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Michael Coveney: Rupert, Fiona, and other remarkable actors

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I've been thinking about the really brilliant and remarkable people who work in our theatre. At the Evening Standard awards, David Hare made a stirring speech about two actors in plays of his who had not been honoured by the judging panel: Rupert Everett, allegedly giving the performance of his life in The Judas Kiss, which opens again this week at the Duke of York's; and newcomer Alex Lawther, who played the Hare schoolboy surrogate in South Downs.

Lawther has his career ahead of him and, while his talent is palpable, it remains to be seen if he goes on - as Samuel Barnett has gone on from The History Boys - to become a proper grown-up on the stage. Everett made a similar impression when he appeared as a schoolboy in Julian Mitchell's Another Country,  a play that also heralded the arrivals of Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh ( I wonder what happened to them...)

And now Everett, who did his best early work at the Glasgow Citizens, usually directed by Philip Prowse, is playing Oscar Wilde, someone whose natural flair, wit and interesting private life he can fully appreciate, if not exactly match.

He is, though, a brilliant writer, as well as a highly original and unusual actor: his underrrated Henry Higgins in Prowse's Chichester revival of Pygmalion, for instance, was more sinister, fascinating and wholly vampiric than, say, Anthony Andrews or (I imagine) Dominic West; incidentally, I hear a rumour that West as Higgins in the Sheffield Crucible My  Fair Lady will soon be replacing Viva Forever! (ie, not very long) at the Piccadilly.  
Fiona Shaw is an example of someone else whose career seems to know no boundaries. I thought her performance as the Venetian artist Galactia in Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution at the National last year was as outstanding, in its own way, as Victoria Hamilton's in Mike Bartlettt's Love Love Love at the Royal Court - neither has so far been honoured with an award; maybe that will change at tomorrow's Critics Circle shindig, but I'm not holding my breath - and now she's doing something equally remarkable in her Rime of the Ancient Mariner performance at the Old Vic Tunnels.

Shaw and Everett are not so much actors as artists, really. Perhaps someone should write a radical new play for them in which Rupert is George Bernard Shaw and Fiona, Mrs Pat Campbell; what fun it would be to see the two of them tearing strips off each other like a pair of caged beasts in a spiritual duel to the death on life, sex and theatre.

Meanwhile, I've been watching some of the video footage of Peace Camp, the extraordinary installation work created by Fiona Shaw with Deborah Warner for last year's London 2012 Festival as part of the Cultural Olympiad. An army of illuminated tents was placed in eight remote coastal locations around the British Isles, from Cornwall and Cuckmere Haven in Sussex to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Lewis in north east Scotland.

The pods came glowingly alive from dusk to dawn - resembling refugee camps in heaven, said the New York Times - to the accompaniment of the lapping waves and the howling wind, while snippets of poetry recited by Shaw and other actors emanated magically in the air, and human visitors wandered like stick insects, or inspecting officials, among the various encampments. It all happend over one July weekend; and then it was all gone, an intense (or "in tents") metaphor for the intransient, fleeting nature of theatre itself.

There is always something heroic about the finest of actors, and Shaw and Everett belong to that category, no question. These thoughts were prompted by news yesterday of the death of Anna Lizaran, the great Catalan actress who was a founder member of the two key, core Catalan companies of the 1970s, Comediants and the Theatre Lliure.

Although she appeared in many films, including Almodovar's High Heels, it was her stage work that defined her career. She worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of Catalan theatre, and the theatre academic Maria Delgado has written to me telling me that Lizaran was planning to return to the Lliure as the Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett until her illness kicked in.

Delgado says that it's hard to convey her greatness unless you had seen her on stage (which she did, many times), but she also says this: "She had something of the playfulness of Judi Dench, the wit of Maggie Smith, the down to earth humanity of Pauline Collins, the steeliness of Helen Mirren, the vocal intensity of Fiona Shaw." So, not bad, then. I wonder if she managed, too, something of Rupert Everett's magnificent disdain?


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