Washington — Sir Ralph Richardson sits musing over a scallop mousse. Between bites he talks about his nearly half a century as a legend in the theater and his latest starring role, in David Storey's "Early Days."
"I've been working on the part over a year, nearly a year and a half," he says, "and i still find I haven't got a complete map of the part yet. It's unusual for such a long time and such a short play. It's very complex. It's a poem, and it has a definite kind of clear plot, very, very interesting. Nothing is outlined. Of course the outline is very simple, isn't it? It's just a man in search of love, really, isn't it?"
The play was a hit last year in London at the National Theater, and is at the Kennedy Center in Washington this month for its only American appearance. It was tailored as carefully for Sir Ralph as a custom pin-stripe suit. Play- wright David Storey wrote its central character, Sir Richard Kitchen -- a brilliant, aging, whimsical, and bedeviling former British Cabinet member -- with Richardson's celebrated talents in mind. The playwright knows his star's capacities well: Richardson has appeared in several Storey plays over the years, among them "Home," "West of Suez," "Lloyd George Knew My Father," "The Kingfisher," and "Alice's Boys."
The occasion of Sir Ralph Richardson's appearance in this play was auspicious enough that the New York Times dispatched drama critic Frank Rich to Washington to cover the opening. It was worth the trip. Mr. Rich opened his review with unmuffled praise: "Mr. Storey writes very well for his star -- he plays him like a Stradivarius -- and Mr. Richardson returns the favor. In "Early Day's we hear all his high notes, all his low notes -- and all that beautiful, tremulous poetry in between."
The musical analogy is one Sir Ralph uses himself. In talking about directors (Lindsay Anderson directed this one), Richardson draws the parallel to conductors of orchestras. "There are as many different ways of directing, I'm sure people will understand very well, as there are a great variety of conductors of an orchestra. And there are no rules. Some may bend intensely and seem to hypnotize. Others seem to hardly move their little finger. There are so many forms, but you know exactly when a conductor is a great conductor or not. You know the moment the orchestra starts out. . . . Which way [a director directs] really doesn't concern me very much, so long as I get from him a concerted pattern in which I have a part, which I come through. . . . Everybody's got to act in the same way." He laughs.
"We can't have one fiddler doing this and another fiddler doing that. . . . When they all go off, they've got to have the same idea. Well, when all the actors go off they've got to all have the same idea. A fine director has a very fine, clear baton."
He speaks in that deep, richly resonant voice that reverberates in its Britishness like a double bass in an orchestra. It is the sort of voice that can make crystal chandeliers tremble in a large room. The voice announced him first, like a royal fanfare, as he emerged from a doorway at the Watergate Hotel and strode past a series of brown leather couches to exchange pleasantries with a hotel employee.
Sir Ralph seems to slope into a room. He is fairly tall and formidable looking, with a commanding presence. Talking to him is like standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up. He has the most extraordinary eyes, flecked with medium blue and rimmed with brown, so that you'd say they were purple at first glance. His hair is gray, his features weathered. On the day we talk he is wearing a cocoa-brown linen jacket, cream shirt, brown-on-brown stiped silk tie, long, maize-colored socks, and tan loafers.
We have repaired down a doubel flight of stairs to the Jean-Louis restaurant, a harbor of nouvelle cuisine, with a soft beige and pink ambiance. There is the hush of money in the room, which has tables spaced widely enough apart that a newspaper interview or a clandestine CIA meeting can be conducted.
Over the scallop mouse, whick contains flecks of blood oranges, Sir Ralph is discussing death and Henry James. "Early Days" is full of Sir Richard Kitchen's thoughts of his misty past, the wife he loved and treated badly, and his permisty past, the wife he loved and treated badly, and his perhaps approaching death. Obviously Sir Ralph has done his homework for the role, and is full of amusing, though slightly morbid, anecdotes. He is a wonderful raconteur, who rolls out a story about one of Winston Churchill's final epithets, hurled at a physician he couldn't tolerate. Sir Ralph doing Sir Winston is quite devastating. Then he ambles on through the conversation to the story of what Voltaire said on his deathbed to a parish priest who begged him to renounce the devil and all his works. Richardson quotes Voltaire as protesting: "'But at this moment would it be wise for me to start making enemies?' And he wouldn't," Richardson concludes with a smile.
The turnips have arrived, along with the medallions of beef. Sir Ralph does a star turn with the turnips. "Turnips? Oh." Long pause. "I don't likem . . . I don't eat,m turnips," he says, tipping his face up at the waitress and giving the line a reading that would not disgrace a Shakespearean play. Waitress and turnips exeunt.
Richardson, one of the most celebrated actors on the English stage, has a long career, spanning nearly six decades. It includes his greatest triumphs, as Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," Falstaff in both parts of "Henry IV," Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," and Shaw's Bluntschli in "Arms and the Man." Those performances were given after World War II, when Richardson and his longtime friend Laurence Olivier (now Lord Olivier) together revived the Old Vic. Richardson was knighted in 1947.
Born in Brighton, Richardson dropped out of school at an early age to work in an insurance office. after hours, he began printing a one-penny art magazine on a duplicating machine at work. Just after he quit that job and enrolled in art school, he received an unexpected inheritance from a grandmother whose fortune came from the family leatherworks in Newcastle. Richardson has wanted to become an artist, like his father, but decided he was a bad one and eventually strolled into acting with his first role at 20 in "The Merchant of Venice." He still sketches and paints, though, and he's brought his charcoal and watercolors to Washington with him.
All those roles he's played -- does he take them off like a neckite at the end of a performance? Or do they stay with him during the run of a play?
"Oh, yes, they're a part of your life, until you've got it [the character]. Some of it is made up in your imagination in the same way as if you were writing.[It is not like] writing a book or a story or painting a picture, but it has something to do with it. You are making it alive in ways that the author has not, giving it that vitality as you think about it.
"And after the show, actually, you think about it a lot. Because you review in your mind what you've just written, as it were. And you think, 'I could play this a little bit faster, I could play that a little bit better.' But if you mean the character hangs over one, not at all, no. we don't feel like that. I don't think a novelist need feel like her heroine. No. I don't think that Jane Austen really felt like 'Emma,' but I'm sure that she was thinking of it all day long. You've got to be, subconsciously. . . . You think about something and you get the answer. Often, after sleeping."
Does he consciously look for, listen to, people around him to collect material? "When I'm mastering a part, I'm collecting. It's extraordinary, there's a man sitting next to you doing something, and you'll say, 'Ah, that's exactly what I want!' I mean, you're not looking for it, but you're finding it. Your unconscious mind is searching everything you see. It's like turning over a dustbin and saying 'Ah! that's the very thing!'"
In shaping a role, he says, the physical mannerisms of a character are an important correlative. "Sometimes the walk comes first.And sometimes it's the last to come. Sometimes it's the eye." (The eye in "Early Days" it a weapon, a lightning bolt, its fierceness hurled at all challengers.)
"Sometimes it's the voice. it enters, bit by bit, the realization of being a character. And it happens more or less by accident. It's at rehearsal, by doing it over and over again, you find that suddenly you find it. How you walk you -- usually -- find before anything else. . . ."
Even the stance can be crucial. Sir Ralph speaks of an English critic who offered some highly constructive criticism about the way he stood on stage. "He said, 'Why does this actor, every part he plays, why does he lean forward? Why does he lean forward in that rather ugly way?' And i thought . . . , 'He's right. He's got something.' I bent over backward to please him, I played every part leaning backward. I bent over backward when I played 'Othello.' I came out in a scene where he disembarks and nearly fell over backward. But I hope I gained some balance eventually and managed to stand.
"I never stand, as a matter of fact, quite upright, because if you stand obsolutely upright, you've got nowhere to go. So I reserve standing absolutely upright till -- what do they call it in tennis? -- the overhand smash. I reserve that completely."
Unlike some actors, who either don't read the critics' reviews or explode over them, Richardson appreciates the helpful bits: "Encouragement to an actor is very helpful, because we can't see. A painter can see his painting. He takes a look at it. . . . Van Gogh never had any encouragement from anybody. He saw his own pictures and his own pictures gave him faith that he was a fine artist. Well, an actor can never see the total impression that he makes. And if a critic who sort of knows something says that your work is pleasing, you feel as if you might be on the right track. Because you don'tm know if you're on the right track or not. I mean, you can have several successes in plays, but not know whether your total work is any good or going wrong, don't you know?"
At one point during lunch, as I'm busy scribbling down some of Sir Ralph's better lines, he suddenly booms, "EAT! Because it's supposed to be hot, and it very quickly gets not hot."
He sometimes backs into an answer in a way that's initially inscrutable. When asked whether an American audience differs from an English audience, he replies:
"Yes. A different kind of water. Yes. It's rather different. . . . I think it's rather sharper. But it's very difficult to say water is sharp. You know exactly how the drinking water differs from one country to another. It's rather hard to describe it. But I can feel it very strongly. . . . I think you have more theater buffs than we have in England, and they come at the beginning of a play and they're rather keen on the play. You don't have that in my country. You don't have quite the . . . . Oh, what ism this?" he beseeches the waitress as she puts a bowl in front of him. At Jean-Louis dessert arrives unbidden, a surprise. He surveys the cloud of meringue known as ile flottante,m then dives in with a "Rather good, isn't it?"
He enjoys telling about how he met his wife, actress Meriel Forbes, who auditioned for a role in the play he was starring in and ended up with an indefinite run as Mrs. Richardson. The year was 1935, the play was "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse," and she was the prettiest, the best, of any of the actresses who auditioned. But he nearly turned her down because he didn't think anyone could hear her. When the director guaranteed she could be heard, Richardson said, in a perhaps intentional pun, "'Let's engage her,' and we've never sort of parted since then."
Richardson does films, but with some reluctance. He has appeared in "A Doll's House," "Dr. Zhivago," "O Lucky Man," and his latest, "Dragonslayer." What role did he play in that? Pause, a few beats, then, with perfect timing: "Well, them dragon slayer. I slayed the dragon and he slayed me. It's a fairy tale of the times when there were dragons, and a very simple little thing."
Does he enjoy making films?
"I dont' mind that. No, I don't mind that. You don't learn much. You sell what you've learned. . . ." He talks about the thoroughness of six-week rehearsals for a play, and how when it's finally put on before an audience "it catches alive. . . ."
"But in a film," he says, "however excellent everybody is, you say, 'Well, I think we've rehearsed this scene, let's photograph it.' And when we photograph it, it's just an extension of the rehearsal, nothing else changes. And you say, 'Well, that's that. Let's turn to the next.' You haven't really explored it, as you can do in the theater. So in one way it's really nice. You're never really bored in films."
Of course there's no applause, either. And applause, like pauses, is important to an actor in a way that the audience might not suspect. "It's very important to know how quickly the applause comes. And the timing of it is very instructive. If, when the curtain comes down, there's a little pause before the applause, it may come from two reasons. It may come [because] they haven't been caught by it and they think it's their duty, or it may be that they're so caught by it that for a moment they can't realize that it's over. But you have to make up your mind about that. You pay great attention to every sound, every movement , in the hall, especially every nonmovement that the audience makes. My ears are listening like a hawk." He says it with such authority that you're sure hawks listen keenly, too.
Listen for the pauses, too, he cautions. "The pauses are the best thing in a play.The actors' true gold, really. The train of thought is going in their minds, and then if you [the actor] stop, the train doesn't stop. They're going on, entirely under their own power. The screen for them is moving, although we're not saying a word. And that is very valuable, you see. That is where the weight of the play is doing its own work."