Perhaps the ultimate ‘actor’s actor’, Michael Bryant was a mainstay of the National Theatre’s company for many years, and could usually be relied upon to give the most interesting and skilful performance in any given production.
I was lucky enough to see him on a number of occasions in variety of roles – an intense and frightening Prospero in Peter Hall’s final season, a show-stealing turn as the clerk Foldal opposite Paul Scofield in ‘John Gabriel Borkman’, and, most memorably for me, a sardonic, world-weary Fool opposite Ian Holm’s ‘King Lear’. In this role most of all he embodied everything I feel acting should be about – profoundly moving, sensitive and funny, the epitome of the company member serving the needs of the play.
Regardless of the many stars in attention-grabbing lead roles over the decades, it is still Michael Bryant I most strongly associate with the National. His standing was such that, when he died, his name was permanently fixed to the door of his dressing room, and his ashes were housed in boxes under the three stages of the National Theatre.
One of the best things about watching a truly great performance is that it inspires you to imagine yourself as a better actor. It must be the same for an athlete watching someone break a world record, or an artist looking at a masterpiece – it shows you just how powerful the craft can be – how close to perfection.
One performance that has always stayed with me and stood as an exemplar of just how high one can aspire to aim is Penelope Wilton’s performance as Deborah in Harold Pinter’s ‘A Kind Of Alaska’, at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998. The production was directed by Karel Reisz as part of a triple-bill of Pinter’s short plays.
Deborah wakes after 30 years, having contracted encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleeping sickness’, at 16, and she is forced to come to terms with herself as a middle-aged woman in a changed world. The text has an extraordinary beauty at times – a kind of irregular rhythmic poetry as Deborah’s shaky hold on language falters and breaks down, and she slips back into oblivion.
I was in my final term at LAMDA when I saw it and I remember finding Miss Wilton’s performance almost unbearably moving. She managed to convey the bewilderment, childlike confusion and fear of someone who has missed out on her own life. I was in awe of her ability to so completely inhabit a character whose experience is utterly unique.
It remains one of the finest performances I have ever seen. I was lucky enough to be able to collar her in the London Welsh Centre about 15 years later and thank her for her performance, and I am delighted to relate that she was entirely charming and kind as I stood and gibbered in front of her.
Of course, most sentient beings have known for decades that she is one of the very best there is – from ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ to ‘Cry Freedom’ she is always able to follow a direct line to the true humanity of the character. She can even make me cry in ‘Shaun Of The Dead’.