Kathleen Riley

Nigel Hawthorne on Stage


University of Hertfordshire Press
Published 2004
ISBN: 9781902806310

This book is the authorised and fully documented history of the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s fifty-year career in the theatre. It presents an appraisal of post-war theatre by focusing on the personal journey of one of Britain’s finest and most respected actors. Sir Nigel gave his approval to the book while writing his autobiography because he saw the two projects as essentially complementary. It provides the detailed analysis of his stage work, which he himself did not attempt, but it has been illuminated and enriched by the personal insights derived from his own generous interviews and those conducted with some of his close friends and colleagues in the theatre. The book comprises three distinct sections. The first (chapters 1-5) is concerned with the developmental phases of Hawthorne’s career and the influence exerted by certain individuals and theatre companies on his evolving style and philosophy. It includes his amateur and early professional performances on the South African stage; his relocation to England in 1951 and involvement with provincial repertory companies; his temporary return to South Africa in 1957 and work with the revolutionary Cockpit Players; his life-changing discovery by Joan Littlewood; and his years with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, the Sheffield Playhouse, and the Young Vic. The second section (chapters 7-10) explores the distinctive qualities of the mature actor, and the affirmation of his unique gifts and artistic principles. These later chapters constitute a case study of his theatrical methodology, having particular regard to his dissection of the text; his research into and preparation for a role; and his interaction, during the creative process, with writers, directors and fellow actors. Among Hawthorne’s performances given special attention are those in Privates on Parade, Shadowlands, The Madness of George III and King Lear. Linking the first two sections is a short chapter (6) on Hawthorne’s occasional forays into playwriting and directing. The third section is a series of chronologies, including particularly a comprehensive record of Hawthorne’s amateur and professional stage work from 1947 to 2000.


Table of Contentshawthorne1

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword by Thelma Holt CBE

Act One: The Journey (1929-1974)
1. London Calling
2. African Summer
3. The Holy Terror of Stratford East
4. In Anger’s Wake
5. A Strolling Player

6. Changing Direction

Act Two: The Arrival (1975-2001)
7. Joining the Establishment
8. Leap of Faith
9. Every Inch a King
10. Reason in Madness

Act Three: Chronologies
I Stage
II Screen
III Events in British Theatre, 1950-2000

  • Epilogue: A Most Ingenious Paradox
  • List of Theatre Awards
  • Appendix:
  • Nigel Hawthorne’s working script of King Lear: Act I, scene I; Act IV, scene vi; Act V, scene iii
  • Works cited
  • Index


‘Kathleen Riley’s Nigel Hawthorne on Stage does more than merely recount its subject’s life story: it is, in effect, a survey of postwar theatre in Britain and South Africa. It follows Hawthorne’s distinguished career, through repertory, to his work with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, his career with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, his time at the Young Vic, and his eventual fame as one of the stars of Yes, Minister , besides which, he created characters in first productions of plays by Michael Frayn, Peter Nichols and Alan Bennett.

Evidence of Riley’s dedication to her subject can be found on every page of this exhaustively researched book. She seems to have gathered every known article or review that mentions her subject. This is particularly advantageous in the opening chapters on Hawthorne’s South African beginnings – an area with which most readers are unlikely to be acquainted. I was fascinated by her account of the key role Hawthorne played in the brief renaissance in South African theatre brought about by Leonard Schach between September 1956 and August 1962. …

It is impossible not to be moved by Riley’s depiction of a keenly intelligent, thoughtful man who worked tirelessly at his craft, enduring years of comparative obscurity before enjoying success in middle age. …

What happens inside an actor’s head when he or she “discovers” a part? It is notoriously difficult to describe, but Riley’s use of Hawthorne’s commentary, and those of the people who worked with him, takes us about as close to understanding the process as we are likely to get. …

[This is] an invaluable volume. As Riley does such a good job of surveying the various contexts in which Hawthorne worked, her book will appeal not just to admirers of this wonderful actor, but to any serious student of postwar British drama, especially those who wish to become actors themselves. It is full of practical insights, and reminds us that, in the theatre, success does not always come quickly; and, even when it does, it is no guarantee against the wrath (merited or otherwise) of reviewers.’ – Duncan Wu, Times Higher Education Supplement

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