theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Dr Riley is an Australian academic whose first knowledge of Nigel Hawthorne was seeing him in Yes, Minister on television. It was not until he was playing the King in The Madness of George III at the National Theatre that she saw him on the stage. This fired her enthusiasm for theatre and she wrote to Hawthorne and received a reply. A year later she also saw him in his own production of The Clandestine Marriage and in 2000 flew from Sydney to see his King Lear at Stratford, gaining permission beforehand to interview him as, in her academic work, she was researching parallels between Lear, the Bennett play, and Greek and Roman dramatic treatments of the madness of Hercules. At the end of that Stratford interview she sought Sir Nigel’s authority to write an authorized history of his theatrical work.
Then only 25 years old, and with no first-hand knowledge of Hawthorne’s earlier work in theatre, nor of his South African and British theatrical background, she would hardly have been a first choice to undertake this task. Yet, she won his agreement, his co-operation and, over the following two years, as the actor fought the cancer from which he died, she gained his friendship and that of his partner Trevor Bentham. It is this very personal access to its subject which gives this biography its value. Much of it is written at the same time as Sir Nigel was working on his autobiography so that it forms a companion to that volume, concentrating on his theatrical life from his first exposure to theatre, through student days and professional experience in South Africa, and his struggles to establish himself in Britain all the way to his ultimate success.
Although Sir Nigel’s support has gained her the co-operation of his friends and professional colleagues, this is still essentially a work of research based on interviews, correspondence and press reports rather than personal experience. Dr Riley saw only the last three stage productions in which he appeared, and had no first-hand experience of the theatre which developed his talent, a theatre much of which had disappeared before the author was born, let alone before she first came to Britain. Inevitably, there are one or two small things she gets wrong: Cranks, for instance was certainly not Britain’s first vegetarian restaurant; there had already been an excellent one on Tottenham Court Road for half a century, which was patronized by George Bernard Shaw! Some of her ideas about the operation of and standards prevalent in British repertory theatres are also likely to be questioned by those with active experience of them. They have probably been formed by Kate Dunn’s Exit Through the Fireplace, which she quotes as a source.
She has interviewed or corresponded with many of Sir Nigel’s friends and colleagues, and trawled through reviews and published sources, both British and South African, to give a very detailed record of all his work in theatre. Much of her material, clearly, comes directly from Hawthorne himself and she is particularly interesting on his response to the directorial working methods at Theatre Workshop and the Royal Court, and on his performance as King Lear which received such a cold critical response and such a warm one from theatre audiences.
Dr Riley steers clear of hagiography but having no first-hand experience of most of his work, and drawing much of her material from Sir Nigel’s friends, her record lacks any strong critical perspective on his work. What emerges is a record of the life of a typical jobbing actor who eventually gained television fame (though this book restricts itself to his stage work) and final artistic recognition and acclaim. It also adds depth to the picture given by Sir Nigel’s personal record, revealing another layer of this retiring but determined and clearly very likeable man.
Tom Howard © 2004
Originally published on R&V 10-12-04
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