Looking Back, Watching Stars as They Rise in Britain

Looking Back, Watching Stars as They Rise in Britain

Looking Back, Watching Stars as They Rise in Britain

Looking Back, Watching Stars as They Rise in Britain

LONDON — These days, it’s via streaming that theater lovers here get their fix, and a look through some of the available archived performances can be revealing. What was a particular actor up to before they came onto your radar? An answer surely exists online — not least in Britain, where theater stars rise not meteorically, but gradually.

Consider three productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company (R.S.C.) dating back five years or more, each of which showcases a top-rank performer while they were still honing their craft. Lucian Msamati, Patsy Ferran and Michelle Terry were all working on attention-worthy projects just before the pandemic, but we now have a digital opportunity to catch them earlier, playing Iago, Portia and Beatrice, respectively.

These productions form part of the “Culture in Quarantine: Shakespeare” series on iPlayer, the BBC’s digital platform, and they are also among 25 R.S.C. titles available to stream via Marquee TV.

After an initial abundance of streaming opportunities at the beginning of the lockdown, our options are beginning to shrink. An early sequence of online titles from the Hampstead Theater concluded months ago, and the popular “National Theater at Home” series ended July 23, having shown 16 plays to an audience of 15 million across 173 countries, according to the theater.

The final play in that series was the director Michael Longhurst’s revelatory 2016 revival of “Amadeus,” which also starred Msamati, an actor well-known to devotees of “Game of Thrones” for playing the pirate-lord Salladhor Saan. His stage career has confounded expectation, whether as the envenomed court-composer, Antonio Salieri, in “Amadeus,” or as the envenomed soldier Iago in the R.S.C.’s 2015 “Othello,” directed by Iqbal Khan.

Msamati was the first Black actor to play that role for the company, and his Iago feels the brunt of racism just as much as Othello, played here by a volatile Hugh Quarshie: He winces at the foolish Roderigo’s demeaning description of Othello as “the thick-lips” and fully grasps the casual bully-boy condescension of Othello’s drunken lieutenant, Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). In the end, Msamati’s Iago is reduced to mad, Joker-style laughter: a malcontent chortling at the havoc wrought by his own deception.

The surprises tend toward the sexual in a “Merchant of Venice” from the same Stratford season. The star turn here worth noting is from the fast-rising (and, on this occasion, fast-talking) Patsy Ferran, who went on to win an Olivier Award for “Summer and Smoke” and to make her Broadway debut in March in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that never made it to opening night.

Ferran makes an unexpectedly perky Portia, the heiress whose hard-won marriage to the eager Bassanio (Fortune-Lloyd again) is complicated in this production by her youthful husband’s bisexuality: As directed by Polly Findlay, this “Merchant” makes plain that Bassanio’s abiding affections rest with Jamie Ballard’s teary Antonio. The two men’s love for one another runs far deeper than anything Portia is likely to know.

The result, as with the R.S.C.’s “Othello,” is to gently shift perspective on a familiar play. You remain aware of the grievous fate suffered by the Jewish moneylender Shylock (a bearded, impassioned Makram J. Khoury), whose disgrace hangs over the comic resolution in the final act. But Ferran’s sprightly, open-faced performance transforms Portia from a potential prig to a confused young woman who finally gets the partner she wants, only to realize his heart lies elsewhere.

Love, of course, is also the focus of “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the R.S.C.’s 2014 production — originally retitled “Love’s Labour Won,” but changed back to the original when it transferred to the West End — lets us see Terry, in the role of Beatrice, several years before she was appointed the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe.

Terry’s time at the Globe has been a mixed affair, but it began promisingly with the actress playing a mentally agile, emotionally alert Hamlet — two qualities she also brings to the role of Beatrice. I’ve seen fizzier, more buoyant characterizations, and the English country house setting for the play sometimes feels as if Shakespeare has been sidelined in favor of Noël Coward.

But Terry’s comparatively somber reading of the part amplifies the emotional damage that has been inflicted upon Beatrice by the gallant soldier Benedick (Edward Bennett), whom she claims to revile, but comes to adore.

And if the effect lessens the playfulness of this celebrated “skirmish of wit,” it testifies to the intelligence of a performer who understands Shakespeare in her bones, and I can’t wait to see what she does next at the Globe.

That will of course be contingent on live theater finding its way back into the light: Here in Britain, such a time seems very far away. Until then, streaming will more than do.

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