Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman

was prepared for the March 20, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Legend Plays a Legend

`More, more, more; I can’t give any more. I have nothing more

to give. I want a tranquil senility. I’m a grown man. I don’t want

to go on painting my face night after night, wearing clothes that

are not my own. I’m not a child dressing up for charades; this is

my work, my life’s work. I’m an actor and who cares if I go out there

tonight or any other night and shorten my life?’

From `The Dresser’ by Ronald Harwood.

The rich resonant and eminently cultured

voice that says "good morning" to me on the phone belongs

to Douglas Campbell, one of Canada’s most honored and adulated actors

(awarded the Order of Canada in 1997). To be 80 years old, with more

than 50 years of virtual non-stop role-playing behind him, makes

Campbell’s

appearance a major event at the Bristol Riverside Theater, in the

part of Sir in Ronald Harwood’s "The Dresser."

Unlike the character Sir, who is approaching senility, Campbell

remains

at the peak of his artistry. In the play, Norman, Sir’s devoted

dresser,

his wife, and stage manager, valiantly try to prepare the aging,

forgetful

actor for the evening’s performance of "King Lear," while

bombs are being dropped near a provincial theater in England in 1942.

What a great opportunity this is for those of us who have not had

the privilege of seeing Douglas act either at the Stratford

Shakespeare

Festival in Ontario, or at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Campbell

is recognized as one of the great Lears of our time. He appeared in

a successful tour of Canada and the United States, in the 1980s that

unfortunately did not come to New York. During his long, eventful,

and enduring tenure (since 1953) at Stratford, he performed many of

the great roles in the classic and modern repertoire, among them

"Oedipus

Rex," directed by Tyrone Guthrie (1955) and Orgon in John Hirsch’s

production of "Tartuffe."

Campbell admits that, "Any actor who gets to the ridiculous age

of 80 feels compelled to go on performing and go on asking: `What

in the name of God, am I doing this for?’" If nothing else, he

knows he is passing on a tradition. Of his six children (four children

from his previous marriage to actor Ann Casson, and two with actor

Moira Wylie), he has directed two of his sons Benedict and Torquil

on the stage. He directed Benedict, who is now a member of the

Stratford

ensemble in Wycherley’s "The Country Wife," in 1995, and

Torquil

in "Henry IV, Part 1" (2000), at the Bard on the Beach production,

Vancouver.

It doesn’t surprise me to hear Campbell say that he doesn’t see much

of himself in Sir, considering that the role of the actor and manager

has largely vanished in modern times. Although he has previously

played

Sir in Toronto and in Hamilton, Ontario, he says working with Bristol

Riverside’s artistic director Edward Keith Baker has been an extremely

good and enlightening experience. It has brought him new insights,

one being how Sir’s relationship with his dresser is akin to Lear

and the fool. In preparation, director Baker went to England where

he worked side by side with renowned director Michael Langham, who

serves as artistic adviser to this production of "The

Dresser."

Langham and Campbell have a long association that dates back to the

Stratford Festival.

I asked Campbell if he felt he had got to the heart of Lear. "I

think an actor would be a fool if he thought that any great role had

been completely answered by their performance. There is so much to

be gained by different reactions from different audiences," says

Douglas, acknowledging Lear as being the most intellectually

challenging.

But it is "Othello," that is, he says, "the real

bastard."

As his most demanding experience on stage, he cites the four hours

of "The House of Atrius," at the Guthrie. For a repertory

actor like Campbell, who has had the job of playing "Othello,"

at the same time rehearsing "Macbeth," there comes an

immediate

understanding, empathy and respect for Harwood’s poignant Sir, the

last of a valiant and noble breed.

Another challenge for the actor who finds his niche

in a repertory company is being cast in a role he is totally unsuited

for. "I was never what you might call a juvenile, or traditional

leading man. I was a tallish, freckled, rumbustious red-headed boy

able to play character parts, he says with a laugh as he recalls being

cast in Somerset Maugham’s "The Breadwinner," in which he had

to say something like "I say, anyone for tennis?"

While "Lear" and "Falstaff" (he appeared as Falstaff

in Stratford’s impressive mounting of Shakespeare’s "Henry"

plays last year) remain his favorite roles, he says that with each

great role, he draws from a part of himself, allowing himself to learn

more about being human. "That is the advantage of living a long

time and playing many great parts."

Although "The Dresser" is based on Harwood’s experience as

a dresser to the great Sir Donald Wolfit (whom Campbell says he knew

briefly), and that followed his days as an actor, the character of

Sir is really an inspired composite of the legendary actor/managers

who invested their own money and hired their own actors. "My

relationship

with the part is that I’ve never done anything else but pound the

boards," says Douglas.

A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Campbell left home in 1953 to come

to Canada as an actor with his friend Tyrone Guthrie, with whom he

had worked at the Open Stage at the Edinburgh Festival. Although

Campbell

says he was "a total dunce" at school and thought he might

like to be an artist, he earned a living doing heavy labor and driving

trucks.

"I went into the theater because I could drive a truck. Guthrie

had hired me to drive the company truck on a tour of `Medea’ in South

Wales with Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. I always had a splendid

voice and Casson took an interest in me. I began as an understudy

and have never stopped since."

Guthrie, who had come to Canada to open the Stratford Shakespeare

Festival, hired Campbell. Being part of the ensemble didn’t stop him

from forming his own Canadian Players to give ensemble members year

round work.

"It continued for 10 years, but we priced ourselves out of

existence.

The trade unions made it impossible to go on." But go on he did,

after 10 years at Stratford to join up with Guthrie in Minneapolis.

His 1966 post as artistic director at the Guthrie was short lived.

"I’m not a good diplomat. I didn’t get on with anyone on the board

and left after one year." Campbell has been back at Stratford,

off and on for the past 20 years, but says he is not "sanguine

about what’s going on there."

There is something going on in North Hatley, Quebec,

where a little theater called the Piggery has run into some hardship.

Campbell will come to the rescue by directing their upcoming season

("I must be entirely out of my mind") following his run in

"The Dresser." If Campbell says that the idea of retiring

scares him, he would like to ease back into painting and "finish

off the way I started." Does hel have any regrets about roles

he’s missed? "I never played Captain Hook in `Peter Pan,’"

he says, laughing with deep-voiced resonance that would definitely

give pause to the croc.

The following is the epilogue to our conversation. Campbell’s stream

of prose went uninterrupted by me. Let me to share it with you:

"I want people to understand that the theater is not just a place

for entertainment, but that it is closely linked to literature. We

have to re-examine what words mean and to hear them spoken and spoken

well. It is an essential part of the theater. I would say to

everybody,

take more interest in language; be interested in what words mean.

From the actors’ point of view: try to make the words ring in people’s

minds and ears. Don’t just shuttle them off as if they were getting

in the way of you expressing yourself. I’m an actor. I don’t know

what else I could have been."

— Simon Saltzman

The Dresser, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120

Radcliffe

Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Opening night for Ronald Harwood’s

drama that runs to April 7. $27 to $34. Friday, March 22, 8 p.m.


Previous Story Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments