Diary Entry: John Gielgud’s “Ages of Man” DVD

{11/30/17}  Bought, and watched, John Gielgud:  Ages of Man.  What a treasure this disc is.  The visuals, alas, are marred, especially in the first few minutes, but it’s still watchable.

In part 1, Sir John seems, not only to believe, but to be in love with each word he says.  His joy, his enthusiasm for what he was doing, was quite unexpected and quite thrilling.  I’ve never seen the like, in my seventy years.  This emotion may not be relevant to the particular speech he is performing, yet it never jars due to incongruity.  It seems, rather, a kind of emotional subtext, giving one a view of both the character played and the player behind the mask.  And I think it was this surprise that made me fall in love with this disc from its very first minutes.  Sir John changed my view of acting itself.

Aside from this “subtext,” throughout he is the actor nonpareil; he does not play characters, he is persons.  I cannot imagine better acting, I have never seen the equal of what he does here.  He seems beyond human.  Part 2 is much the same, though there, at times, his inspiration seems merely mortal.

He is technically flawless, if that’s the term I want—he never stumbles, never hesitates except when the words call for a hesitation, the volume of his voice varies to suit the mood but the words are always clear.  He does have one verbal mannerism or technique which reflects his decades on the stage: that is, a word like “wished” or “death” gets a very slight slowing and emphasis at the end so “wished” becomes “wish-t” and “death” “death-th.”  The same effect can be seen in Ian McKellen’s performances in the Lord of the Rings movies where he says, “We must now face the long dark-kh of Moria.”  Is this a defect?  Perhaps, but only in this medium.  On the stage it is surely required, lest the consonants be inaudible to some rows in the theater.  It is the only artificiality where all else is completely natural.

I had expected to be moved to tears, but was not.  One of the ways I judge a performance of, say, Othello or King Lear is by how often I weep, how often the scene before me seems completely unbearable because it is so agonizing.  I felt nothing like that from these monologues; perhaps it takes more time to get the emotional machinery involved than a single speech can offer.  I was closest to tears from the three speeches of Richard II in part 1.

Ian McKellen is one of my favorite actors in some of my favorite movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of Peter Jackson.  He has almost five minutes on this disc, showing the start of his “Acting Shakespeare.”  The young McKellen performs the same “Ages of Man” speech with which John Gielgud begins his performance, and the comparison is interesting.  It’s not a powerful speech, it’s more philosophical than anything, and both do it well.  If I prefer Sir John over the to-be Sir Ian, it is probably only personal affection that influences me.

“Ages of Man” is an ideal introduction to Shakespeare for those who know him not; it is a feast for those who love him well.  Thus, my first impression of this disc.  Doubtless, through repeat viewings, my opinions will change; but I cannot expect ever to rate this stunning performance at less than the highest.

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