Gielgud's swan song? Sir John chats about role that brought him back to stage

When Sir John Gielgud walked on stage at London's Apollo Theatre, the hush of the audience was palpable. It was this venerable actor's last night in ``Best of Friends,'' a play by Hugh Whitmore. It's a measure of this actor's enormous appeal that the play itself, while only so-so, should have drawn full houses night after night. Indeed, for this final show, the theater was packed, and then some.

Sir John has been called the English-speaking world's ``greatest living and still working actor.'' Lord Olivier, the only other recent contender for this title, officially retired last year, upon turning 80. Yet while Gielgud continues to appear in films, he had not been seen on a stage in more than a decade. And it is commonly assumed that, at 84, this will be his last time treading the boards. Giving little away when I spoke with him after the show, he merely offered: ``This may be my swan song.'' The significance of this performance wasn't lost on the audience. No actor could have asked for a more responsive one.

The play is based on correspondence between three unlikely real-life friends: Sir Sydney Cockerell (Gielgud), a bookish museum curator and humanist; Laurentia Margaret McLachlan (Rosemary Harris), a devout nun; and George Bernard Shaw (Ray McAnally), the famous playwright, author, and avowed atheist. While the story line lacked dramatic impact - there's no plot to speak of, only character development arising from the contents of the letters - the undeniable appeal of the work lay in its heartwarming celebration of friendship.

``It's the first script I've seen in a long time that I've liked,'' Sir John said. What particularly did he like about it? ``Everything,'' he replied emphatically.

With this enthusiasm for what the play had to say, coupled with his characteristic style - lyrically expressive voice, ramrod-straight posture, economy of gesture - Gielgud infused the role of Cockerell with a warmth and wit of timing one suspects the real Cockerell never had. For example, after Shaw launches into an arcane discourse on his intellectualized notions of sex, Gielgud paused, not a millisecond too short or long, then uttered, ``Ah!'' in a tone displaying both complete comprehension and absolute bafflement. It was an instance of the seemingly effortless delivery for which the actor is renowned - a one-syllable utterance that brought the house down.

The roar of applause that came with the final curtain was more for Gielgud, one felt, than for the play. By the third curtain call, everyone was standing. Visibly touched, Gielgud at last put a hand on his heart and acknowledged the tribute with a slow, dignified bow of his head.

Shortly thereafter, he made his way through a crowd of autograph seekers, patiently signing each program as it was presented to him.

That done, one of the greatest actors of this century walked off into the night.

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