Monday, 30 January 2012
Nicol Williamson RIP
Actor whose unpredictability never undermined his electrifying talent
Thursday 26 January 2012
Nicol Williamson, whose death of oesophageal cancer at the age of 73 has been announced, was arguably the most electrifying actor of his generation, but one whose career flickered and faded like a faulty light fitting. Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, a battered baby face and a mop of unruly curls, he was the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud, and certainly the angriest, though he scuppered his own performance at the Round House, north London, in 1969, by apologising to the audience and walking off the stage. The experience was recycled in a 1991 Broadway comedy called I Hate Hamlet, in which he proved his point and fell out badly with his co-star.
Williamson's greatest performance was as the dissolute and disintegrating lawyer Bill Maitland in John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court theatre in 1964. It was a role from which he never really escaped, reviving it on the stage and making the 1968 movie. The play was seen again last year at the Donmar Warehouse, with Douglas Hodge in the leading role.
After a couple of chaotic performances in his own one-man show, and as the equally wild and unreliable actor John Barrymore in A Night on the Town at the Criterion theatre in London in 1994, Williamson was last sighted on the stage at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, Flintshire, as King Lear in 2001.
Its director, Terry Hands, a one-time colleague at the Royal Shakespeare Company, allowed him free rein to wander through the play, but many of the speeches were misplaced. Like Eric Morecambe playing the piano, he knew all the notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Still, the performance was fretted with moments of golddust and heartbreak, and you would not willingly have exchanged it for many a more competent or predictable performance.
Hands had taken the sensible precaution of cancelling the second-night performance as the first one was followed by the mother of all first-night parties, with Williamson banging out the jazz standards he loved to sing with a group of willing musicians, including the film critic Ian Christie.
Williamson's talent for acting and lust for life were brilliantly recorded in a 1972 essay by Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker which charted his haphazard preparation for a concert at the White House for President Richard Nixon. When it was published, warts and all, Williamson was furious and never spoke to Tynan again.
He was born in Hamilton, near Glasgow, the son of Mary (nee Storrie) and Hugh Williamson. He trained for the stage at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and made his professional debut at the Dundee Rep in 1960. In the following year, he appeared as Flute in Richardson's Royal Court production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
He was at the Arts theatre in Women Beware Women and in Henry Livings's Nil Carborundum in 1962. With Page directing, he played Vladimir at the Court in the first major London revival of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, partnered by Alfred Lynch as Estragon.
He took his performance of Bill Maitland to New York in 1965, where he was nominated for a Tony award and came to blows with the producer, David Merrick. Although his reputation for unpredictability grew, his talent was recognised in Bafta best actor nominations for his film performances in Inadmissible Evidence, The Bofors Gun (1968) and a 1972 television film of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
When Trevor Nunn presented a season of Shakespeare's "Roman" plays at Stratford-upon-Avon, and later at the Aldwych in London, in 1973, Williamson gave a coruscating performance as an unusually virulent and misanthropic Coriolanus. He returned to Stratford in 1974 as a sour-faced, vinegary Malvolio in Twelfth Night and a wolverine, prowling Macbeth in the studio theatre, the Other Place. Nunn had started that production (Helen Mirren was Lady Macbeth) on the main stage in London, but cut out the Gothic excess for Stratford in a journey with the play that took him to the defining chamber version of it soon afterwards with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.
Williamson was never as much a part of the RSC as some of his leading contemporaries, but he did "muck in" with a small-scale production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Other Place, with his wife, Jill Townsend, in 1975. He had married Townsend when she appeared as his daughter in the Broadway production of Inadmissible Evidence (they divorced in 1977).
His best-known film roles included Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976, in which Watson, played by Robert Duvall, persuades Holmes to visit Sigmund Freud, played by Alan Arkin); and Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981, with Nigel Terry as Arthur and Helen Mirren as Morgana). "I enjoyed playing Merlin," Williamson told the Los Angeles Times. "I tried to make him a cross between my old English master and a space traveller, with a bit of Grand Guignol thrown in."
He had lived mostly in Amsterdam since 1970, but could sometimes be seen in various north London pubs, where he was quite happy to mind his own business and leave the pursuit of glamour and glory to other, less deserving performers. No one who saw him on stage will ever forget him, but it is difficult to see his career as anything but unfulfilled.
He is survived by his son, Luke.
Jack Gold writes: Friends made me fearful when they heard I was making my first feature film, The Bofors Gun, with Nicol Williamson. He had a reputation of a dangerous disposition combined with a staggering talent. The part of a near-psychotic squaddie was written by John McGrath with Nicol in mind. My fears were groundless. He was totally professional, exacting, volatile and provocative in his work, both with myself and with tremendous actors including David Warner, Ian Holm and John Thaw. His performance was justifiably acclaimed.
We worked together several more times, each one with a mixture of excitement and not a little trepidation on my part: The Reckoning in 1969 (he was Michael Marler, a protagonist red in tooth and claw from working-class Liverpool, succeeding in the City and Berkshire), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, aka The Gangster Show (Brecht's comic, sinister take on Hitler), Macbeth (for the BBC, 1983) and Richard Nixon in a David Edgar version of the Watergate tapes, I Know What I Meant (1974); all strong, often dangerous, unlikeable characters.
Nicol never kowtowed to an audience or tried to charm them. Film crews adored him for his understanding and respect for their craft. He worked as strongly with other actors when he was off-camera as when on. His comic improvisations of the people around him were brilliant and often uncomfortable. He liked "stirring"; at the end of filming The Reckoning, we presented him with a 6ft wooden spoon.
Directing him was a constantly surprising process. He was quick to understand even a hint of a suggestion. There were rapid and subtle changes of expression, his antennae as finely tuned as his performances. He liked the challenges, the technicalities, the rigours of filming (Barry Jackson remembers Nicol filming repeated takes stripped to the waist during a freezing night shoot), but if ever there was a piano handy, he was immediately seated there, singing ballads, blues, rock, jazz. He loved the great musicians and improvisation. I think that, latterly, that is where his heart truly lay.
• Nicol Williamson, actor, born 14 September 1938; died 16 December 2011