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Versatility as a hallmark of a great actor

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Versatility is one of the hallmarks of a great actor: it’s wonderful, for instance, to find Douglas Hodge back on Broadway right now in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac, where he previously won a Tony Award for starring in the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s La Cage Aux Folles.

Seeing the premiere of NSFW, another Lucy Kirkwood play at the Royal Court last week, I was struck once again by the incredible versatility of the glorious Janie Dee: here’s an actress who in the space of little over a year has stretched from playing the Countess of Rusillon in All’s Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare’s Globe to Amanda in Private Lives (opposite her real-life husband Rupert Wickham) at Nottingham Playhouse and starring in Noises Off at the Old Vic to now appearing in a new play at the Royal Court. And she’ll go straight from here to play Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! at Leicester Curve for Christmas. She’s also got another job lined up for next June already, when she’ll star in Tim Firth’s new musical This Is My Family at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio.

[pullquote]He’s got fantastic legs? Who knew? He wears those fishnets to the manner born[/pullquote]

How many actresses embrace that range? In fact, there is another who’s done almost exactly the same thing, though in a different order: Samantha Spiro was at the Globe this summer in The Taming of the Shrew, but two years ago she was in Hello Dolly! at Regent’s Park before going to the Royal Court for Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley, then doing Sondheim’s Company at Sheffield Crucible last Christmas and the title role in Filumena at the Almeida earlier this year.

But then we are blessed, all around, with stunning performers who can stretch in every direction, from classical to new plays and musicals with equal dexterity. The next month, for instance, sees Simon Russell Beale swapping his Shakespearean hat from Nick Hytner’s recent Timon of Athens (broadcast as part of NT Live last Thursday) to donning what Baz Bamigboye referred to last week as mixed fruit saled headdress in next month’s Privates on Parade, in which he plays Captain Terri Dennis for the inaugural production of the Michael Grandage Company. As Grandage told Baz, “He didn’t want to stop at a pineapple.” Apparently, too, “He’s got fantastic legs? Who knew? He wears those fishnets to the manner born.”

London’s last Captain Terri was the equally wonderful Roger Allam in a Donmar Warehouse revival in 2001, also coincidentally directed by Grandage. Allam went on to take over in 2009 in another cross-dressing role of Albin in the West End production of La Cage Aux Folles, opposite Philip Quast. Allam and Quast have had parallel careers in other ways: Allam originated the role of Javert in the first RSC production of Les Miserables, and Quast would inherit it in Australia and go on to play it in the West End and in the tenth anniversary production at the Royal Albert Hall. Again, Allam was German chancellor Willy Brandt in the premiere of Michael Frayn’s Democracy at the National in 2003 – and Quast would play the same role in the play’s Sydney premiere in 2005.

I’m only scratching the surface of the endless variety and versatility of these actors. Who are your own favourite and most versatile performers?

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