From William Shakespeare to Orson Welles

Laurence Inman casts a critical eye on the art of Shakespeare.




There’s a moment in Citizen Kane I always look forward to. It’s when the main characters are in Kane’s office at The Inquirer, early on in the story. Suddenly the door flies open and a young man delivers a message. It takes a few seconds. That character is never seen again. The actor is named in the full cast list on Imdb, but I can’t figure out which he is; there are so many ‘extras in The Inquirer.’ He is easy to forget, and that is the surest sign that he did his job exactly right. The small-part actors in films are like penalty-takers in football; if they miss, everybody notices. Even non-speaking extras have to be on their toes. They have to look as though they belong there. They have to remember Lee Marvin’s advice: Never let the camera catch you not thinking.

The small things are important, and no one understood this better than Shakespeare.

In every one of his plays, while the kings, generals and lovers are going through their huge motions, we often get a glimpse into their inner, ordinary world through a tiny word or gesture.

Othello, in the struggle to re-establish authority and credibility of his force in Cyprus, suddenly becomes aware of the alarm bell. ‘Silence that dreadful bell!’ he shouts. It was at the point during a performance at the Old Rep in 1968, with Michal Gambon as Othello and Brian Cox as Iago, that I suddenly realised how great Shakespeare was. He had seen that moment in his own life, many times probably, and knew immediately that he could use it just at this point, and that every member of the audience would recognise and respond to it.

In Antony and Cleopatra, after the great lady has died, Charmian is surprised by a Roman soldier. The last words she utters, just before she follows her queen, are: ‘Ah, soldier!’ We can never know what she is thinking here, but we can be sure that she is thinking something, and that it is important. There is an inner life being briefly revealed.

All the plays have interesting relationships between ‘minor’ characters. In All’s Well That Ends Well we have Parolles, a boastful, lying coward who would betray his own mother if the price was right. He is ritually humiliated and banished by the ‘good’ characters. He is castigated, more than once, by Lafeu, an old courtier. But Lafeu cannot entirely reject him. He sees a possibility of salvation, and Parolles knows it. Theirs is such a subtle, intricately-observed relationship; I gape with admiration every time I read their scenes. It works because it is real. Old men know the folly and brashness of youth. Lafeu has been, to a greater or lesser extent, Parolles in the past, and cannot judge him in the way the younger characters do.

As I myself begin the great stumble off into the desert of late-middle-age, I think of Shakespeare, the man, often, how he might have looked, lived, related to others. How he watched and absorbed everything, even the tiniest detail, because they were just as ‘important’ as the big events.