By Stanley Wells

Published by Oxford University Press

Subtitled “from Burbage to Branagh” this book – which manages to be both scholarly and entertaining – introduces us to the finest exponents of Shakespeare across four centuries. I agree with Roy Hattersley that the ever-prolific Stanley Wells is certainly “our greatest authority on Shakespeare’s life and work” and his new book is an imaginative blend of accomplished theatre history and commentary on where we are now – and how we got here.

He does that by giving us a short chapter on each of the 39 actors he features. Tomasso Salvini (1829-1915) for instance, was an Italian who played Othello at Drury Lane in 1875. He was part of a contemporary trend in which eminent actors played in Britain and America in their own languages while the rest of the cast used English. According to reviews at the time Silvani was very impressive. Plenty of women feature in this book. Along with the obvious choices such as Sarah Siddons and Ellen Terry we meet Dora Jordan, Helen Faucit and Charlotte Cushman.

Wells traces developments and approaches through many “living memory” actors (Sybil Thorndyke, Charles Laughton and Donald Wolfit for example) and some who are much alive and working such as Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale and Kenneth Branagh. Then there are thoughtful reflections. He compares Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndyke, for instance, observing that the former could be patrician while the latter was anything but and yet they both played Emilia and Voluminia, among other Shakespeare roles, very successfully. On the other hand, he says, Thorndyke as Cleopatra or Evans as Lady Macbeth would have been unimaginable.

I very much like the way this book takes the reader on a journey through history but leaves it wide open to being dipped into if you want to read about these actors in the “wrong” order. I also admire, and have done for a long time, Wells’s determination to link Shakespeare scholarship with performance. This enjoyable book is about as far from dry. academic textual analysis as any book with Shakespeare in the title could be.

Review by Susan Elkin