PETER O'TOOLE 02 August 1932 – 14 December 2013
RADA Council Member Richard Digby Day reflects on the life of Peter O'Toole.
The recent death of Peter O’Toole brought back many memories of his work and some reflections on the nature of fame and celebrity over these past decades.
I remember very clearly my first encounter with O’Toole as an actor: it was as Shylock in the only totally satisfying production of The Merchant of Venice I’ve ever seen. It was at Stratford in 1960. Directed by Michael Langham, it was O’Toole’s debut with what was shortly to become the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Since leaving RADA, O’Toole gained a wide range of repertory experience, notably at the Bristol Old Vic, where he was much influenced by the late, great Nat Brenner. But here, at Stratford, he was in grander company for the first time and, as a 27 year old he more than rose to the challenge. His Shylock was a great performance; dark robed, bearded, tall, he was both authoritative and disciplined but dangerous and magnetic - the outsider personified, using the text with clarity and immediacy. Unforgettable, even at this distance in time. The same might be said of his performance as Petruchio opposite Peggy Ashcroft’s Katharina. There was a quarter of a century between them in age, but in spite of Dame Peggy’s initial fears their collaboration was triumphant – truthful funny and finally touching.
I don’t think he got the same pleasure in playing Thersites in a memorable Troilus and Cressida that season – he seemed to gabble the text and perhaps he was only totally happy leading from the front, rather than in support.
He was certainly leading from the front in his major film debut as Lawrence of Arabia. David Lean was never an easy taskmaster. The occluded personality of the real T.E. Lawrence was very far from O’Toole’s natural persona except in his sense of charismatic control. What was achieved between Lean and O’Toole in this astonishing and award winning spectacle was a replacement of the real T.E. Lawrence with a creation of romance and Byronic force that more than satisfies. Historic truth is largely replaced by history as we wish it would be. It turned O’Toole into a world star and tragically there was never another cinematic role for him (not even two versions of Henry II) that could match it.
Later stage roles included Brecht’s Baal and Hamlet at the official opening of the NT (probably hampered by the fact that he was too inhibited by Olivier, and the occasion itself, to really give his own performance). Much later there was the disastrous and misconceived Macbeth that one imagines put him off London stage work for a long period. Elsewhere he played in Beckett, Noel Coward, Ben Travers and Bernard Shaw: in Shaw’s plays his Irishness, his wit, his natural sense of irony and wonderfully wide-ranging delivery of the text was a huge bonus.
There was a late triumph in the West End and elsewhere: this was Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, practically a one person play, based on the writings of the Soho social commentator. O’Toole’s comic control and delivery, together with a wonderful physicalisation of the part was total. One was made to love Jeffrey Bernard – a person who in real life we might well have found impossible!
Altogether an extraordinary, and in many ways exhilarating career, that, like Richard Burton’s, we might wish had been more sustained. I’m reminded a little of his fellow Celts, painter Augustus John and Patrick Kavanagh the poet – often brilliant, but artists whose everyday life seemed to matter more to them than their careers or the exercise of their astonishing gifts.