The Brettish Empire


MIDDLE STAGES

by Lisa L. Oldham

"Flibberty-Gibberty"

Laurence Olivier had his hands full in 1963. The legendary actor/director/producer had midwifed the Chichester Festival Theatre and nursed it through a successful first season. Now, Olivier was overseeing Chicester's second season, as well as mounting the inaugural season of Britain's long-awaited National Theatre, of which he had been appointed Director.

Programme, Chichester, 1963

At age twelve, Jeremy Brett had bicycled to the Cameo Cinema in Balsall Common to see Laurence Olivier's Henry V. He was so impressed by the film that he decided to become an actor. At last, Jeremy was working with Olivier, the man who had inspired him so many years before. Jeremy appeared in Saint Joan and The Workhouse Donkey during Chichester's second season. He recalled that one day, during rehearsals of Saint Joan, Laurence Olivier shouted to him, "I want your trumpet!"

Jeremy meekly replied, "I don't think I've got a trumpet."

Olivier ordered, "Get a trumpet--I expect every actor to have a full orchestra!"

Olivier was gathering a stable of actors for the National's first season. He recruited stars (including Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, and Maggie Smith) and future stars (such as Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens, and Lynn Redgrave). Jeremy Brett neatly fit into the latter category and almost joined his contemporaries under the National banner. However, there was a lady waiting for him in Hollywood--My Fair Lady, that is.

Lord Olivier was not amused when Jeremy announced that he was going off to play "Eliza Doolittle's" smitten suitor, "Freddie Eynsford-Hill," in the big budget film version of the Broadway smash. Olivier did his best to talk Jeremy into staying.

"Why do you want to go to Hollywood?" Olivier demanded.

Jeremy thought a moment, and replied, "Money." Also, he wanted to see America's west coast.

Olivier offered Jeremy the supporting roles of "Cassio" in "Othello" and "Laertes" in Hamlet. But, Jeremy had recently played Hamlet himself, so these parts must have seemed like a step backwards to him.

Olivier's arguments were so unconvincing that even his wife, Joan Plowright, said, "Darling, you've sold this to Jeremy so badly that if Eliza Doolittle had a sister, I'd go with him."

Olivier conceded, but he was by no means the loser. Jeremy was contracted to the National, so Warner Brothers, the studio producing My Fair Lady, had to "buy" him away so he could act in the film. Olivier was reportedly given approximately $10,000, which he used to pay off some of the debts from the National's unsteady infancy.

Jeremy recalled that Lord Olivier got down on his knees in the lobby of the Chichester Theatre to thank him. However, Jeremy added that he subsequently learned that Olivier's extravagant gesture of thanks was merely an act: "I found out later that he was very angry with me for not taking my responsibility to the repertory company seriously enough. I was a bit flibberty-gibberty then."

Jeremy jetted off to play Freddie, the young man who wistfully strolled and sang on the street where Audrey Hepburn's Eliza lived. He told an interviewer at the time, "Forty-eight hours after they bought me out of Saint Joan I was standing in front of St. Paul's [cathedral] trying to hail a cab--only I was here in California. It was if I'd never left home."

However, he found the "street" was a dead-end as far as other acting roles for were concerned. Jeremy had to wait in Hollywood for months to play his scenes as Freddie, and had to turn down "interesting" offers in other productions while he waited.

Controversy

Finally, with My Fair Lady completed, Jeremy was able to accept other parts. His next role was a quantum leap away from Freddie, in a play that was light years away from MFL's elegant escapism. The role was "Father Riccardo Fontana," and the play was Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy.

Playbill, New York, 1964

The Deputy opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on February 26, 1964. It was an extremely controversial work. Set during World War II, The Deputy charged that Pope Pius XII knew about the Nazi's slaughter of innocent Jews, but didn't speak out against it.

The volatile plot of The Deputy created difficulties even before rehearsals began. Sponsors withdrew support and the producers had trouble finding a venue that would accept the production.

The show's director, Herman Shumlin, acknowledged the tensions: 

"I know there will be great antagonism [toward the play], but I know we are doing something important, valid and exciting for the theater."

Shumlin also offered to release any actors who were troubled by the controversy surrounding the show. However, all of the actors remained with the production. 

The Broadway version of The Deputy was condensed by Jerome Rothenberg from Hochhuth's original play, which was five acts long and would have taken nearly eight hours to perform. (Another condensed production of the play titled The Representative ran in London in 1963, with Alec McCowen as Father Fontana.) In addition to the usual Playbill, audiences at the Brooks Atkinson were provided with a supplemental leaflet which presented more background on The Deputy. It contained letters from Pope Paul VI and Albert Schweitzer, a biography of Rolf Hochhuth, and a brief article about Kurt Gerstein and Dr. Josef Mengele, actual Third Reich figures who are fictionalized in the play.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre commented, "The Broadway mounting [of The Deputy] of 1964 may have discouraged the public from reading the script, for the universally denounced production was an inadequate staging of a butchered text, 'bare, crude, and shockingly listless in places,' as Alfred Kazin, saw it, 'Much of it is an anti-Nazi movie of the John Garfield period.'"

However, Howard Taubman, reviewing the play the day after it opened, said, "As a play, The Deputy is flawed. As a polemic, it is fierce and compelling. Since it wrestles with one of the most important moral issues of our time, it deserves to be seen, debated and taken to heart."

Jeremy's Father Fontana is an Italian Jesuit priest whose father is a highly placed Italian dignitary and influential Catholic layman. Fontana (a character based on two actual German clergyman) learns of the Nazi's atrocities while serving in Berlin. He declares:

"A deputy of Christ who sees these things and nonetheless permits reasons of state to seal his lips--who wastes even one day in thought, hesitates even an hour to lift his anguished voice in one anathema to chill the blood of every last man on Earth--that Pope...is a criminal."

At the Vatican, Father Fontana urges Pope Pius to "...[proclaim] before the world a curse upon the man who slaughters Jews like cattle." 


When he is unable to convince the pontiff to break his silence, Father Fontana pins on a yellow star and returns to Germany. He is consigned with the Jews to Auschwitz.

Production pic from "The Deputy"  1964

Taubman noted, "Jeremy Brett brings fire and dedication to the role of Father Fontana."

Richard P. Cooke, reviewing the play in The Wall Street Journal, said, "Mr. Hochhuth could hardly be accused of being anti-religious, for in Father Fontana, a role admirably enacted by Jeremy Brett, the author depicts the highest form of Christian courage and compassion. There are touching scenes in which Father Fontana seeks in vain to move the Pope and the Cardinal, and does succeed in winning over his father."

 In conclusion, Taubman wrote, "Now that The Deputy, which has stirred Europe for the past year, is here, the debate, already begun, will be intensified. Our theater rarely touches on moral issues of this magnitude. For this is a play about choice. Every man, no less than the Pope, must make choices, and the avoidance of choosing is an act of choice itself. The Deputy poses a universal problem in a sensational way."

The drama taking place outside the Brooks Atkinson on opening night was no less sensational. Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic laymen (as well as a uniformed group of neo-Nazis) picketed the theatre, chanting protest slogans so loudly they could be heard inside. Police blocked off traffic around the theatre for 20 minutes before the curtain rose. Jeremy said The Deputy cast had to show ID badges to be allowed past the police barricades. For safety's sake, the owner of the theatre asked the audience not to go outside during the play's intermission.

UPI Press Photo of Deputy Protestors Feb 26 64
UPI press photo showing protestors picketing at the February 26, 1964, opening 
of The Deputy. Note Jeremy's name on the theatre marquee. 

Despite the tension, no violence erupted, and the protesters left before the play ended. (Thereafter, the theatre was searched daily for bombs as a precaution.) In keeping with the The Deputy's serious tone, the cast did not take the customary bows at the play's end.

However, even amidst the gravity of The Deputy, there was a streak of Brettish mischief. In the opening scene of the play, Father Fontana is brought a tray of food to eat. During rehearsals, Jeremy thought the Father should be shown eating the food. But, Herman Shumlin decided Jeremy shouldn't eat anything during the scene. To enforce his decision, Shumlin glued dog biscuits to the tray on opening night. But, Jeremy simply pried off the biscuits and ate them on stage! (He suffered no ill effects.)

Rehearsal pic from The Deputy - AP Wirephoto 1964

Which is not to suggest that Jeremy didn't take his role seriously. In fact, portraying Father Fontana took a serious toll on his life. Jeremy told reporter William Glover in 1964 that had he trouble sleeping and had lost 14 pounds since the play began. "Each performance is a personal experience," the actor explained. "I'm in a state of total absorption. There are moments when I get almost hysterical....A good many people have told me to be objective. Well, try and do it."

Jeremy was greatly disturbed by the atrocities described in the play ("...perhaps the ghost of Auschwitz has appeared to me a little"), but acknowledged that the subject needed to be dealt with: "I'm a rather idealistic person who would rather not believe that human nature could sink so low. I was most vulnerable to what the play recalls, and I can't get used to it. At the same time, even though it may hurt like hell and be hard to do, if the theater is to survive such topics must be aired." 

Even so, Jeremy also realized that The Deputy wasn't the last word on the subject. He told Glover: "In the scene each night with the Pope, I sometimes feel as if the roof of the theater was crashing in. I wish Pius was alive to speak for himself. You can't blame one person for those things that happened just yesterday almost. I only get frightened when I see 18 year-olds in the audience. I just hope that they don't think that the play's viewpoint is the only one that should be heard."

Herman Shumlin said at the time, "The Pope is only a symbol--he is representative of the silence of everyone in those days."

Jeremy felt that if The Deputy reminded people about the destructive power of hate, it could help stop such atrocities from occurring again. 

Unfortunately, some people didn't get the message. Jeremy claimed that he'd received threatening letters and phone calls while appearing in the play. He even faced physical danger: 

"One day, I was walking along a street when a man came up and asked me if I was Jeremy Brett. Well, you're always glad to meet a fan, so I reached over to take his outstretched hand. Instead of a shake, however, he pulled me past him at the curb. It was unexpected, and I went sprawling in front of a car that stopped just in time."

The Deputy provoked strong emotions and sparked critical and theological debates around the world. In 1964, a book containing articles and essays about "the explosive drama" was published. It was aptly titled The Storm Over "The Deputy".

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), The Deputy ran on Broadway for 316 performances. Jeremy left the play in May 1964 to return to England. (David Carradine took over the role of Father Fontana; the play closed on Broadway on November 28, 1964.)

Calmer Circumstances

Back in Britain, Jeremy worked with some of the theatre's great leading ladies, under much calmer circumstances.

At the Birmingham Repertory Company, Jeremy co-starred with Wendy Hiller in the macabre comedy A Measure of Cruelty. This production was an English translation of French playwright Steve Passeur's 1930 play L'Acheteuse (literally, The Buyer).

British actress/author Yvonne Mitchell translated the play. She writes in the programme for A Measure of Cruelty, "The author himself [Passeur] sees it as a drama which should be played as a comedy...amongst all the manoeuvrings of a similar small town bourgeosie, the hero and heroine manage somehow to be likeable, understandable, and to invoke our sympathies. The fact that they bring their miseries upon themselves by their very natures doesn't stop us from wishing them both happiness, and for feeling for both of them."

The plot concerns "Elizabeth", a wealthy older woman (Hiller) who "buys" the affection of a young man named "Gideon" (JB) in the Dordogne region of France in 1929. At one point Elizabeth tells Gideon, "I owe [you] a measure of cruelty that I shall take a long time to pay off." The Times of London noted, "Mr. Jeremy Brett especially puts a stylish gloss on the bought young man and his consequent marriage of hatred."

Programme, London, 1965

Jeremy then appeared opposite Ingrid Bergman in Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country. When the play arrived at London's Cambridge Theatre from the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guilford, Jeremy stepped into the role of "Beliaev," which had been played out-of-town by Daniel Massey, his former brother-in-law. Beliaev is a handsome tutor who comes between aristocratic "Natalia" (played by Ms. Bergman) and "Vera," her young ward. John Higgins, in The Financial Times, wrote glowingly of Jeremy's performance:

"But perhaps most impressive of the newcomers is Jeremy Brett as Beliaev. In a production notable for the way in which each of the actors slides into his role like a hand slipping into a well-fitting glove, Mr. Brett is still outstanding. His tutor is still basically a student, even a peasant, as the muzhik costume suggests; yet he, like Vera, becomes aware of his sexuality for the first time, his power to move others when they want to stand still. Here is Beliaev, gauche and shy, yet with the quick smile of those who are charming by nature rather than by adoption, and here was the perfect leave-taking--sad, surprised, yet totally courteous."

A reviewer in the Chicago Tribune also noted, "There's no mistaking the potent charm of  Jeremy Brett as the young tutor whose shy smile blows the roof off a dull country house." 

From the plains of Russia to Surrey: Jeremy's next stage role was "Ronnie," the eldest sibling in Any Just Cause. The second play presented at the Adeline Genee Theatre, Any Just Cause was a domestic drama about how a married couple's split affects their two grown sons. It was penned by George Pensotti, a prolific writer, director, teacher, and actor (among his many stage roles was a turn as Freddie Eynsford-Hill in a 1960 production of Pygmalion!) The couple's younger son, "Stephen," wants to get into Oxford but is so distracted by his parents' separation that he loses out on his scholarship. Stephen was played by then 24 year-old Michael York. Phyllis Calvert played the shrewish wife and mother, "Alice," and The London Times reviewer observed, "As her elder son, Ronnie, Jeremy Brett achieves an outstanding piece of characterization as he changes from a dull provincial drifter into a suburban miser."

National Jeremy

JB as "Orlando" in "As You Like It", 1967

At this stage in his life, Jeremy seemed content to do whatever theatre, television, or film role came his way. He still didn't wish to be tied down to a repertory company such as the National Theatre. 

In 1966, when his friend Robert Stephens was putting in twelve-and-a-half hour days at the National rehearsing three plays at once, Jeremy told a Plays and Players interviewer, "This is partly because the [National] Company is still in the process of formation and one actor very often has to do the work of three. It's all right, I suppose, being worked very hard, provided you can have six weeks holiday a year...I think one needs an awareness of life beyond the theatre, even if one doesn't have time to lead it. That's where doing films comes in useful--it gives one a chance to see places that one wouldn't get to  otherwise." 

But, Jeremy no doubt noticed that the hard work of Stephens, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, and other National stars was being rewarded with plaudits and prestige.

So, in 1967, the prodigal actor finally made his long-delayed debut with the National Theatre.

In a 1973 London Times article, Jeremy explained that after he'd refused the initial offer to join the company in 1963, he feared, "'They'll never employ me again.'

"'Then, one night in 1967, I was invited to see the dress rehearsal of Joan Plowright taking over for Maggie Smith in Much Ado [About Nothing]. It was only then I realized that there's a certain amount of gamesmanship. You have to take the opportunities as they come."

In the same 1973 article, he revealed how he came to play the part of "Orlando" in Shakespeare's As You Like It:

"'I knew the part of Orlando hadn't been cast yet...I remember standing in front of my mirror and I just took the scissors and cut a fringe [bangs]. I thought, 'That's more Orlando'...I was in Joan [Plowright's] dressing- room, and Larry [Olivier] suddenly said, 'Aaahhr. Come with me.' And he took me across to his dressing-room and said, 'Will you play Orlando for me?' I leapt at him and practically knocked him over with a bear hug.'"

The National's production of As You Like It was as almost as controversial as The Deputy, although for a very different reason: all the women in the play were portrayed by men.

Programme, London, 1967

And, the men weren't entirely happy about this "gender-bending." In his biography of Anthony Hopkins (the play's "Audrey"), Michael F. Callan writes: "Hopkins had never been comfortable in his casting of Audrey, the male depiction of Shakespeare's 'poor virgin' wooed by Touchstone. Indeed, few among the company were...None of the four 'female impersonators' [which, in addition to Hopkins, included Ronald Pickup as Rosalind, Charles Kay as Celia, and Richard Kay as Phoebe] were exactly ecstatic about the production, though Pickup faced it as 'a unique challenge which I decided to approach in a low-key and androgynous way.'"

The original director of the play, John Dexter, took his inspiration for this daring version of As You Like It from an essay called "Bitter Arcadia" by Polish critic and poet Jan Kott, who noted the seeming interchangibility of the men and the women in the play. Dexter later had a falling out with Laurence Olivier and was replaced by Clifford Williams, who set the play in a fabulously "mod" Forest of Arden, causing the cast to nickname the production "Freddie and the Freakouts."

At first, there was great confusion over how the "women" were to be played. The first rehearsal was disastrous. Lord Olivier showed up for the next rehearsal. Callan quotes Pickup: "He [Olivier] came in splashing his usual energy all over the place and galvanizing everyone. He wasn't happy with what I was doing. Larry himself always wanted to play drag, and that's what he wanted from us: high-camp elements. During the interval he came to me and said, 'Here, give me that lipstick, let's draw a real mouth on you! Give me those eyelashes...!' He made me look like an absolute tart, but it was his way of saying: Give us more, more, more."

Hopkins had his own ideas about Audrey. He wore a simple canvas gown that basically made him look...well, like a man wearing a simple canvas gown. Callan writes: "Clifford Williams, keen for camp but keener to keep this dodgy production on the rails, enthused, 'That's it, Tony. Perfect. You have it. That's exactly what I want. Moo-cowish.'"

Although he was very much a male in the play, Jeremy had anxieties of his own. At 34, he realized he was a mite "old" to be playing juveniles such as Orlando. Then, he had a revelation about himself and his career:

"'I suddenly accepted myself one night. I discovered I was an actor and not just a Black Country boy who'd come up to town. I was a very old twenty [when I started] and a very insecure one. I felt like mutton dressed up as lamb until then, truly. I'd heard about matinee idols and Ainley and Du Maurier and Anton Walbrook.'

"'And suddenly it dawned on me, playing Orlando when I was deep in my thirties, that juvenile parts were character parts. I thought, 'I'll accept that I've got something to offer and I'll try to put the right price on my own head.' Before that, I tried too hard, and that meant I wasn't sure. I felt inadequate--I used to say to myself, 'I fooled them.''"

Not surprisingly, this As You Like It opened to extremely mixed reviews. However, Irving Wardle of The London Times enjoyed the interaction between Pickup's Rosalind and Jeremy's Orlando: "Mr. Pickup's Rosalind, a beaky long-legged figure in a yachting suit, does conform to Kott's specification of the boy-girl--except that it is completely non-erotic. It begins demurely with a few well observed feminine gestures, and takes on character only during the Gangmede scenes. It is a blank that comes to life under the stress of intense platonic feeling; and there is real excitement in seeing this Rosalind and Jeremy Brett's very masculine Orlando being taking unawares by serious emotion in the midst of their game."

Production pic from "As You Like It" (1967) - JB w/Ronald Pickup (L) & Charles Kay (C)

Jeremy said that As You Like It "was a joy to do" and after that, he was "allowed to go on and develop."

Although the NT's list of Jeremy's performances inexplicably omits the role, and his name doesn't appear in their cast list for the show, Jeremy also portrayed "Claudio" in Much Ado About Nothing with the National Theatre in 1967.  He is shown below with Sheila Reid as "Hero". 

Jeremy Brett as "Claudio" w/Sheila Reid as "Hero" in "Much Ado About Nothing" 1967

Directed by Franco Zefferelli (who also designed the scenery), Much Ado began its NT run in 1965 with Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith starring as "Benedick" and "Beatrice." (Joan Plowright later took over the role of Beatrice; strangely, this role isn't included in her list of NT performances, either).  Ian McKellen was originally cast as Claudio. (McKellen later said, "I think [Jeremy Brett] replaced me briefly as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.") 

The play's programme notes that Shakespeare wrote 13 plays set in Italy, including Much Ado: "...the setting is hot-blooded Sicily; Beatrice is the niece, and Hero the daughter, of the Governor of Messina. By contrast, Benedick and Claudio are Northerners, the former a Paduan and the latter a Florentine."

According to Gradesaver.com, "Much Ado About Nothing conflates two separate stories into one plot: the baiting of Benedick and Beatrice into a declaration of love and the deception of Claudio into mistakenly thinking that Hero is unchaste."

JB appeared late in the play's run while he was also acting in As You Like It and Tartuffe. Much Ado About Nothing left the NT repertory on December 1, 1967.

Jeremy admitted that he "had to play my small parts" at the National. So, he appeared as "Valere" (pictured below) in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Tartuffe (with Robert Stephens in the title role and Sir John Gielgud as "Orgon"). Valere's fianceť, Mariane (Louise Purnell) is saved from a forced marriage to Tartuffe, the fiendish fraud. Martin Esslin raved about the National Theatre's "splendid" production in his review in Plays and Players, and noted that "Jeremy Brett and Louise Purnell turn the usually insipid lovers into delightfully observed comic portraits."

JB as "Valere" in "Tartuffe" - photo by Lewis Morley, NT

Then, in Brecht's Edward II, Jeremy portrayed "Kent," the "small, weak, brother." Apparently, Jeremy went a bit overboard trying to "become" Kent. He affected a limp, a stutter, glasses and a sway. Laurence Olivier noticed this collection of tics and asked him during a rehearsal, "Don't you think we could do with just two?"

Then, it was back to Shakespearean comedy for Jeremy as he portrayed "Berowne" in Love's Labour's Lost. This was a sumptuous production, described by Mr. Wardle of the Times as "a tapestry world of charming phantoms." Wardle saw a lot of "schtick" going on--funny walks, funny voices--but he added, "Still, the measured intelligence of the delivery gives the text a far better chance than it usually gets; and the big comic scenes go with a great flourish, especially when led by Jeremy Brett's Berowne."

Helen Dawson of Plays and Players raved, "Jeremy Brett (an actor whose talents have really blossomed at the National...) is quite splendid as Berowne. He brings to the part the almost mocking strength of the student court's most mature member, and delighted surprise at the depth of his love...Rosaline and Berowne, Joan Plowright and Jeremy Brett, are made for each other and, hopefully, it's a partnership which will be seen again soon."

Programme, London, 1968

Jeremy later told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that he nearly didn't get to be Berowne because Lord Olivier, who directed the play, had never portrayed Berowne himself, and suddenly the part looked awfully good to him!

"As we began work, I could hardly get the script out of his hands," Jeremy remembered. 

The young actor panicked when he learned Olivier had been reading an essay about the play which pointed out that Berowne was the first of Shakespeare's "big human beings."

"For two weeks, I could hardly get on the stage. I think if the truth were out, if Olivier could have broken my leg or had an excuse to get rid of me, he would have. Instead, Olivier gave me the most brilliant notes on the part."

(Of course, these notes to Jeremy included Olivier's famous acting "dos" and "don'ts," such as: Do "blaze, be frank and think, think, think;" Don't "be ingratiating, earnest or polite.")

Jeremy added, "After the play opened, Olivier said, 'Joanie [Joan Plowright] and I have decided that you've done it. How?' (A touch of acid, that!)"

Jeremy answered Olivier, "Because you !@%*&! well challenged me to within an inch of my life!"

Jeremy concluded, "Then, [Olivier] exploded. He went 'Hkloupp!' And he picked me up--and I'm not light.'"

JB and Joan Plowright in "Love's Labour's Lost" (1968)

The National's production of Love's Labour's Lost toured to The King's Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, in April 1969. While the reviewer in The Scotsman felt this presentation of the play lacked a "touch of innocent gaiety," he praised Jeremy's performance as Berowne as witty and forceful. 

Jeremy would also repeat the role of Berowne in a 1975 BBC Play of the Month presentation of Love's Labour's Lost, with Sinead Cusack as Rosaline. 

Guevara Are You Going?

JB as Che Guevara, 1969

When one thinks of an actor born to play the scruffy revolutionist Che Guevara, Jeremy Brett is hardly the first person who comes to mind. Yet, in 1969, Jeremy did play Guevara, and, ever the "becomer," he spent nearly six months hitchhiking around South America to get a sense of Guevara's background. 

In 1979, he told a British interviewer, "...I was very intrigued by [Guevara's] exploits over there, so I decided to go and follow his route. Actually, this was a rather sad thing to do because, of course, everything ended for him in Bolivia.

"I then went into the Inca Kingdoms because they have always fascinated me, then into Chile, and Brazil, and back home.

"I went with very little money because I wanted to see if I could survive without any, make it on my own. I was away for nearly six months, and I hitch-hiked a lot.

"I worked there, too. At one point, I got some stones and polished and set them and sold them on the spot, and in Chile I got lots and lots of shells and with a pair of tweezers I made tiny little mice, which I sold for quite a lot of money."

This astonishing effort to get under a character's skin was for the limited-run play MacRune's Guevara, presented at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre by the National Theatre as part of an experimental "workshop"--or, as Irving Wardle bluntly put it, "...a gymnasium for new writers...to give small-part actors the chance to carry a production."

In any case, Wardle pointed out, "This is not to disparage the plays, emphatically not in the case of John Spurling's MacRune's Guevara...by turns, we see Che as a Latin American Robin Hood, a Clyde of the Congo flooding bourgeois verandas with innocent blood, and as the inspired martyr of a noble cause. The MacRune of the title is a destitute old Scottish artist totally possessed by the Guevara legend."

A reviewer in the New York Times later described the NT production of MacRune's Guevara as "a truncated version ordered by Kenneth Tynan" and said "the play became a subject of political controversy; some thought of it as an attack on Guevara."

Incidentally, Jeremy's casting as Che may not have been as bizarre as it seems. Both Brett and Guevara had Irish grandparents. Che befriended actress Maureen O'Hara during the filming of Our Man in Havana in Cuba and told her, "My grandmother's last name was Lynch and I learned everything I know about Ireland at her knee." His trademark beret reportedly came from Ireland, as well. 

Back in the Classics

As the new decade of the 1970's arrived, Jeremy was back in the classics, portraying "Bassanio," the "caddish adventurer" of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Director Jonathan Miller set his staging of Merchant in the late nineteenth century. Although most of the actors (including Jeremy) were favorably mentioned in reviews, this Merchant of Venice clearly belonged to Laurence Olivier's "Shylock" ("We have not seen greater acting since The Dance of Death," said The Times of London.)

A reviewer from the Toronto Star saw the play in London and wrote of Jeremy's Bassanio: "Bassanio is an opportunist, referring first to Portia as 'a lady richly left'; one feels that his friendship for Antonio is firmly built upon a financial base, and only the horror of the trial is able to reveal his own deeper instincts to himself."

Harold Hobson noted in the Christian Science Monitor, "Jeremy Brett's Bassanio wears a check coat and a bounderish-looking bowler: He is the epitome of the slick charmer on the make."

This production of The Merchant of Venice was later taped and broadcast on U.S. television in 1974. (See JBTV II for detailed info about this production.)

Next, Jeremy portrayed "George Tesman" in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, directed by Sweden's renowned Ingmar Bergman. As Jeremy explained in 1979, Bergman gave him some rather unique instructions on playing Tesman: "We worked from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. without a break every day. It was total concentration. He [Bergman] said, 'I know exactly how you should play Tesman. As Winnie the Pooh.' It was impossible to know how he got that idea. He gets right at the root. It's not comforting to work under him. It's like being raw. You're under pressure all the time, but he's incredibly loving to his actors.

"Once I forgot my script. Maggie Smith ["Hedda"], who has a temper like lightning, snapped away. Bergman said, 'Jeremy, everybody's very angry with you, but I'm not. See how much you remember.' I remembered it all. That's the gentleness of the man."

Actually, Bergman himself had reservations about this Hedda. Loathe to leave Sweden, he discovered in London that the NT stable of actors worked at a much faster pace than to which he was accustomed. They quickly learned their lines and were off and running. They tried to slow down for Bergman, but champed at the bit.

Plus, according to a 1971 review of the play, the director had an unorthodox rehearsal schedule:

"...[Bergman] came to London for initial discussions and blocking. He returned home for several weeks, coming back for polishing for a week or so before the premiere, leaving the cast in the meantime to work things out for themselves under the watchful eye of Sir Laurence Olivier."

Despite all the pressure behind the scenes, Jeremy ended up with good reviews. As The Daily Telegraph noted in its obituary for Jeremy in 1995, "One of Brett's best performances was his masterly portrayal of feeble devotion to Maggie Smith's Hedda Gabler under Ingmar Bergman's direction. He created a wholly credible character, not the usual bungling fool but a very presentable, handsome young man who just happens to be too dull, too scholarly and too conventional for his wife."

Production photo from "Hedda Gabler" with Maggie Smith & JB

Hedda Gabler was the last play Jeremy did with the National Theatre.

Jeremy would remember his time at the National as "about the happiest period in my career, because [Olivier] has a tremendous amount to offer any actor."

When Laurence Olivier died in 1989, Jeremy told the Associated Press, "However many times you'd seen him, it was probably the most dangerously thrilling moment you'd seen on any stage."

The Journey Continues

In 1971, Jeremy took A Voyage Round My Father at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, as the son of a blind barrister portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in this autobiographical play by John Mortimer.

Programme, London, 1971

Jeremy had some amusing memories of working with Guinness:

"I learned from [Guinness] how disciplined you have to be to sustain a role. ...He's also very human. He does not like the audience. If someone coughs, he sends his man with cough drops to Row J, Seat 5. Once, on a rare hot day, someone in the front row was using the program as a fan. Guinness knocked it out of his hand with a cane. Totally destroyed the illusion of blindness!"

JB w/Nicola Pagett in "A Voyage Round My Father" 1971

Critic Michael Billington wrote in Plays and Players of JB's performance: "Jeremy Brett deserves more praise than he's had for creating a plausibly gauche, angular figure out of fairly slender materials." 

Continuing his theatrical "journey," Jeremy was a Traveller Without Luggage. In this play by French dramatist Jean Anouilh,  Jeremy portrayed an amnesiac who rejects his disturbing past as it gradually comes to light. The play was inspired by the true story of a French soldier who lost his memory during World War I. When the soldier's photo was published, dozens of families claimed he was their missing relative. (The gripping tale is recounted in a book, The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War, published in 2004.) 

Then, Jeremy starred opposite Joan Plowright at London's Greenwich Theatre in Ibsen's Rosmerholm, playing John Rosmer, "the Norwegian Brutus: a charming, unsmiling pillar of moral rectitude, expressing both modesty and authority in his hawk-like features and unassertive stance." (The London Times.)  

Jeremy as "John Rosmer" in "Rosmerholm"

Jeremy also produced Rosmerholm under the auspices of  "Company Theatre," a theatrical company he formed with actor/director Robin Phillips in August 1972. (Company Theatre presented nine other plays at the Greenwich, none of which featured Jeremy as an actor.)

Theatrical designer Daphne Dare (1929-2000) was a long-time associate of Robin Phillips, and she created costumes and sets used by Company Theatre. Her obituary in the London Independent stated:

"An annus mirabilis for the Phillips/Dare team came in 1973 with a season at Greenwich ([actor/director] Ewan Hooper with characteristic generosity giving the theatre over to them for a year). This period, with a remarkable company including Jeremy Brett, Mia Farrow, Elisabeth Bergner, Penelope Keith and Lynn Redgrave, included a House of Bernarda Alba putting black costumes against whitewashed walls, a Three Sisters of translucent beauty, the Forties frolic of Born Yesterday and the curio of the Hungarian Catsplay, as well as her beautifully restrained costumes for the musical Zorba. An extraordinary range of work, all designed on budgets slim to the point of anorexia but all absolutely true to the spirit of each piece."

(Robin Phillips left Company Theatre to become Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival in Canada, where he would work with Jeremy again in 1976.)


Good Company: JB with fellow Company Theatre members Joan Plowright, Robin Phillips, and Mia Farrow in December 1972

Programme, London, 1973

Beginning on November 21, 1973, Jeremy co-starred as the Bohemian artist "Otto" with Vanessa Redgrave as "Gilda" and John Stride as "Leo" in NoŽl Coward's Design for Living at the Phoenix Theatre in London. This story of a "menage a trois" put the accent decidedly on the "men."  (Coward himself had played the role of Leo when the play debuted on Broadway in 1933, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne portraying Otto and Gilda).  

The sets and costumes at the Phoenix in 1973 brilliantly captured the ambience of the 1930's. Writing in Plays and Players, Sandy Wilson raved about the entire show: "I could babble on for far more than my allotted space about the felicities and delights of this captivating production. It is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful....

Wilson described Jeremy's Otto as "fetchingly tousled, a fatuous tornado of rage when Gilda betrays him and a marvel of patronising idiocy when he thinks he has her cornered..." 

This production of Design for Living also played an important role in the story of Jeremy Brett. In the audience one evening was Joan Wilson, the PBS producer destined to become Jeremy's second wife. It was said that Joan saw Jeremy here for the first time and made up her mind to marry him.

Design for Living would also be Jeremy's last British stage appearance for nearly a decade. He set his sights across the sea, in search of new challenges.

References

  1. Laurence Olivier by Anthony Holden.
  2. "The Huggins Family of Berkswell," Berkswell Miscellany, Berkswell Local History Research Group, Volume V, 1989.
  3. "A 'Survivor' Turns Vampire," by Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/10/79.
  4. "Tough Job Trying to See the 'Lady'", Edwin Howard, The Southeast Missourian, 12/13/63.
  5. "New Play Controversial", William Glover, Associated Press, The Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribute, 2/16/64.
  6. The Representative (review), Theatre World, 11/63.
  7. "For Your Information--The Deputy" (Informational leaflet, 1964)
  8. "The Fireside Companion to the Theatre," by Ethan Mordden, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.
  9. "Theater: Hochhuth's Deputy Opens," by Howard Taubman, The New York Times, 2/27/64.
  10. "Controversy of Conscience" (review of The Deputy), Richard P. Cooke, The Wall Street Journal, 2/28/64.
  11. "Deputy Opening Picketed by 150," The New York Times, 2/27/64.
  12. "Homage and Hate for The Deputy," by Tom Prideaux, Life Magazine, 3/13/64.
  13. "Christian Morality and Race Issues," Life Magazine, 3/27/64.
  14. "Lyons Den", by Leonard Lyons, San Mateo (CA) Times and Daily News Leader, 3/28/64
  15. "'Deputy is Grind," by William Glover. Washington (DC) Post, 5/17/64.
  16. The Storm Over "The Deputy", edited by Eric Bentley. Grove Press, Inc., 1964.
  17. A Measure of Cruelty (programme), 2/9/65
  18. "Wendy Hiller in A Strong Role," The Times of London, 2/9/65.
  19. "A Sure-Footed Classic," The Times of London, 9/24/65.
  20. A Month in the Country, review by John Higgins, The Financial Times, c. 9/24/65.
  21. A Month in the Country, review by Claudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune, 10/31/65. 
  22. "Family Witch Hunt in New Play--Any Just Cause by George Pensotti", The Times of London 2/28/67.
  23. Any Just Cause, review by Harold Hobson, The Christian Science Monitor, 3/20/67.
  24. "Acting in the Sixties," by Michael Billington, Plays and Players, 2/66.
  25. "Jeremy Brett: A New Confidence," by Ronald Hayman. The Times of London 11/17/73
  26. Anthony Hopkins by Michael F. Callan, Scribner, Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.
  27. "Comic Result When Men Take Over From Actresses--As You Like It," by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 10/4/67.
  28. "A Modern Arcadia" (review of As You Like It) by Frank Marcus, Plays and Players, 12/67.
  29. Programme, Much Ado About Nothing, 1967
  30. GradeSaver: ClassicNote: Much Ado About Nothing Study Guide (www.gradesaver.com), J. N. Smith 
  31. "A Black Comedy" (review of Tartuffe) by Martin Esslin, Plays and Players, 1/68.
  32. "Gentle Enchantment of Olivier Production--Love's Labour's Lost," by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 12/20/68.
  33. "A Labour of Love?" (review of Love's Labours Lost) by Helen Dawson, Plays and Players, 2/69.
  34. Review of Love's Labour's Lost by Allen Wright, Scotsman (Edinburgh), 4/29/69
  35. "'I Want to Be a Star,' Says Jeremy Brett," by Yvonne Wyatt-Rees, My Weekly (UK), 4/7/79
  36. "Experiment and Expansion," by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 3/1/69.
  37. "Stage: MacRune's Guevara at Off Center," by Mel Gussow, The New York Times, 10/30/81
  38. "Merchants All" by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 4/29/70.
  39. "Sir Laurence Olivier's Shylock Nothing Short of Genius" by Urjo Kareda, The Toronto Star, 5/6/70
  40. "London's 1890's Merchant" (review of Merchant of Venice), Harold Hobson, Christian Science Monitor, 5/8/70
  41. "British Version of Swedish Hedda," by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 6/30/70.
  42.  Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide by Birgitta Steene. Amsterdam University Press, 2005.
  43. Review of Hedda Gabler by Glenn Loney, Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1971)
  44. JB Obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 9/14/95.
  45. "Peers Mourn 'the Greatest Actor of His Time'" (Laurence Olivier obit), Associated Press, 7/12/89
  46. A Voyage Round My Father, review by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 8/5/71.
  47. A Voyage Round My Father, review by Michael Billington, Plays and Players, October 1971.
  48. Rosmerholm, review by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 5/18/73.
  49. Daphne Dare, obituary, The London Independent, 10/6/2000.
  50. Design for Living, review by Irving Wardle, The Times of London, 11/22/73.
  51. Design for Living, review by Sandy Wilson, Plays and Players, January 1974.
  52. NoŽl (Program), 4/8 - 6/13/81.

Theatre programme covers scanned from L. L. Oldham's personal collection of JB memorabilia.


Originally published (as TBE Vol. II #12): October 31, 1996.
Last updated: December 9, 2012

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"The Brettish Empire"/"TBE" Copyright Lisa L. Oldham.