The defining moment for me, listening to this recording of Shakespeare’s first tragedy, came during Act III Scene 1, as Aaron the Moor presents Titus the opportunity (actually a gruesome prank) to save the lives of his sons by offering the emperor his own hand as a sacrifice. William Devlin as Titus and Tony Church as his brother Marcus are terrific in this scene. Devlin’s display of Shakespearean performance in the Heroic style is fascinating and emotionally compelling. I almost believe I’m listening to the purifying tones of classic tragedy. Tony Church plays off Devlin beautifully with a subtler, gentler reading full of quiet, devastating sympathy. And then…..
And then it happened. As Titus and Marcus argue with Titus’ son Lucius over who should offer up their hand, I felt a pull in the opposite direction. Shakespeare had crossed the line and the scene had become stupid, with the frantic redundancy of vaudeville farce and the gore-as-comedy easy laughs of Blackadder II.
And that’s Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare the actor wrote some good roles for actors like Devlin and Church (and Jill Balcon, wonderfully nasty as Tamora, Queen of the Goths). You can imagine the playwright knowing how Burbage will put it over on opening night. But Shakespeare’s method (according to the recording’s program notes) of taking a classical model like Seneca, removing the sophisticated tone of the original and cramming it with extra characters and incidents is dumbing down to an Elizabethan lowest common denominator. Just listen to Act 1, the hapless cast barreling through innumerable twists and turns, sketchily set up and hastily abandoned.
On the other side, there is the acting. The career of William Devlin (1911-1987) peaked early and briefly. Directly out of Oxford, he thrilled audiences as King Lear. Devlin’s annus mirabilis was the 1935/1936 season at the Old Vic, when the 24 year old actor performed Lear followed by Peer Gynt and Leontes, along with a number of smaller roles. If you watch him in the film version of The Mill on the Floss, it’s easy to imagine him as an excellent Peer, his abundant dark hair threatening disarray and his facial features, a little too large, hinting at Saturnine depths. Certainly his co-star in the film of Eliot’s novel, James Mason, would have found Ibsen’s free spirit beyond reach and would have withdrawn in purring detachment.
But Devlin was unable to sustain this momentum, too broad and theatrical for movies, and revealing in his leading roles on stage a tendency toward melodrama. Though he successfully revived his Lear a number of times (John Simon, notoriously hard to please, regarded it as the best he had seen), he settled quickly into supporting roles. He was a reliable presence in film and TV throughout the 50s and 60s, age having softened his pronounced features and dropped him permanently into the ranks of character actors playing barristers and brigadiers. He seems to have retired soon after appearing in a grade B horror film only to have his entire part re-dubbed by Donald Sutherland. Sometimes the message is too clear to ignore.
Finally, a note about Peter Orr (1931-?), who plays Aaron the Moor. Orr was the head of the British Council’s recorded sound division and, as a former Marlowe Society amateur actor with a microphone-friendly voice, was quickly recruited to perform for the Argo Shakespeare series. A fine reader of poetry with an excellent knack for Shakespearean blank verse, Orr provides a string of competent performances, but his limits as an actor are showcased in Titus Andronicus. He doesn’t embarrass himself, but…well yes, that’s it. He doesn’t embarrass himself. Aaron requires a 110 percent, fully committed performance, and one senses that Orr is either holding back or simply doesn’t know how to push himself to that extra level of intensity.
Titus Andronicus with William Devlin, Jill Balcon, Peter Orr, Tony Church, Frank Duncan and Dennis Arundell.
Update: The Patrick Wymark boardroom, a website dedicated to the master Shakespearean character player, has a detailed and balanced biography of William Devlin with photos. http://wymark.org.uk/devlin.html . You can see from some of the photos what happened to Devlin’s career in movies – the large nose, lips and brow which must have projected beautifully to the back row of a good sized theatre filled a gigantic movie screen too harshly – hence, pre-1960s television, he becomes a wild old testament prophet, a madman, a pirate.