Black Sheep, The Authorised Biography of Nicol Williamson.
The History Press.
Buy A Copy
Thanks to my partner’s obsession with the film Excalibur, I am aware of Nicol Williamson’s performance as Merlin. Yet, beyond that, I knew little of the actor himself, and I was certainly ignorant of this career, particularly in theatre. A huge welcome then to Gabriel Hershman’s fine biography of the actor, which, especially for a theatre addict like me, places Williamson firmly in the top pedigree of a generation of actors bringing about changes in theatre during the 1960s and 70s. Yet, there is an agreement; he appeared to squander his talents, with alcohol and depression blighting his career choices. Yet there is also unanimous agreement that, on form, he was one of the finest stage actors of his generation.
The book restores Williamson, now almost totally forgotten, to the canon of British theatre. This is an actor who worked with John Osborne when the playwright was at the peak of his powers, delivering an unforgettable performance in the play Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court. This is the actor who, when performing in Waiting for Godot, was proclaimed by Samuel Beckett as one of the finest interpreters of his work. That is recommendation enough for me! Yet Williamson played and lived by his own rules, never compromising, and berating anyone or anything that did not meet his high standards.
This led to many incidents of extraordinarily bad behaviour, much of it alcohol fuelled, that he simply wouldn’t get away with now. (In a way, culture is missing those so-called ‘hell raisers’, much celebrity is sanitised and over controlled these days). My jaw often dropped at accounts of his behaviour, this is an actor who would berate the audience, stopping a performance to complain at them, walking off stage when dissatisfied, and delivering frequent after curtain call speeches making his loathing of producers, in particular, very clear! The chapter Madness on Broadway is worth the purchase of the book alone. Appearing as John Barrymore in the play I Hate Hamlet, Williamson particularly disliked Evan Handler, playing a young actor playing Hamlet, who is advised by Barrymore’s ghost. It was a role that Williamson clearly relished playing, but he accused writer and producer of mediocrity born out of cowardice. Then, and he is not be excused of this, in the middle of a duelling scene, Nicol ignored the choreography, urged Handler to “Put some life into it!”, and struck Handler on the back with the flat part of his sword. Handler stormed out of the theatre never to return. Undoubtedly, an actor is harming his career by actions like this, and the book often asks why it was thus.
If I sound as if I am focussing on the more salacious side of an actor’s behaviour, Hershman’s careful research always balances out the outrageous headlines, and find plenty of witnesses who attest to other aspects of Williamson’s craft -there is no doubt that he was a great actor, and the likes of Trevor Nunn provide balanced, sensible counterpoints to the fire and fury. Williamson’s son, Luke, consistently underlines the man’s capacity for love, and it’s clear they had a strong and loving relationship. The book underlines how fleeting fame is, and that theatre, as Nunn says, is “writing in the sand”, quickly despatched to memory until memory fades. This is true of Nicol Williamson, an actor who, as his son sums up, “refused to kiss ass”, something which a lot of the hell raisers were content to do. It’s a fascinating portrait not just of the actor, but of theatre and film at a time of great social change, and an immensely informative and enjoyable read.