The best actors in Shakespeare

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Inspired by Benedict Cumberbatch’s new take on Hamlet, our writers take a look at their favourite Shakespeare performances given by actors on the stage.

Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear (Othello and Iago)

When I studied Othello way back in GCSE English, I remember having a discussion about who we would cast in our dream production; the almost unanimous decision across the whole classroom was a resounding demand for Adrian Lester. Most popularly known for his leading role on BBC’s Hustle, in which he lead a little family of con-artists, his ability to embed a prideful character with a healthy sense of self-doubt was to be anticipated. But nothing could rival his stage presence in the RSC’s 2013 production of the play at the National Theatre – that is, except his villainous counterpart. I gleefully attended the showing with two old friends from secondary school, both of whom had been privy to that same class discussion; we were going for Adrian Lester’s Othello, but we stayed for Rory Kinnear’s Iago. In a production which had updated the war against the Turks to feature desert camo and machine guns, Kinnear’s Iago reflected not only a Machiavellian orchestrator of Othello’s downfall, but also one who worked within the power structure of the modern military. His betrayal of Othello seems altogether more real when you imagine someone in any company passed over for promotion, ignored, and mistreated. Anyone who has seethed at their boss’ back could see themselves in Kinnear’s understated and nuanced performance.

Without a shadow of a doubt, these two actors put on the greatest piece of Shakespeare I have ever seen; it was their combined performances which made the show so compelling, and I am surely not the only one to think so. Lester and Kinnear are the first actors to share the Evening Standard‘s Best Actor award; traditionally given to one actor, the judges were simply unable to choose between the pair.

Words by Camilla Cassidy.

Ralph Fiennes (Prospero)

While I have seen several different Shakespeare productions on stage, most of the time the actors all worked seamlessly together to create a great production, and no one individual stood out. However, Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Prospero in the 2011 Theatre Royal Haymarket production of The Tempest did. While the production, helmed by Trevor Nunn, had its weaker points, Ralph Fiennes was spectacular. He pitched the performance perfectly, balancing Prospero’s innate nobility with the realities of his situation – stranded on a desert island, attempting revenge against those who have wronged him. Fiennes was compelling and powerful throughout, and he demanded your attention whenever he was on stage, whether he was the focus of a scene or not. His command of the stage and the audience was so absolute, that in his final monologue you could have heard a pin drop. It was as if every audience member was holding their breath as he spoke some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful lines, urging the spectator to allow him the magic to leave the island forever. Enticing and moving, Fiennes’ performance is one that has stayed with me since, and I suspect I shall never forget the chills I got as he spoke these final lines.

Words by Rebecca James

Alex Kingston (Lady Macbeth)

Unsexed and masculinised, and conjurer of dark spirits, Lady Macbeth is oft regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most evil characters. Granted, this is mostly due to the ‘unnaturalness’ of a the relationship between powerful evil and passive woman, but Lady Macbeth’s powers of persuasion cannot be disregarded. She knows what she wants, and she gets it. But what makes her character so great is her downfall- the humanising descent into madness; which Alex Kingston’s 2013 portrayal encapsulates expertly. With wild red hair and red dress, hauntingly performed in a deconstructed church, Kingston captures the human side of the villainous character, offset by her powerful stage presence and command over persuasive language. In terms of method, she isn’t too different to Othello’s Iago; but she isn’t constructed as a psychopath. Kingston’s portrayal of the sleepwalking scene sees her in ethereal white, silent and zombie-like, as she crosses the stage with candle in hand. Contrasting to her hysterical tears earlier in the performance, it’s the silence of Macbeth’s persuader that renders the performance most moving and powerful. In my opinion, Shakespeare’s most interesting female character is in no way let down by Kingston’s remarkable portrayal.

Words by Amy Wootten.

Max Bennett (Edmund) 

Edmund is one of those deliciously meaty Shakespeare villain roles and hails from one of the Bard’s tragedies, King Lear. Max Bennett not only does this role justice, but makes it his own without ever becoming over dramatic or a caricature. Striding around the stage confidently, Bennett exudes strength and effortlessly delivers the cutting, witty and often devilish iambic pentameter. A cutting jaw and piercing eyes accompany his manipulation of language, to the point that you may just wish you were caught in Edmund’s twisted web along with Regan and Goneril. Bennett was never upstaged in his performance alongside Frank Langella’s King Lear, and indeed stole the 2013 production when I saw him at Chichester’s Minerva theatre. Did I also mention that he swings his sword with great power? This is one villain you may want to cuddle up to. The theatre veteran knows how to play his audience and exploit a character to their full potential. He isn’t you average bad-boy, and portrays the villain with an extreme emotional depth, particularly playing on the brotherly jealously that his Bastard status forces upon him. One of Shakespeare’s most interesting but often forgotten villains is taken to new and exciting heights with this young star. If you get the chance to catch him in something else, as he’s often found on stage, book the tickets because you certainly won’t regret it.

Words by Natalie Fordham.

Harry Melling (The Fool)

Again from Frank Langella’s King Lear at Chichester’s Minerva theatre, Harry Melling shone through. Melling is probably best known from the Harry Potter series, where he played portly cousin Dudley Dursley. The fool is both a comic tool and a great point of reality. While often speaking in riddles and nonsense, the fool reveals the horrible truth in all situations and dares to say what others will not. Melling not only proves he’s moved on from Harry Potter herebut also shows a great emotional depth and comic timing. Astute in all his choices for the character, Melling plays between philosopher and idiot with a playful twinkle in his eye, as the cautious politician does while pushing out the scapegoat. Dragged along for the emotional ride with Langella, the fool provides light relief from the tragic scenes, but also always points out the harsh reality. Never overplayed as a crazed maniac, but never too cunning, Melling strikes a perfect balance for this often miscast role. He provides the asides for the dazed king and often becomes King Lear’s only survival tool. If Melling continues on this strong streak, he has the potential to break off the shadow of Potter fully and take his place among Shakespeare’s great actors. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him effortlessly take on the bard again and again and to great applause.

Words by Natalie Forham.

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Features Editor 2015/16. Marine biology PhD student and mint chocolate lover. Sorry I give everything five stars, I just have a lot of love in my heart.

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Studying for my PhD focusing on Eighteenth Century Pirate Literature. Writer 2011-2013, Culture Editor 2013-2014, Editor 2014-2015, Culture Exec 2015-2016, Writer 2016-2017. Longest serving Edgeling ever is a title I intend to hold forever.

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Third year English student, Records Editor, list maker and lover of Kinder Buenos.

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BA English student at University of Southampton and Editor for The Edge (2015-16). A deep love of reading, theatre and all things entertainment.

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