What Price Shakespeare

Watching that very splendid study in Shakespearean gore, Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price as the ageing Shakespeare ham who's the butt of every critic's joke, got me wondering if Price ever had done any Shakespeare for real.

A quick glance at his movie credits seems to turn up precious few roles in tights. Surprisingly few, in fact. In the early The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex he plays Sir Walter Raleigh and then there are the Poe movies, several of which might fit the bill. The closest he gets, apart from Theatre of Blood that is, is the Corman low-budget Tower of London, a ghost movie in which he plays a Richard of Gloucester haunted by those he's murdered. I also have a clear recollection of him doing Osric in Laurence Olivier's film version of Hamlet. I am of course wrong and it was in fact Peter Cushing. Close but no cigar.

He never did much work on the stage. In the 30s he was, briefly, with Orson Welles's legendary Mercury Theatre and appeared in Thomas Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday and Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. The total sum of the stage productions he took part in is a round dozen; the most interesting of which is Richard III in New York in 1953. He appears, perhaps slightly surprisingly, as the Duke of Buckingham and not the hunchback.

Richard III would of course have been the ideal role for him. Oh how low and dastardly he would have been, oh how vile and scheming and how delighted at his own villainy. He played Richard in Tower of London and even in Theatre of Blood, in the scene where he drowned one of the hated critics in a butt of not Malmsey but Claret. Poetic justice, that.

Another role he was born to play was Iago. The problem there would be this: his Iago would probably destroy the tragedy of the tragedy. He would be so charming, so witty, have such underlying good humour that we'd be on his side and not really care a tinker's cuss what happens to the silly Moor and his bit of fluff. So the play would no longer be Othello but Iago.

In Hamlet he'd be an excellently foppish Osric, a wonderfully annoying Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, and most likely a fine and remarkably dangerous Polonius. And, this goes without saying, a superbly loathsome Claudius. But as Hamlet? Now there would be a fascinating study, I'm willing to bet. Not everyone's cup of tea, but interesting.

As a straight hero Price is impossible. He doesn't look the part. He's odd, his long and narrow Puritan face is somehow rubbery, like a Halloween mask. He's off and that's what makes him so fascinating. And he's got a voice. It's a blend of honey and poison. His manner is always sarcastic, bordering on the insolent and even malicious. We never can trust him. At the same time we never can completely dislike him either, even at his most dastardly. Particularly at his most dastardly.

Other leads? A stranded and more than slightly diabolical Prospero (the imprisonment of whom seems entirely just), a Julius Caesar who rather deserves what he's getting, a Timon who hates mankind with unsurpassable intensity and is out to get each and every one of its members. Put a false belly on him and he's the drunken braggart Falstaff, downing cups and felling wenches like nobody's business, completely enamoured with his own excellence.

Twelfth Night might have been an excellent vehicle for him. I see him doing a scathing Sir Toby Belch and also a tragic Malvolio. In the comedy tragedy and horror, and naturally vice versa. Which obviously is his forte.

What about Macbeth? Is there much room for dark comedy in Macbeth? Perhaps more than at first one might suppose. It would however alter the entire dynamics of the play. Not perhaps such a bad thing. And the witches are often played for comedy, justly or not. The more I think about Vincent Price as Macbeth the more the notion appeals to me.

Such a great pity he never did much Shakespeare to speak of. Still, Theatre of Blood almost makes up for it. Or perhaps even more than makes up for it.

No comments: