Ian Richardson - career background


One of Britain's greatest actors, Ian was the leading artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company for some years, and has had spectacular success on stage in New York and Stratford, Ontario among others.
   Ian was last "discovered", playing the devious Francis Urquhart in "House of Cards", the TV series. Other outstanding TV work includes "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (again, the villain), and "Eyeless in Gaza". He also appeared in "Private Schultz", in which he enjoyed himself playing an incompetant English army officer, a German officer, and a wonderfully vulgar Glaswegian "old lag" (the first time I ever heard that glorious voice so altered). He appeared as the British general Montgomery in two versions of the same period story, one American and one British. (I hope our cousins across the water will not take it amiss if I say that the British was the better version. It was better TV for one thing, and the scenes between Ian and Timothy West as Churchill showed both actors at their best.)

   Born in Edinburgh, Ian trained in Glascow at the Academy of Music and Drama. He had an early success as Hamlet at Birmingham Repertory Theatre before joining the RSC, where he stayed to play an astonishing variety of parts, including almost every Shakespeare male lead. Anyone who saw "House of Cards" knows that Ian has developed the Shakespearean monologue - talking directly to the audience - most effectively. He has great stage presence, and is a daring and innovative actor, varying his performance frequently. He can be immensely moving or gloriously comic with equal facility.

   After leaving the RSC, Ian appeared as Tom Wrench in "Trelawny", the musical version of Pinero's "Trelawny of the Wells". This production opened the Bristol Old Vic after its renovation, and later came to London where it played at Sadlers Wells - the Wells of the title, later transferring to The Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End. Ian had great success at Stratford Ontario, where he played the uncut version of Shaw's "Man and Superman", with its inner play of "Don Juan in Hell" - a total of five and a half hours. It was this performance, together with his role of the doctor in "The Millionairess", that prompted Richard Eder in The New York Times to comment "it is conceivable that Shaw existed so that Richardson could play him". He appeared as Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" in New York, yet again receiving the kind of notices that most actors can only ever dream of.
   He returned to the RSC to play "Richard III", and also spent some time at The Old Vic with Prospect Theatre Company, playing Klestikov in Gogol's "The Government Inspector" and Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet".
   Ian's time at Stratford on Avon was spent with a superb company. He played with Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart, most memorably in "The Revenger's Tragedy" and in "Two Gentlemen of Verona". With Richard Pasco he alternated the roles of Bolingbroke and Richard in "Richard II" in the landmark production by John Barton. His "Coriolanus" was the most complete characterization of the role that I have seen; the pride and the humour and impatience were there: also, although a man of average height and excellent, slender, build, he appeared in the mysterious actor's way to be 6'3" and when he urged his army to follow him into battle, the audience shifted, remaining in its seats with some difficulty.

   Other very successful collaborations with John Barton were the memorable "Measure for Measure", and later, Barton's clear and moving production of "The Tempest", which also gave us marvellous performances from Ben Kingsley as Ariel (he wrote and played his own music) and Barry Stanton as Caliban; their scenes were almost unbearably moving: Patrick Stewart was Stephano, and Norman Rodway Trinculo.

   During Ian's time with the RSC they performed much of their best work. His Marat in the "Marat Sade" was filmed (the young Glenda Jackson, playing Charlotte Corday, murdered him), and others of his performances were filmed, although they seem to be in the vaults of the British Film Institute (and presumably the RSC). Among his finest comic performances were his Ford in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" - a glorious production - what a cast! Every part was a showcase of the particular actor's talent: Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce as the wives, Geoffrey Hutchins as Simple (how many times can an audience hug itself with delight?), Derek Smith as Doctor Caius, Jeffrey Dench as Page, the much-missed Emrys James as Parson Hugh, Lila Kaye as Mistress Quickly (she repeated the part some years later when Ben Kingsley played Ford), Brewster Mason as Falstaff; a young Roger Rees, in the role of Fenton, gave promise later fulfilled in such productions as "The Comedy of Errors" and "Nicholas Nickleby".

   Another of his great comic roles was Berowne in "Love's Labour's Lost". Again, he was in marvellous company. David Suchet (later famous as the definitive Poirot) was Ferdinand, and Estelle Kohler played Rosalind; the wonderful actor Mike Gwillym played Costard and Louise Jameson Jacquenetta. Norman Rodway was Holofernes, and Tony Church was Don Armado. Patrick Godfrey was a fine Boyet, and Susan Fleetwood the Princess of France.

   Ian has made very many audio recordings. His version of "The Jungle Books" is enthralling and exciting. He found a perfect voice for each different character, and it is like listening to a whole cast of actors to hear this one record.

   Ian has made a number of films, but so far, the only one that has done justice to his towering talent is "Mountbatten, the Last Viceroy", in which he was a wonderful Nehru. He has mostly been called upon to be a prissy Englishman so that some other character could "put him down". While he does this kind of thing very well, it is a waste of an actor who, in every case, has far more talent than the film's "stars". He was an excellent Polonius in the film of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead".

Shirley Jacobs