Five Finest Shakespearean Actors

Shakespeare is definitely a name that, when mentioned, makes some people groan. In fact, some performances of Shakespeare would send even the most avid Shakespeare lovers to sleep. Luckily, there are some extraordinary actors that have, for decades in some cases, managed to do something really exciting with the characters they interpret on stage and on film. Impact Arts have selected some of our favourites from the wealth of great actors and actresses.

5) Patrick Stewart

It might be an obvious choice but Patrick Stewart definitely merits having his name on this list. Surely he must have acted almost every Shakespearean character ever by now?  Thank goodness he does them all well. His portrayal of Macbeth in Goold’s 2010 film set in Stalin’s Russia is exceptional, with many speeches that will send a shiver down your spine.

4) Ralph Fiennes (and Vanessa Redgrave)

Maybe it’s cheating but I don’t care… these two had a fantastic mother/son dynamic when playing Caius Martius and Volumnia in the 2011 version of Coriolanus which was directed by the oh-so-talented Ralphy too. The Roman tragedy storyline was used to explore the conflicts in Yugoslavia to great effect in this bold and deeply political film.

Interestingly the two went on to take on the roles of Queen Margaret and her son Richard of Gloucester in Richard III this summer at the Almeida Theatre in London, therefore warranting my decision to merge them into one ranking.

3) Judi Dench

The Queen of Shakespeare, the woman we all wish was our grandmother, and not only that, but also the best guest ever on The Graham Norton Show. She’s a national treasure. In fact, Shakespeare is known as ‘the man who pays the rent’ in her family, because she has been acting in Shakespeare plays since she played Ophelia in 1957. In 1977 she won an Olivier Award for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth alongside Ian McKellen and in a cheeky aside, also made a very formidable Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, for which she received an Academy Award.   

2) Ian McKellen

The King of Shakespeare – a deserved title for a man who’s been acting in various Shakespeare plays on screen and on the stage for forty-five years. He’s done traditional productions of Shakespeare and some far wackier ones. McKellen played the title role in Loncraine’s 1930s version of Richard III, which boasts many of the exciting elements cinema can add to Shakespeare. He equally showed his talent acting alongside Judi Dench against a nude background with no distractions, in a powerful performance of Macbeth.

McKellen once said that Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be watched and enjoyed not picked apart in English lessons. In support of this he has been involved in a project producing an app aimed to demystify Shakespeare through visual performances of texts for students’ benefit.

Finally, somewhere above and beyond even the royalty:

1) Simon Russell Beale

Hands down winner – no question about it, this guy absolutely smashes every single Shakespearean performance he does. I refuse to believe there is a better, more convincing Lear than Simon Russell Beale in the NT Live version directed by Sam Mendes. With the help of a geriatrician he accurately replicated the symptoms of dementia on stage, creating a Lear who suffers very visibly from frightening hallucinations and tremors. Equally, as Falstaff he jumps from a grotesque joker, to a thoughtful, intelligent figure and back again with such ease in the Hollow Crown version of Henry V Part I.

Go see him in the RSC’s The Tempest which will be broadcast to cinemas on the 11th January 2017.

Anna Seton

Image credit: Joe Campbell via Flickr

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