The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.028  Thursday, 26 January 2012


From:         Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         26 January 2012

Subject:     Nichol Williamson Dies December 16


When I was attempting to “prime the pump” a few days ago, I mentioned a stage production of Othello that opened the text to me in ways I had not considered before. Reading today’s newspapers reminded me of a similar moment in the 1969 film of Hamlet, directed by Tony Richardson, staring Nicol Williamson, staged at the Round House where it was originally produced:


This particular beat surrounds the business of Hamlet’s death at the end of the play/film.


As the dead Laretes falls out of the frame to the left, Williamson’s Hamlet in a one-shot says, “Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee.” Then he turns to the right and falls into a closely framed two-shot with Horatio, saying, as he stares into Horatio’s eyes, “I am dead, Horatio. Thou liv'st.  Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied.” To which, Horatio responds, “Never believe it. I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. Here's yet some liquor left.” To this, Hamlet immediately says, “Give me the cup. Let go. By heaven, I'll ha 't.” Horatio pauses, looks at the cup, and hands it to Hamlet who drinks the remainder of the poison in the chalice as the death scene moves toward its conclusion.


This film received decidedly mixed reviews, but I found these moments stunning, never having seen before or since, if my memory serves, these lines played this way.


Oh, yes, the news. It was just reported by his son Luke that Nicol Williamson died on December 16, 2011, in the Netherlands, his home for the past twenty years.


Here are some excerpts from the Washington Post, New York Times, and the Guardian, respectively:


Nicol Williamson, tempestuous but talented stage and screen actor, dies at 75

By Adam Bernstein, January 25


Nicol Williamson, a Scottish-born theater star heralded as one of the finest actors of his generation but whose menacing unpredictability onstage and off diminished his career, died Dec. 16 in Amsterdam of esophageal cancer. He was 75.

His son, Luke Williamson, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Mr. Williamson had lived in the Netherlands for more than two decades. The news of his death was reportedly delayed at the actor’s wish to die anonymously — an understated ending to a stormy life.


Mr. Williamson was a galvanic presence in dozens of stage and film roles and drew favorable comparisons with Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton.


Author Samuel Beckett pronounced him “touched by genius.” The British playwright John Osborne, who made Mr. Williamson a marquee name in the 1964 drama “Inadmissible Evidence,” considered him “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando.”


With his nasally twang, receding ginger hair, despairing eyes and hangdog face, Mr. Williamson had little of the young Brando’s beauty and raw physical power. He compensated with a demeanor that conveyed cunning, an explosive temperament and a general aura of sweaty self-loathing.


[ . . . ]


Willfully or not, Mr. Williamson seemed determined to torpedo his reputation through heavy drinking and erratic, often abusive behavior.


[ . . . ]


The son of a foundry worker, Nicol Williamson was born Sept. 14, 1936, in the Scottish mining town of Hamilton and raised in Birmingham, England. He appeared in repertory theater before joining London’s Royal Shakespeare Co. in 1962.


He dazzled audiences with his versatility and his ability to play much older characters convincingly. He was frequently mentioned as a leader among a crop of promising young talent that included Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen.


[ . . . ]


January 25, 2012

Nicol Williamson, a Mercurial Actor, Is Dead at 75



Nicol Williamson, a Scottish-born actor whose large, renegade talent made him a controversial Hamlet, an eccentric Macbeth, an angry, high-strung Vanya and, on the screen, a cocaine-sniffing Sherlock Holmes — and whose querulous temperament could make his antics as commanding as his performances — died on Dec. 16 in Amsterdam, where he had lived for more than 20 years. He was 75.


The cause was esophageal cancer, his son, Luke, said Wednesday on the Web site “He didn’t want any fuss made over his passing,” Luke Williamson said in an e-mail, explaining the delay in reporting his father’s death. “He was not interested in publicity.”


Mr. Williamson was rarely described as dull, sometimes as uncooperative, more often as unpredictable or tempestuous.


[ . . . ]


Mr. Williamson played Macbeth more than once, perhaps because his aggrieved Scottish temperament seemed so suitable for that tormented Scottish general and king. The first time, in London, he was directed by Trevor Nunn, and the performance was acclaimed. Later, in a Broadway production he directed himself, the eccentricities he brought to the role overwhelmed the production.


[ . . . ]


Mr. Williamson was born in Hamilton, Scotland, on Sept. 14, 1936, and grew up mostly in Birmingham, England, where, he once told The Globe and Mail of Toronto, “As a boy I always felt superior to others.” After serving in the British Army, he left home to become an actor in 1960, joining the Dundee Repertory Company and later the Royal Court in London, where he began garnering acclaim, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.


[ . . . ]


Nicol Williamson

Actor whose reputation for unpredictability never undermined his electrifying talent



Nicol Williamson, whose death of oesophageal cancer at the age of 73 has been announced, was arguably the most electrifying actor of his generation, but one whose career flickered and faded like a faulty light fitting. Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, a battered baby face and a mop of unruly curls, he was the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud, and certainly the angriest, though he scuppered his own performance at the Round House, north London, in 1968, by apologising to the audience and walking off the stage. The experience was recycled in a 1991 Broadway comedy called I Hate Hamlet, in which he proved his point and fell out badly with his co-star.


The Round House Hamlet was directed by another great maverick of that time, Tony Richardson, who had directed Williamson as the dissolute lawyer Bill Maitland in John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence (1964) at the Royal Court theatre. This was his greatest performance, and one from which he never really escaped, reviving it on the stage and making the 1968 movie; the play was seen again last year at the Donmar Warehouse, with Douglas Hodge in the leading role.


After a couple of chaotic performances in his own one-man show, and as the equally wild and unreliable actor John Barrymore A Night on the Town at the Criterion Theatre in London in 1994, Williamson was last sighted on the stage at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, Flintshire, as King Lear in 2001.


Its director, Terry Hands, a one-time colleague at the Royal Shakespeare Company, allowed him free rein to wander through the play, but many of the speeches were misplaced. Like Eric Morecambe playing the piano, he knew all the notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Still, the performance was fretted with moments of golddust and heartbreak, and you would not willingly have exchanged it for many a more competent or predictable performance.


Hands had taken the sensible precaution of cancelling the second-night performance as the first one was followed by the mother of all first-night parties, with Williamson banging out the jazz standards he loved to sing with a group of willing musicians, including the film critic Ian Christie.


Williamson's talent for acting and lust for life were brilliantly recorded in a 1972 essay by Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker which charted his haphazard preparation for a concert at the White House for President Richard Nixon. When it was published, warts and all, Williamson was furious and never spoke to Tynan again.


He was born in Hamilton, near Glasgow, the son of Mary (nee Storrie) and Hugh Williamson. He trained for the stage at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and made his professional debut at the Dundee Rep in 1960. In the following year, he appeared as Flute in Richardson's Royal Court production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.


[ . . . ]


When Trevor Nunn presented a season of Shakespeare's "Roman" plays at Stratford-upon-Avon, and later at the Aldwych in London, in 1973, Williamson gave a coruscating performance as an unusually virulent and misanthropic Coriolanus. He returned to Stratford in 1974 as a sour-faced, vinegary Malvolio in Twelfth Night and a wolverine, prowling Macbeth in the studio theatre, the Other Place. Nunn had started that production (Helen Mirren was Lady Macbeth) on the main stage in London, but cut out the Gothic excess for Stratford in a journey with the play that took him to the defining chamber version of it soon afterwards with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.


[ . . . ]


He had lived mostly in Amsterdam since 1970, but could sometimes be seen in various north London pubs, where he was quite happy to mind his own business and leave the pursuit of glamour and glory to other, less deserving performers. No one who saw him on stage will ever forget him, but it is difficult to see his career as anything but unfulfilled.


[ . . . ]


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