When an exhibition called Stars Of The British Screen was held at London‘s National Portrait Gallery a few years ago. it was no suprise to find Jeremy Irons among the photographic exhibits. and Jeremy Irons. stunningly unapproachable. among the celebrity guests at the opening reception. But overshadowing everyone else was unquestionably Peter O‘Toole. Disastrous Macbeth not- withstanding. he cut a magnificent figure sweeping up the wide staircase with black cloak. Panama hat and Cruella deVil cigarette holder. Today. the one-time Brideshead Revisited hero. six foot one and with showbiz accoutrements numbering just two a beard and dark glasses— would seem to boast an almost unrivalled ‘presence‘. Yet he too would acknowledge Peter O‘Toole as a glittering inspiration. Stardom. he contends. does not exist in England as it does in America. and he‘s not sure he would want it if it did. but something about O‘Toole‘s former splendour as an actor. does attract him. ‘I think he was the first star I was really aware ofin this country. When he came on to the screen. it brightened. When I saw him on the stage. he was a man who dazzled. . .So yes. ofcourse I want to dazzle when I walk on to the stage‘. he pauses. ‘And ofcourse I want to be “box-office“. because it means you can choose your work.‘



Jeremy Irons is in Newcastle with the Royal Shakespeare Company at present. having recently returned to the stage after a spell of television and filming. The star of Brideshead Revisited and The Mission talked to Stephanie Billen.

criticised for being too ‘petulant‘. and his voice. soft in real life. was called by one critic. ‘nasal. sibilant and with too little tone or range.‘ Irons says candidly that the attacks were ‘absolutely right at the time.‘ ‘I‘d been away from Shakespeare for seven years concentrating mainly on film. . . and when we opened with the play. I wasn‘t ready for the task at all; it took about two months to grow into it. Also we made possibly the mistake of trying a new approach. playing him as a petulant child. . . Ifyou are trying something outlandish. and you don‘t have the technique. then you‘re really for it.‘ The decision to play Leontes first. was deliberate a kind ofvent for the reviewers before Richard II. ‘Which was really my part‘. Irons explains: ‘Two years ago when I was talking to the director of The Winter's Tale. Terry Hands. one of the things he

‘I‘m not a priest.‘

Shades removed. he talks languorously. his eyes focussed somewhere over my left shoulder. Fresh from the triumph of The Mission and now back treading the boards. he has the air ofon who can certainly choose. but who is weary of the pressures that success has thrust upon him. We are sitting in a quiet sunlit room backstage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. His tawny streaked hair. casual brown cord trousers. grey shirt and baggy khaki jacket. give him a warm Autumnal look. Not exactly relaxed. he looks nonetheless relieved to be having a day off from his gruelling schedule of three leading stage roles Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Richard II. and Willmore in Aphra Behn‘s The Rover. Taking tours to Newcastle and London into account. the parts will have engaged him for the best part ofa year.

The move has been heralded as Irons‘ return to the theatre. but the man whose performance in films The F reneh Lieutenant‘s Woman. Swann in Love and The Mission have been universally acclaimed. did not score immediately with his interpretation of Shakespeare. His Leontes was

6 The List 6 19 February

Richard 11: ‘really my part.’

said to me was. ‘you realise they‘ll be out to gun you.‘ I was terribly upset by that . . .They‘re very unforgiving, the critics. if you go off and make films and then come back to do Shakespeare.‘

He sighs. clearly tired ofthinking about it. ‘But it was all right. We did The Rover and they liked that. Then we did Richard and they liked that though a couple of them said I didn‘t make it poetic enough. But I know if I had. they would have got me for singing it but why worry when the audiences are flocking and liking it enormously?‘

Ultimately. he assures me, it has been a pleasurable season. ‘I enjoy the parts for their differences. Leontes is traditionally a very difficult character to play. so I suppose that was the greatest challenge . . . Richard II is some of the most beautiful Shakespearian verse there is a bit like playing a requiem to Richard. a long dying fall lovely to do. . . and The Rover. that was comedy and swashbuckle. which was nice as a contrast.‘

A contrast perhaps to the rest of his career as well? ‘Well. I‘ve actually done a lot of comedy The Real Thing on Broadway. Wild Cats at the RSC. and then my early days in Rep. but people don‘t think ofme in comedy because of my film and television work. which has been in the main quite muted not a lot of laughs in The Mission.‘ His serious image does not worry him unduly. ‘One knows that images are for breaking and I‘ll break it eventually. People always remember the last part you did.‘

Ironically enough. before the part of the cool. serious Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited made him a household name. Irons was turning

down a series of silly Englishmen roles offered to him after the success of a few ‘Bertie Wooster’ style sherry commercials. Today Irons admits that television is not his favourite medium. ‘Obviously it was important to me as far as Brideshead was concerned. but I find the problem of tv is two-fold it has a very big appetite and you can find yourself doing too much. and also you can put in an awful lot ofwork as much as in a feature film and there is a very strong possibility that people will be watching the football on the other side.‘

Instead he sees his career in terms of film and theatre. Not such an absentee of the stage as he has been seen. the man who had his first success in the theatre as John the Baptist in Godspell. won a best actor prize for his starring part in Stoppard‘s The Real Thing on Broadway as recently as 1984. But at the same time. this year could see

'him filming again. either before or

after his Barbican season with the RSC. The film/theatre balance has also come about as a result of Irons‘ decision not to base himself in Hollywood just to make movies. ‘This is where my roots are. and we have such a great theatrical tradition here. one would be foolish to turn away from that. especially if I‘m interested in acting when I‘m 70.‘

The Mission however is likely to make him more than ever a

‘just another busker’

marketable screen presence. A stunning performance. it was not an easy part for him. ‘I‘m not a priest. I‘m not a Catholic. and I‘m not a Jesuit.‘ He made up for some of his deficiencies by reading early Jesuit journals. and his own adventurous spirit helped him to appreciate their courage as explorers. But he also spent long periods of time with the film‘s Jesuit adviser. going into retreat with him for three days at one point. ‘I thought that if I could play a man who is an adventurer but has an innate sense of spirituality and a strong faith. then I‘d have succeeded.‘ Irons‘ concentration as he talks is such that he continues even as the telephone rings and stops abruptly in the still room. ‘It was difficult because the man doesn‘t have much to do in the film. He doesn‘t change or have an emotional journey in the film. He just is.‘

In that way it was a less attractive part than that of Robert deNiro as the converted mercenary. Mendoza. ‘The big problem was that the argument ofeach had to be as strong and the audience had to care as much for both. Yet Mendoza has much more muscularity in the film. He‘s the one who changes and the one who the audience would be rooting