Great Lives - Sir Donald Wolfit

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Great Lives: Sir Donald Wolfit (2002). Perf. Humphrey Carpenter, Ned Sherrin, Ronald Harwood. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 17 Jul. 2014. BBCiPlayer

The memory of this genius of the British Shakespearean theater has been brought alive in Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" (1980), whose central character "Sir," while not directly based on Wolfit, nonetheless contains several of his familiar traits. A new production of the play, with Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, is scheduled for broadcast on the BBC later in 2015.

This tribute to Wolfit was led by Ned Sherrin, who has put together the actor's obituary program (broadcast in 1968), and retained a long-standing affection for the actor, whom he had first seen in the early Fifties, towards the end of his career as an actor/manager. Wolfit was never someone to do anything by halves (on the stage, at least) and Sherrin vividly brought to life the actor's penchant for mesmerizing audiences through sheer force of personality. His King Lear still lingers on in the memory of those who saw it as the best interpretation of the play they had ever seen.

The program contained several recordings of Wolfit in performance; his Lear, Tamburlaine, and Falstaff being the most memorable. There were also tributes from the archives to his genius from Sybil Thorndike and Harold Pinter, not to mention a memorable interview with the director Tyrone Guthrie, who commented on the actor's inability to work within a acting ensemble, having become so accustomed to the actor/manager tradition. There was a certain amount of disingenuousness about this observation; by all accounts Wolfit and Guthrie never got on when they worked together at the Old Vic in the Thirties and the Fifties, and Wolfit left the Old Vic Company (after having debuted in a magnificent "Tamburlaine" in 1951), following a clash of personalities.

Ronald Harwood offered some valuable insights into Wolfit's personality; offstage he was far less imposing than he might have appeared onstage, which helps to explain why so many actors, and other stage personnel, Harwood included, stayed with him for so long. Perhaps Harwood's judgments on Wolfit's performances might be contestable, but he gave us a clear understanding of why the actor/manager was so important a personality during his long career on tour.

I have only one criticism to make of this excellent production; there were too many funny anecdotes involving Wolfit, which told us little about his personality. Rather this strategy gave the impression of three old-timers (Sherrin, Harwood and Carpenter) sitting in a restaurant swapping stories. I'd have liked more focus on the Great Life.

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