Onstage, Michael Gambon’s depth transcended the unspoken | ET REALITY


Even in silence, it thundered. Do it, especially in silence.

The last two times I saw the mighty Michael Gambon on stage, his characters didn’t have much to say and, in one case, nothing at all. The two plays in which this British actor, who died on Wednesday at the age of 82, was acting on those occasions were by Samuel Beckett, “Eh Joe” and “All That Fall.”

Few, if any, playwrights made better use of the resonance of the unspoken than Beckett. And few actors brought such a deep and visceral exhaustion – and agitation – to Beckett’s lack of words. Even in performances that required him to roar, joke, or talk, Gambon made sure we were aware of the gravitational pull of mortality, pulling the men he played so imposingly into a void beyond meaning, beyond will. , Beyond life.

He was not a fat man, but he had an unusually solid and carnal presence in live theater, from his tormented, undulating face to his bear-like torso and unexpectedly expressive feet. You had the feeling that there was someone here who was best never crossed.

That impressive avoirdupois made him a natural on-screen actor for roles as diverse as the master wizard Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” films; the terrifying, vengeful gangster in Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and His Lover”; and the hospital patient, fantasy mystery writer in Dennis Potter’s sublime television miniseries “The Singing Detective.” On stage, that presence allowed Gambon to effortlessly convey the subliminal menace and explosiveness of the husband and lover of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” and David Hare’s “Skylight,” and the remorseful rage beneath Falstaff’s cordiality in The works of Henry IV.

Yet it always seemed that all that powerful density could melt into the helplessness we associate with newborns and the dying, a feeling that resonates like a bass line throughout Beckett’s work. In “Eh Joe,” a television play that director Atom Egoyan brought to the London stage in 2006, Gambon’s role was almost completely passive.

The only words we heard were spoken by an invisible woman, who voiced a litany of accusations of a life lived in bad faith. It was Egoyan’s presumption to have Gambon’s face projected onto a mesh in an immense, simultaneous close-up video, recording each stroke of memory with flashes of expression so subtle they seemed subterranean.

It was a device that reminded us of the miraculous way in which cameras can uncover, in certain seemingly immutable faces, a multitude of mixed feelings. The amazement was how Gambon provided an even fuller portrait through the physicality of his live presence, when the camera wasn’t working.

Wearing a threadbare bathrobe in a dark, shabby room, Joe de Gambon began the play by running his fingers along the window curtains as he closed them and then sat with immense exhaustion on his bed. For much of those initial moments, you couldn’t even see his face.

Yet you felt like you had been granted a vision of a man at his most defeated, so overwhelmed by his own uselessness that movement had become useless. The very posture of his shoulders let us know that Joe was so raw, so exhausted that you felt, as sometimes happens with great actors, that you were violating a privacy that you had no right to witness.

I regret missing Gambon in Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in London in 2010. But I did catch him in Beckett’s lesser-known work, “All That Fall,” three years later in New York. Brought to the stage by director Trevor Nunn, “All That Fall” follows a day in the life of the chatty and feisty Mrs. Rooney (played, wonderfully, by Eileen Atkins), who goes to pick up her blind and broken husband. at the train station.

Mr. Rooney of Gambon made his late entrance and did not equal his wife in talkativeness. His physique, however, said it all. He was, I wrote at the time, “a shriveled Goliath,” as he leaned into the fragile support of Atkins’s shoulder. Just seeing the two of them, side by side, alone, in their codependency, was to understand the dynamics of a marriage.

However, as perhaps befits what was originally a radio play, it is a single sound that I remember most vividly from that production. The wife had quoted the text of the local church sermon: “The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.”

And with those words, Gambon and Atkins laughed loudly, rudely and deeply. To understand the absurdity of the text, all you had to do was look at the abandoned couple in front of you. But in their laughter there was a triumph of defiance.

That triumph was implicit in every performance that Gambon gave us.

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