The Eloquent Man
In 2004 I was in an amateur performance of Robert Bolt’s magnificent play A Man for All Seasons. I played Richard Rich, the protégé of Sir Thomas More who betrays his trust in exchange for the mentorship of the villainous Thomas Cromwell and preferment in the civil service. Rich is a venal, weaselly, treacherous little man and it was a very enjoyable role to take on. In the 1966 film version, stuffed as it is with cinematic luminaries of the stature of Orson Welles, Susannah York and Leo McKern, plus multiple Redgraves, that part was essayed by a young John Hurt.
Two years ago I saw Sir John Hurt on stage. Not acting – sadly, his illness prevented him from appearing in last year’s The Entertainer at the Garrick, so I lost my last chance to see him perform – but giving an interview on behalf of his favoured charity, Project Harar (see CT [whevs] for the full account).
Over the course of the evening his interviewer, Patrick Strudwick, teased out a common theme amongst the most famous characters of Sir John’s career. He pointed to the isolation and alienation experienced by figures such as Joseph Merrick, Quentin Crisp, and even the Emperor Caligula, separated from his peers by his rank, his assumed divinity and, of course, his crippling insanity. Kane is literally isolated from his crewmates by quarantine. And Winston Smith lives in a society where the last refuge from tyranny is in the lonely spaces of one’s own mind…until even those are taken away. Amongst all of Hurt’s most famous roles, he brings to even the most seemingly perverse and evil roles the sadness and frailty that inevitably stem from the impossibility of human connection. I hardly need point out how that relates to his appearance in Doctor Who.
Over the course of the evening I realised I might have misjudged Richard Rich. Maybe he isn’t mercenary and callous at all. Maybe he is searching for a father figure. Maybe he turns to Cromwell because More has rejected him, not out of ambition or avarice.
At the end of the evening we were lucky enough to meet Sir John and have a photo taken. As he signed my Project Harar flyer I put the question to him: was Rich a corrupt man, or was he looking for a paternal relationship that More denies him?
Hurt pause for a moment before replying. “No, I don’t think he’s corrupt,” he said. “I think he’s the sort of man of whom any mother would say, ‘Haven’t I got a clever son?’”
So true. As Sir John knew, Rich was possessed of a politician’s capacity to bend with the blowing wind. In the play as in life, Sir Thomas More loses his head; in reality, Cromwell’s followed a few short years later. Richard Rich became Lord Chancellor and acquired a baronetcy, and died in his seventies – which was bloody good going for anyone in the sixteenth century, let alone for a minister of Henry VIII.
In that one short sentence, Sir John demonstrated three of the gifts that made him a great actor.
Firstly, he took the question seriously, coming from a clueless civilian though it was (I didn’t mention having played Rich at the Gladstone Theatre in Port Sunlight; it would have been too like telling an astronaut that I once got a nosebleed on an Easyjet descent into Rome). John Hurt didn’t have a trivial bone in his body. That’s not to say that he had no sense of humour or was incapable of lightness of touch; nobody without humour could have portrayed Quentin Crisp so completely. But he treated his characters like real people, irrespective of the supposed humility of their origins; much to the advantage of fans like us, of franchises such as Doctor Who and Harry Potter. Perhaps his experiences with Alien and 1984 had left him with an ingrained respect for genre fiction; but he also respected his audience and never short-changed them by giving less than his full concentration to a role.
Secondly, he trusted his audience. Like many great actors, Sir John’s performances focussed on the truth of his characters. If they react like people, if they laugh and cry where we would laugh or cry, if they bleed when pricked, then it doesn’t matter how outlandish their situation or how arcane the dialogue. We believe in the people he gives us, and so we follow every word they say. Our understanding isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional, and in Sir John’s expert hands even monsters like Caligula can generate sympathy. I watched I, Claudius for the first time last year and marvelled at the way Hurt had laid the groundwork so expertly that by the time Caligula is committing his great evil against his sister, Metis, it was impossible to hate him for it; all I could feel was desperately sorry for them all. The ‘galloping hooves’ motif still works so well, even if a modern monster might interpret it as the sound of drums…
Thirdly, he was possessed of a rare gift of empathy. He was not reactionary, and he didn’t think in simplistic binaries like ‘hero/villain’. His object was first to understand. Hurt was possessed of that unusual quality, dignity unmarred by pomposity. The difference is like the difference between good manners and mere etiquette: dignity is not self-regarding, but makes room for the dignity of others.
That’s a lot of meaning to unpack from two dozen words, but John Hurt always did make a little go a long way. That’s the job we have now: to take the little of John Hurt we have left, and to make it last. He represented the dispossessed, the misunderstood, the vilified, and he taught us that our dignity is contingent on theirs. No wonder he made such a wonderful Doctor.