If ever there was a part that invited a “star” performance, it’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester. It’s gigantic (in Richard III alone, he has 1,171 lines in a play that’s 3,609 lines long!), spread over three plays, and has multiple opportunities for an actor to indulge in thespian pyrotechnics – the wooing of Lady Anne, the murder of Henry VI, the destruction of Lord Hastings. Gloriously theatrical writing abounds – “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York”, “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?”, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” But most of all, there is Richard as a character, a bold, ruthless, Marlovian anti-hero who fearlessly takes the audience into his confidence and drives hours of drama along as he pursues the glorious crown.
But unlike the other performers who have tackled the part – Barrymore, Olivier, Ian McKellen among many – Patrick Wymark consistently fails to take advantage of the attention-grabbing possibilities of the part, providing – dare I say? – a low-key performance of a bravura role. Wymark was never a flashy actor. A short, plump man, he would always be a character actor rather than a romantic or heroic lead. But at the same time, he lacked the shiny extroversion necessary to become a great comic or a scene-stealing eccentric. His eyes registered a wary intelligence that could signify duplicity, sensitivity or steely resolve with equal force, while his croaking tenor, articulate and precisely modulated, could project authority as it hinted at a chink in the armor, a scheme or a character flaw waiting to be revealed. When he undertook the role of ambitious, calculating executive John Wilder in the British TV show The Plane Makers (1963), he started a tradition of corporate hero-villains and secured his fame and fortune.
But his ascent was gradual – he appeared as one of the priests in Robert Helpmann’s production of Murder in the Cathedral at the Old Vic (1953), again as a priest in Twelfth Night (1955), and Montano in the landmark television version of Othello with Gordon Heath as the Moor (1955). His breakout role on stage was The Porter for Glen Byam Shaw’s legendary production starring Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. This set him off on a period of comic roles, as Bottom, Dogberry, Toby Belch and Launce.
After The Plane Makers and its sequel The Power Game, Wymark continued to appear on stage, TV and films, most memorably as Catherine Deneuve’s wicked landlord in Repulsion and as the colonel who sends Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood off on their mission in Where Eagles Dare.
An excellent website, www.wymark.org.uk chronicles Wymark’s career in great detail.
Patrick Wymark, 1926-1970. (Richard Duke of Gloucester/Richard III, Enobarbus, Parolles, Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, Caliban, Claudius, Boult)