April 02, 2008

Paul Schofield

When Paul Schofield died I wrote this on Bits of News. I think at the time I should have posted it here- but I didn't and so I post it today, concurring even more than I did when I wrote it with my judgement on March 20th- as such I feel it should go on this blog.

Paul Schofield was one of the great actors of his generation. He did the great roles- Lear, Hamlet- and succeeded in being according to others the best Lear of his generation. He also took an oscar for playing Thomas More in a Man for all seasons. I came across him towards the end of his career, but even so you could see that this was a formidable actor. Its three performances of his- neither of which much remembered in today's obituaries that I particularly remember him for. That in a sense seared his impression upon my brain as a film viewer and as a consumer of poetry.

Schofield in 1989 was persuaded by Kenneth Branagh to take part in Branagh's Henry V as the King of France. Normally the French King is a pathetic man with little time on stage, but Schofield's presence imbued a small part with great weight and majesty. When he was on the stage, even playing a doddery old failing King, he gave that part a sense of Priam-like forsight. This was a man you could see who could not hold back the tide but could forsee the way that it was turning. He used Shakespeare's lines which create the personality of the King of France, to flesh out a role that was both feeble and wise. A role which in a sense performed the perfect counterpart to Branagh's Henry. Henry is of course the good King, vibrant and vital- Schofield's King was the good king grown old surrounded by foolish councillors and an even more foolish son. In a sense his presence in the play made it unneccessary for the earlier history plays about Henry IV to be performed- for Schofield's role demonstrated that the other side of Kingship was there, the side of kingship that worries and frets, that is powerless under the threat of fate. He performed that role so well that I can't think of the film without him in it- even though he was on stage during none of the major set pieces and probably only for a few minutes.

Secondly I came across him in Quiz Show where again he played a father to a brilliant son- but this time the brilliance of the son was flawed. The son, played by Ralph Fiennes, was corrupted by the lure of money. Schofield's role as the father was brilliant. He was able to make the father's slightly intellectually snobbish academic knowledge charming and forgivable. He was able to demonstrate how beneath the crust of sophistication there were very strong principles that this man believed in and wished to follow. Again Schofield's performance did not take away from the main drama of the film, rather his performance strengthened many of the other aspects of the film. He was the dressing that made the salad work, but he didn't obscure its other components.

My last memory of Schofield, and again it'll be one that lots share, is as a reader. He read in the early 2000s as he reached his eightieth birthday, the Waste Land on BBC Radio. He captured the full range of its voices, appreciated its nuances and the rhythm with which Elliot managed to infuse the closing calls at a pub or the crowds over London Bridge. Its one of the most frequently listened tracks on my Ipod and it demonstrates the ability of the man's voice to permeate the poem, to give a difficult text meaning and also its versatility, coping with all the different voices of Elliot's imagination.

I cannot claim that I knew Paul Schofield, nor that I saw his best work which people say was on stage. I was too young to observe him in his prime as an actor, too unobservant to realise as a teenager that I should have made an effort to see him and others of his generation before they passed. Yet I think from these three moments- captured on film and on radio- even I could sense today was a moment of sadness. We have lost a superb actor who lightened up the stage and was able to really reach into and think about great parts. For me, neither of the three experiences I wrote about above could have been the same without Schofield's sure grasp of what he had to do and his talent for doing exactly that- bringing out of his character something to make the films and poem work even better. Working with the grain, not against the other members of the cast, but with them and not overacting them off the stage with his performance.


Jake said...

It was his voice that did it for me aside from him being the fine actor that he was.