For the first time in years, a man capable of becoming a great and serious classical actor has appeared on the U.S. stage. Richard Chamberlain has a magnetic presence that holds an audience in thrall. Unlike most U.S. actors, he has an unforced command of the Shakespearean line. His delivery is intelligent, inflectively exact, and he conducts his voice as if it were an orchestra of verse. Chamberlain is inordinately handsome and bears himself with regal authority which makes him seem all the more a potential new Barrymore.
It is a long jump from TV's Dr. Kildare series to Richard II, but Chamberlain has leaped the full distance in a Seattle Repertory Theater production just concluded. He may well have been aided by the strength, sensitivity and symmetry of Duncan Ross's direction. Ross conceived the play as a medieval tapestry. All of his groupings for the various scenes have a kind of heraldic harmony. He has taught his actors to speak with clarity and to be still when they should be still. Thus, when the focus is on Richard, or on John of Gaunt, or on Bolingbroke, the concentration is total, with no dissipation of intensity through random movement.
Fop to Martyr. Like many of Shakespeare's plays, Richard II is a journey of inner transformation. As Prince Hal moves from tavern playboy to patriot King, so Richard moves from self-indulgent fop to martyr. Chamberlain accomplishes this with masterly gradations. His early Richard walks with a kind of saucy flippancy. When he banishes Bolingbroke and Mowbray from the realm, it is not so much with imperial ire as petulant impatience. He has already gained in gravity when he later drops to the ground and fondles the soil of England: "Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hands, Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs."
The word "tears" recurs frequently in Richard 11. Yet it is no easy task for an actor to evoke tears for a character who is so full of self-pity. It is proof of Chamberlain's high emotive gift that members of an audience, so rapt that they never coughed, had cause, more than once, to wipe their eyes.
Redeemed of Sin. Unkinged, Richard is most kingly. The fire of majesty flashes from Chamberlain's brow as he rebukes the usurping Bolingbroke: "The breath of worldly men cannot depose The deputy elected by the Lord." In his final scene, as piteously alone as he was once in clamorous pomp attended, bereft of crown and wife, Richard seems a saint redeemed of sin.
With his limited stage experience, Chamberlain is not without flaws. He tends to pose his arms and hands as if they were petrified objects of sculpture. He sometimes moves as if conscious of chalk-mark locations on the stage, rather than with an easy unconcerned grace. But these faults can be amended. The important point is that he is, in the language of sport, a natural. With further discipline, and firm resolve, he can become one of the lords of the stage.
© 2009 Time Inc
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