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Obituary: John McEnery – ‘powerful stage and screen actor who had a dark, compelling energy’

John McEnery as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe in 2007. Photo: Tristram Kenton

John McEnery was an actor fuelled by a complex, combustible inner life that manifested itself with a dark, compelling energy and often fierce intelligence on stage. He had, The Stage noted of his Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Oxford Playhouse in 1975, “that rare ability to convey meaning by a mere flicker of expression”.

It was a quality that saw him carve out a career in regional theatre, television and film and serve as an ever-reliable component of Laurence Olivier’s late-1960s National Theatre company, in Trevor Nunn’s defining years at the Royal Shakespeare Company a decade later and, more recently, during Mark Rylance’s tenure at Shakespeare’s Globe.

John McEnery

Born in Walsall in the West Midlands to a pickle factory-owning father turned stationery shop owner, McEnery was raised in Brighton and followed his older brother, Peter, into acting by training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

On graduating in 1964, John McEnery was seen in the National Theatre premiere of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun before spending three seasons at the Liverpool Everyman. He rejoined the National Theatre for a cynically romantic Hamlet in the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1967.

Notable appearances in successive years included Bertolt Brecht’s version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and Charles Wood’s examination of the suppression of the Indian Mutiny, H.

As a sprightly but conflicted Ariel to Hugh Griffith’s Prospero (The Tempest) at Nottingham Playhouse, McEnery was part of the first British Council-sponsored tour to France in 1972.

Joining the RSC in 1975, he was memorable as Private Meek in George Bernard Shaw’s Too Good to Be True, proved a wittily conspiratorial Andrew Aguecheek (Twelfth Night, 1979) and a solid Rodrigo to Bob Peck’s Iago and Donald Sinden’s Othello (also 1979).

The same year he was part of the ensemble assembled for David Edgar’s epic, two-part adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, excelling as the preening actor Snevellicci and shiftless gigolo Alfred Mantalini, with which he made his only Broadway appearance in 1981.

Charles Dickens on stage – Mark Shenton’s top 5

There were powerful, charged performances in Nigel Williams’ My Brother’s Keeper (Greenwich Theatre, 1985), Stoppard’s version of Vaclav Havel’s Largo Desolato (Bristol Old Vic, 1986) and in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class on his return to the RSC in 1991.

Following Steven Berkoff’s Coriolanus at the Mermaid Theatre in 1996, McEnery made his debut at Shakespeare’s Globe the following year with a show-stopping appearance as Pistol in the First Folio version of The Life of Henry the Fift.

He was a gruff Enobarbus in the company’s signature all-male Antony and Cleopatra, with Rylance as the Egyptian queen (1999), a ukulele-brandishing Fool to Julian Glover’s King Lear (2001) and the chilling, matter-of-fact assassin Lightborn in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, another all-male production (2003). He topped his time at the Globe with an insinuatingly unpleasant and ignoble Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 2007.

In Chichester’s Minerva Studio he was seen in Friedrich Schiller’s condensed Wallenstein trilogy (2009) and was a vividly lecherous aged gardener to Patrick Stewart’s Shakespeare in Edward Bond’s Bingo at the Young Vic in 2012.

His last appearances on stage included performances with the Malachites in Shoreditch, including a 2015 King Lear of pent-up but precisely controlled emotion.

His film career began promisingly with his BAFTA-nominated Mercutio in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, the title role of Bartleby opposite Paul Scofield (1970) and a dashing Kerensky in Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) before all but petering out. A rare late film appearance was as the apothecary in Girl With a Pearl Earring in 2003.

On television, he drew plaudits for his Rokesmith in Our Mutual Friend (1976), as Robert Louis Stevenson in the three-part portrait of the novelist’s last years, Tusitala (1986) and as Uncle Ted in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1993).

Off stage, McEnery’s private life, fractured by struggles with alcohol addiction, attracted more headlines than his work. A series of drink-driving convictions in the 1980s were capped by a dismissed charge in 2018 for alleged violent threat when he jokingly produced a water pistol having been refused service in a public house.

John Murray McEnery was born on November 1, 1943 and died on April 12, aged 75. He is survived by two daughters with his ex-wife, the actor Stephanie Beacham.

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