son Jamie.

It was Jamie who played the ultimate mixed-up offspring role, Hamlet, with Julian playing Claudius and his mother Isla Blair as Gertrude; just to complicate the Freudian nature of that set-up, Julian's first wife was Eileen Atkins, so a warped motivation for Hamlet killing his own onstage father could be revenge on his real-life father for marrying the woman he, Hamlet, most loved, his own mother.

It must be odd, too, for Phoebe Pryce, now playing Jessica in The Merchant of Venice at the Globe, to disown her own father, Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, and run away with Lorenzo, as well as his ducats. And two current father/son double acts actually playing father and son onstage, with all the unexpressed frisson that implies, are James and Jack Fox in Dear Lupin, coming to the Apollo at the end of July after touring earlier this year; and John and Lex Shrapnel in Caryl Churchill's A Number in two weeks' time at the Young Vic.

'Is it good, or merely terrifying, to see so much of ourselves in our own fathers?'

A Number is the most bizarrely appropriate play for Father's Day in containing all those doubts, fears and anxieties we have as both sons and fathers. The son in the play, having newly discovered that he's not an only child, but one of a number of clones, confronts the old man: what the hell's going on, a question on everyone's lips when Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig opened in what one critic called the first true play of the 21st century; well, it was only 2002, and was in some ways the Royal Court's serious-minded response to Stephen Sondheim. "Send in the clones" has entered the language as a pun on the song title from A Little Night Music which looks back on lost opportunities, not forward to new possibilities.

The father in A Number, a crazy scientist, has stolen the genetic material for one replacement son and created a whole lot of them. How similar will genetically identical children be? How could Laurence Olivier be sure that Vanessa would turn out to be a chip off the old block? Is it good, or merely terrifying, to see so much of ourselves in our own fathers? And is it terrifying, or merely reassuring, to see so much of ourselves in our sons and daughters? Families are funny things. We love each other but know better than anyone else why we might not.

To then place all these questions in the context of theatrical re-enactment between real-life fathers and sons, is both bizarre and interesting. The Shrapnels are following in the footsteps of Timothy and Samuel West, who first brought this extra layer to Churchill's play, as they did to the Henry IV plays for English Touring Theatre as Falstaff and Prince Hal. As far as I know, that was a first, and the current RSC schools tour conflation of the Henry plays suggests that a single actor playing both Henry IV and Falstaff can wring even further variations on the dilemma Hal faces in choosing between his real father (responsibility, duty, love) and his surrogate (bad behaviour, liberty, friendship).

Another non-filial set of reverberations surround the long-running thriller The Woman in Black which director Robin Herford is reviving at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph next week as part of the theatre's 60th anniversary programme. The horror and surprise of Stephen Mallatratt's brilliant adaptation of Susan Hill's novel will be charged to Christopher Godwin and his son Tom Godwin, each of whom is not so much haunted by the other as by the town itself: Tom was born in Scarborough where his father was a mainstay of Alan Ayckbourn's company during his early years. The theatrical spookiness of the play should be renewed in the local habitation where it first appeared.

On the dynasty front, the great theatre families of our day have been not only the Redgraves, but also the Foxes (not just James and Jack, but Edward and Emilia and Freddie) and the Cusacks. Two Redgrave sisters, Vanessa and Lynn, appeared with their cousin, Jemma, in Chekhov's Three Sisters but were gazumped in the same year (1990) by three Cusack sisters - Sinéad, Sorcha and Niamh - appearing in those same roles (at the Gate in Dublin, and the Royal Court) but with the added bonus of their dad, the great Cyril, playing the old doctor who falls disastrously off the wagon on the night of the fire.

There are some proud dads this Father's Day with sons showing every sign of emulating their own fine careers: Alun and Joe Armstrong (Joe's on tour with Nick Payne's Constellations), Brian and Alan Cox (Alan's about to rehearse for Edinburgh in a new play with Phil Jupitus), Henry and Ilan Goodman (Ilan's in Bad Jews at the Arts). Then there's Ben and Edmund Kingsley, Jeremy and Max Irons (who's a grandson of Cyril Cusack)... will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?

My own son's on holiday with his family at the moment, and I'll be in Amsterdam and Rouen this weekend watching Shakespeare's Henry VI plays which have one of the most poignant scenes in all Shakespeare: on the battlefield - and on the 200th anniversary of nearby Waterloo! - we meet a son that has killed his father and a father that has killed his son. Are they by any chance related? Not even cloned.

Read more from Michael Coveney