Theatre in Wales

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Knighthood for Actor of Wales

Jonathan Pryce

Actor Honoured , Theatre & Film , June 22, 2021
Jonathan Pryce by Actor Honoured Jonathan Pryce became Sir Jonathan in the Birthday Honours of 2021.

Pryce, originally John Price, from Carmel in Flintshire, attended Holywell Grammar School. At sixteen he went to art college and on to teacher training at Edge Hill College. After taking part in a college theatre production a tutor suggested he might become an actor and applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for an application form on his behalf. He was subsequently awarded a scholarship. After graduation from RADA Liverpool's Everyman Theatre led to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Nottingham Playhouse, radio, television and film.

The announcement of the Honour was reported with words from the actor himself:

“That the UK continues to honour those that work in the arts, acknowledges the great contribution artists make to the way we live our lives. When I began work at The Liverpool Everyman under Alan Dosser in 1972, I saw theatre as an implement of change - to entertain and to inform. The arts remind people to be kinder, more understanding, questioning and to be more empathetic.”

He added “the importance of debate and tolerance...After almost 50 years as an actor, I am proud to think that the work and ideals that I have shared with my friends and colleagues is being honoured in this way”.

The career retrospectives in print leaned, as is the habit, towards the acting on screen over stage. But an irony of theatre is that it leaves- or left- a fuller description of actors at work. A performance on screen rarely receives a response like:

“Mr Pryce has been noted for his Modigliani face, with its dominant brow, and the negative deceleration curve of his cheeks. If it is an especially apt face for Hamlet, I believe the aptness derives from the face's tendency, in moments of suffering, to evoke a babyish quality.

“The actor is immensely forceful, can hold the attention of the house, can dominate the stage at will....All the more striking then was the ability of the face to betray- behind what was masculine, aristocratic, commanding- an aspect of infantility, a tendency to self-pity, vulnerability.

That was James Fenton, a poet of accomplishment himself, at the Royal Court. Richard Eyre directed. The richly described ghost was created as an emanation from within the Prince himself. Fenton ended his review: “The production is both exciting and intelligent. It demands to be seen.” Pryce won the Olivier that year.

Five years on Sheridan Morley ran a critical slide-rule over a year in London's theatre. “Only Jonathan Pryce turned in a performance of classic stature.” That was “the Seagull”. Three years on he was in another stellar Chekhov. Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi, Rachel Kempson and Imelda Staunton were among the cast for a translation by Michael Frayn of “Uncle Vanya.” Michael Billington was there to see and record Pryce as Astrov in Michael Blakemore's production.

“He presents us with a damaged idealist who is quirky, eccentric, sensual and used to burying his head in vodka: there is an unforgettable moment when he complies with Sonya's request not to drink and, then...his eye steals longingly towards an unclaimed glass. Pryce gives us the might-have-been; and there is an exact psychological truth about the way he fondles Sonya with the thoughtless familiarity one exhibits towards those one does not love.”

Sir Jonathan Pryce and theatre's history are intertwined. The mark began truly thirteen years before Pryce and Gambon collided and fell to the stage in a jocular heap.

Peter Hall wrote an entry for his diary. “Train to Nottingham to see Trevor Griffiths' “Comedians” : magnificent. I have liked Trevor's previous plays but they were cerebral, political, challenging the audience intellectually. This play f***s them: it achieves a full human congress with them. It is terrific.”

In the ultimate accolade for an actor Trevor Griffiths wrote the role of Gethin Price for Pryce. Richard Eyre directed the production which went from Nottingham Playhouse to Old Vic to Broadway where Pryce won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

Michael Billington looked back at “Comedians” from the perspective of 2007. “The prime vision that emerges from “Comedians” , he wrote then, “is of a Britain that has lost any sense of a cohesive working-class culture: what we are left with is a world that is deeply insecure about gender and race...Griffiths ends with a gesture of hope...a new applicant to the class telling a rather good joke about Hindu hypocrisy...Gethin with a head shaven for execution, combines mimicry of greats like Frank Randle, with a fine, disturbing sense of incipient madness.”

It is uniquely human to laugh our way into meaning and acceptance of the world. “Comedians” did not just sear but it told a truth that we tread a pace or two alongside the ambiguity of cruelty. And truth-telling is public art's function.

Illustration: Gethin Price demonstrates stand-up comedy in “Comedians.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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