Talk about your praise from Caesar! No less a legend than Ralph Richardson hung "The Great Gambon" around the neck of Michael Gambon. The sobriquet weighs a ton, chafes like hell and embarrasses on occasion, but over the haul of a long and distinguished career, the actor has earned the adjective. "Great" no longer grates on Gambon. He wears it, with complete credibility, like a flag.
Which is not to say he doesn't still undercut Richardson's initial anointment, occasioned by Gambon's 1980 portrayal of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo: "Peter Hall told me that's what Ralph said to him about me, but he well might have meant it in the circus sense‹you know, like a clown or something. Back home in England, I don't hear it much because we're such a cynical bunch of bastards."
This man who would be Galileo is the star lighting up the Broadway sky in Skylight at the Royale‹although you might get an argument from Actors' Equity on that noun. They've opted to put an asterisk by the word star, ruling that Gambon is to be "treated as a star." Which, you'll allow, is up a step from Equity's first response: "Who is Michael Gambon?" A not-entirely-unreasonable question that, given the chameleonlike colors, sizes, shapes and moods this creative character actor comes in and the fact his main area of operation has been the English stage (save for an armada of American movies that made very brief rounds before sinking without a trace).
Skylight at long last sheds some Gambon glory on these shores, broadening his horizon to Broadway. The show is another Hare 'n' Eyre specialty‹written by David Hare and directed by Richard Eyre‹a long-night's-journey-into-day opus, replete with kitchen sink. Gambon barnstorms and bellows through the piece much like a rhino in heat, a recently widowed businessman clumsily trying to reclaim a former mistress. She, perhaps taking contriteness to a fault, fled into the selfless life of schoolteaching in the city slums the minute their affair was discovered by his dying wife. Racked by guilt and separated by a Carlsbad Cavern of ideologies, the two talk themselves into a tentative truce.
"If we were doing a sequel, they'd get together," is Gambon's best guess. "He's most uncomfortable with that traumatic experience in her flat, and it can't have done anything but improve him. I'm sure it's had an effect on her as well, so I'm sure they'll meet, have dinner and continue the relationship.
"I like the man. He's a successful businessman, but he can't quite line up his private emotional life with his professional life. He can cope with one but not the other. When I was rehearsing him, I was having a few problems. Then, I suddenly realized that when he comes on in the beginning, he should walk around the room as if he owns it‹parading his arrogance, picking things up, hardly listening to what she's saying. But gradually he slowly falls apart."
There's a critical juncture in the evening, indelibly marked by acting rather than writing, where the grief catches up with the character and his blustering gives way to blubbering. "It's just a device, really," Gambon says, waving away the weeping like so much technique. "It's not in the script. I just shoved that in. I mean, if I'm acting, I like to show as many sides of the character as I can. I come on as this big powerful man, then it's great to suddenly go wallop and show his vulnerability." By the same token, the character moves in surprising darts and lunges. "I just think he's a man in control, a businessman, efficient. He moves quickly. He doesn't lumber. When you see him in Act II, when his life is falling apart, then he lumbers a bit." Part of Gambon's new-found "star treatment" is the privilege of playing Skylight here with Lia Williams, the same co-sparring partner he had last year in London. "We couldn't have done it here without her. For one thing, I wouldn't have rehearsed with anybody else. It was too complicated, and we've been together doing it since last year. We're so much like that together." He snaps his fingers in rapid succession. "It wouldn't work with anybody else. You'd have to replace me because the two people have to work closely together.
"Every night before we go on, we both go through torment with fear. It's like climbing a mountain, this play. Once we're both on, you can't stop. There's so much energy required. You have to pick this play up off the ground and carry it all night. It's not like a modern play where you can sit on it. You can't sit on this play. It's like Shakespeare‹you gotta drive this bugger forward."
King-of-the-mountain Gambon came in second (to Alex Jennings's Peer Gynt) for the Olivier Award for Best Actor last spring‹Williams made the Best Actress running as well‹and the drama took the prize for Best Play. The Volpone that he performed under Matthew Warchus's direction in tandem with Skylight won him the London Evening Standard Award for 1995's Best Actor; these twin triumphs marked Gambon's return to the West End after a fitful five-year fling at film making (Toys, A Dry White Season, Mary Reilly, A Man of No Importance, The Browning Version and the controversial The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover).
He previously collected an Olivier for Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval and won virtually ever major acting award going in 1987 for Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. He also has decade-old awards from the British Academy, the Broadcasting Press Guild and the Royal Television Society for his vivid depiction of a scaly, bedridden pulp-fiction writer combating the pain of psoriasis with memories and fantasies in "The Singing Detective."
That landmark mini-series broke Gambon out of his British barricade, spreading his fame to the States where it coagulated into "Singing Detective" societies. Any of these American cultists who come across this new and official "star" on Broadway now, shining brightly and setting the standard for other Best Actor contenders to come, will surely be pleased to see how his skin has cleared up.
Michael Gambon breaks into his booming Edward Arnold laugh at that thought.