Joss Ackland: a beacon of power on British stage and screen | Stage
Joss Ackland: a British Stage and Screen Icon
– A Legacy of Talent and Versatility
– Joss Ackland: The Unforgettable Performances
– The Duality of Shakespeare’s Falstaff
– Ackland’s Musical Mastery
– The Bewildered Decency of Joss Ackland
Joss Ackland, the iconic British actor, has left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry with his versatile and powerful performances. With over 130 film and TV roles to his name, Ackland’s talent and dedication were truly unmatched.
The Unforgettable Performances
Ackland’s ability to oscillate between the mundane and the exceptional was evident in his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV with the RSC. He captured the rich duality of the character, showcasing Falstaff as a comic symbol for the supernatural order of charity, as well as a ruthless, earthy realist.
In Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Ackland portrayed Fredrik Egerman, perfectly capturing the tension between sexual frustration and memories of tender fulfillment. His performance as Argentine President Juan Perón in Evita showcased his brilliance as a square-shouldered symbol of power.
The Bewildered Decency of Joss Ackland
Ackland’s greatest gift was portraying bewildered decency, as seen in his roles in the film White Mischief and the Michael Frayn TV play, First and Last. His unparalleled ability to show complexity behind the facade of the seemingly ordinary solidified his status as a true acting legend.
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JOss Ackland, who has died aged 95, was a fine actor: he was, you might say, part of the reliable backbone of the British entertainment industry. With more than 130 film and TV roles to his name, he was constantly working. And even though he was rarely the star – a notable exception was his performance as CS Lewis in the original 1985 TV version of Shadowlands – he was always a reassuring presence. Ackland had a gift for quiet understatement and for projecting power and authority; those seemingly contradictory talents were visible in a quartet of brilliant plays for which I will always remember him.
One of the most difficult things for an actor to convey is a humble goodness, and Ackland did that admirably in John Osborne’s The Hotel in Amsterdam at the Royal Court in 1968. He played Gus, a film editor and member of a group of friends who flee for a weekend from a tyrannical producer. Gus, a fussy hypochondriac whose wife is fervently pursued by a charismatic writer, was the target of the group, but Ackland gave him an unforgettable calm cheerfulness.
You could hardly play any other role than Shakespeare’s Falstaff, which Ackland played in the two parts of Henry IV with which the RSC opened the lease of the Barbican in 1982. He was a trained Shakespearean and had spent two seasons at the Old Vic. in the late 1950s, but his RSC Falstaff was in a different league. At the time I called it a great performance because it captured the rich duality of the character. Ackland showed us that Falstaff is, in the words of WH Auden, “a comic symbol for the supernatural order of charity” and at the same time a ruthless, earthy realist. But Ackland was also a sporting Falstaff. When he was invited to take on the role of the king in the mock scene in the Eastcheap tavern, an evil gleam appeared in Ackland’s eyes as he shouted, “Shall I?”
His ability to oscillate between the mundane and the exceptional was reflected in two of the great musicals, both directed by Hal Prince, in which he played leading roles. In Stephen Sondheim’s 1975 A Little Night Music at the Adelphi, he was Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged lawyer married to a young woman but still attracted to the worldly stage actress Desiree Armfeldt. Ackland perfectly captured the tension between Egerman’s current sexual frustration and memories of tender fulfillment with the desirable Desiree. Prince was so impressed with Ackland that he immediately cast him as Argentine President Juan Perón in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Evita in 1978. Elaine Page was the obvious star and some critics took issue with the musical itself: Bernard Levin called it an “odious artifact” that, by glorifying Eva Perón, celebrated fascism. But there was no criticism of Ackland’s performance as a brilliant, square-shouldered symbol of power who could well have risen to the top even without his wife’s charisma.
Ackland’s greatest gift, however, was portraying bewildered decency, and two other performances from a long list emphasize that. One of these was in the 1987 film White Mischief, in which he played a member of Kenya’s hedonistic Happy Valley set who is on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. It’s a role that must have had strange geographical echoes for Ackland, as he temporarily gave up acting in 1954 to manage a tea plantation in Kenya.
Another of his great performances was in a Michael Frayn TV play, First and Last (1989), in which he played a retired man walking from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. That play has strong memories for me because I begged and pleaded with a Bafta committee I was on to get the top prize for drama. I lost the argument, but Ackland’s performance, as a man who takes on a self-punishing task out of a mixture of personal ambition and marital misfortunes, has stayed with me and confirms that he was an actor with an unparalleled ability to show complexity that lurks. behind the facade of the seemingly ordinary.
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