Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Richard Briers in Shakespeare

The summer I got married, Kenneth Branagh was touring Britain with his Shakespeare theatre company. They were due to come to Norwich just after our wedding, so part of our celebration was to go and see A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear on consecutive nights. Because the theatre in Norwich was being refurbished at the time, they were doing it in a tent in one of the parks.
So we got the pre-play speech each night by Kenneth Branagh explaining why there was no scenery - when they'd measured up in the spring, it would have fit in the tent, but since then the tent had sunk several inches into the mud, and the scenery was now too big to fit!
In The Dream, Richard Briers played Bottom. He was brilliant, of course - it was the sort of role he could do with his eyes closed.
The following night, he played King Lear - and it was a revelation! This wasn't a light comic actor, famous as Tom Good and as a panto villain in Doctor Who's Paradise Towers! This was an actor of the stature of the other greats who have played Lear. Coming the day after we'd seen him play Bottom made it all the more impressive.
Maybe it was partly the live performance, but I thought he was far better than Laurence Olivier in the BBC TV version of the play - and Emma Thompson twisted herself into grotesque shapes as the Fool and was likewise awesome. We staggered out of that tent with our jaws on the floor!
Kenneth Branagh also cast him in several Shakespeare films, and I've enjoyed his performances in Much Ado About Nothing, acting with Brian Blessed, and as Polonius in Hamlet. I remember seeing an interview with him where he confessed to being really nervous while acting opposite Gerard Depardieu and saying that he always ended up speaking very fast because of his nerves!
So, while I'll always watch a re-run of The Good Life - it's the Shakespeare that I'll really remember Richard Briers for.

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