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Rise and fall of Edmund Kean: the performer who put passion into the classics

Ian Hughes as Edmund Kean playing Richard III
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‘One of the first celebrities of Georgian England’, Edmund Kean transformed classical performing. Now, actor and Shakespearean scholar Ian Hughes is resurrecting his hero in the UK’s oldest untouched theatre. He speaks to Nick Smurthwaite

Theatre scholars have been fascinated by Edmund Kean since his death in 1833, aged 45. It is partly because he single-handedly changed the way Shakespeare was acted at the time and partly because he went from near destitution to fame and fortune virtually overnight.

Kean’s relatively short working life was every bit as dramatic as his stage performances. Not only was his rise to stardom extraordinarily rapid but, once perched at the top of the tree, he proceeded to behave very badly indeed.

In a new one-man show, The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean, lookalike actor Ian Hughes shows how the pop-star adulation Kean received went to his head.

A contemporary print of Kean as Richard III

“He was one of the first great celebrities of Georgian England, but he had no idea how to deal with it,” says Hughes, who is also a Shakespearean scholar. “He was earning £50 a night at a time when the average annual income was £30. He spent the money on whores and booze, and towards the end of his career regularly appeared drunk on stage.”

In terms of his acting, Kean replaced the lifeless posturing and declaiming of his predecessors with a level of passion, urgency and energy that hadn’t previously been seen on the London stage. His signature performances were Richard III, Hamlet, Shylock and Iago, as well as the role of the villainous Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1633).

“Restraint was alien to him,” writes Giles Playfair in his 1983 biography, The Flash of Lightning. “He was flashy, all energy and passion and he needed the big scene to show off his real powers.”

Ian Hughes agrees: “He used a lot of carefully honed tricks. He wasn’t above gabbling a long speech until he got to a key phrase. Classical acting up to that point had been dull and dry. Kean introduced what became known as ‘passionate realism’. Even in his heyday, people didn’t go to see Shakespeare, they went to see Kean doing Shakespeare.”

Jane Austen refers to his popularity in a letter to her sister Cassandra, dated March 4, 1814. She wrote: “Places are secured at Drury Lane for Saturday, but so great is the rage for seeing Kean that only a third or fourth row could be got.”

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describing the experience of seeing Kean for the first time, wrote: “To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” The critic William Hazlitt said his Iago was “the most perfect piece of acting on the stage, the most complete absorption of the man in the character”.

Kean’s theatrical apprenticeship was a long one, starting in childhood. At the age of eight he could recite the whole of The Merchant of Venice from memory, and he appeared on stage with Charles Kemble, the leading tragedian of his day, aged six as Fleance in Macbeth.

In his youth he toured the provinces with second-rate travelling companies, playing barns and fairgrounds, as well as theatres, walking everywhere between engagements. Because out-of-town audiences expected all-round entertainment, he also learnt about clowning, acrobatics, timing a laugh, singing, dancing and mimicry.

Kean as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts

At 5ft 6in and slight of build, Kean’s intention to become a heroic tragedian was met mostly with derision, although he was engaged to play Hamlet in York at the age of 14. Traditionally, successful Shakespearean actors tended to be tall and aristocratic like Kemble and Henry Irving.

He was talent-spotted in the provinces by Samuel Arnold, the manager of Drury Lane Theatre, and contracted to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1814. Off stage, Kean was a quiet, unassuming figure but as soon as he stepped on to the Drury Lane stage, he had the audience enraptured. Hazlitt reported in the next day’s Morning Chronicle that “no actor had come out for many years at all equal to him”.

Hughes first became interested in Kean after buying an 1867 biography from David Drummond’s Theatre Bookshop off Leicester Square. He says: “It was this florid account of a man who went from grinding poverty and years of hardship to become the country’s most celebrated actor. Then he lost it all and was dead at 45. It’s an extraordinary story.”

While appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2002, Hughes used his free time to write a one-man show about Kean – later performing it at a festival of new writing at the Other Palace.

Now he is taking it to the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, the country’s oldest untouched theatre, built in 1788, where Kean himself performed in 1811, three years before his London triumph. “Somehow I don’t think he would have been performing Shakespeare in Richmond,” says Hughes. “It would most likely have been a mixture of speeches from plays, singing and dancing, possibly some acrobatics. Regional audiences preferred all-round entertainers at that time.”

A drama teacher as well as an actor, Hughes references Kean, Garrick, Kemble and others in the classroom. “It can only be a good thing for aspiring actors to know what people did in the past and how acting has moved on,” he says.

The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean is at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal on March 4. www.edmundkean.co.uk

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive