BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
As Hal Holbrook did with Mark Twain and Julie Harris did with Emily Dickinson, so did Roy Dotrice make his mark with John Aubrey: He found a larger-than-life character he could effectively portray on stage in a one-person show. But in Dotrice’s case, instead of choosing a famous personality, he picked Aubrey, an obscure 17th century English gossipmonger who was acquainted with Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Jonson and Sir Christopher Wren.
When I met Dotrice, in Edmonton in 1979, he was 56 years old and had been playing Aubrey in a solo show called Brief Lives for 12 years. Aubrey had died at age 71 in 1697, and Dotrice played him as an eccentric, somewhat older man with an earthy line in Elizabethan wit, appalling table manners, and no regard for personal hygiene.
Dotrice liked playing old men. He first started doing them when he was getting small parts at the Royal Shakespeare Company after the Second World War. “If you played the third messenger, you’d be on stage for maybe 30 seconds,” he said. “But if you tottered on like I did, and croaked and cackled through the lines, you’d get to stay on stage for a couple of minutes.”
The genesis of Brief Lives was a program of readings presented by a group of actors at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1964 to commemorate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. Dotrice had found a published collection of Aubrey’s biographical sketches in a local bookstore. “I decided to read some of those because John Aubrey was one of the few people in history who could tell us something about Shakespeare the man.” With the help of BBC producer Patrick Garland, Dotrice later put together a one-man presentation of Aubrey’s writings for television and then adapted it for the stage. By the time he brought the show to Edmonton in 1979, Dotrice had won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for his 1,700 performances of Brief Lives, including an unbroken run of 400 performances at the Mayfair Theatre in London.
Dotrice said he was motivated to make Aubrey better known when he found that the death record at St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Oxford listed him as “John Aubrey – a stranger.” “That’s what supplied the adrenalin for those 1,700 performances around the world,” said Dotrice. “After each performance, I felt that for those people I had played to, Aubrey was no longer a stranger. And so a man who received little or no recognition during his lifetime was suddenly put on the map by some silly actor some three centuries later. That will always remain a great part and a very affectionate part of my life. One thing I would have liked in life is to have sat at a dinner table with Aubrey and listened to some of his stories. I can’t think of anything more fascinating; it would be even more fascinating than Merv Griffin.”
He planned to retire the show after Edmonton, “burying John Aubrey fairly gently, perhaps fairly shallowly, hoping that one day I can resurrect him as a kind of old-age pensioner, when I can play him almost without makeup.”
Although Aubrey at age 71 would be considered relatively young by today’s standards, Dotrice viewed him as being older and developed his stage characterization accordingly. “I try to portray old age as it probably was back then,” he said. “I try to do the things I’ve observed in old men: reiterating stories, slopping around food, belching, making the most terrific noises. We will all come to it in time. And if at the end of it the audience feels a sense of regret that he has died, then one has achieved something in terms of social significance.”
It was an effective characterization. I wrote in my review that Dotrice’s Aubrey, heavily made up with Latex encrustations to simulate warts and a big nose, made for “an agreeable and amusing companion who provides a pleasant couple of hours with his reminiscences and antic behaviour.” After a lifetime of living in houses other than his own, enjoying the hospitality of friends and relatives and picking up gossip at every turn, Aubrey had created a collection of anecdotes that afforded a “fascinating glimpse of a period in history all but consigned to the archives.”
Dotrice created a number of other one-man shows after retiring Aubrey from active service. They included characters based on the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Casanova, and the protagonist in an 1892 English comic novel titled The Diary of a Nobody. He didn’t return to Aubrey until 2008, when he was 84 and then could almost do the show without makeup. He told The Spectator he was reprising the role for a run at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre to fulfil a promise to his late wife, Kay, who had died of a heart attack at age 78. They had been married for 60 years and it had been her express wish that he revive the show.
“I’d never agree to do anything without talking to her about it first,” said Dotrice. “She was a great actress herself and always knew instinctively how parts should be played. I’d started reading Aubrey through with her not long before she died. She felt I had become far too hammy in the part, playing it purely for the comedy by the time I did my final performances in the role. I was chasing after the laughs too much. This time I am doing it the way she wanted me to, more naturalistically. I’m getting back to basics.”
The revival got off to a worrisome start in rehearsals when Dotrice fell from the stage, hit his head, and lost consciousness. But he insisted on proceeding with the show, and it opened to uniformly positive reviews in January 2008. “Delicious, outrageous and incredible,” said the Evening Standard. Dotrice toured the revival around England and Wales for a few months after the Colchester opening, and then hung up Aubrey’s antiquarian garb for good.
During the years following, Dotrice continued to live the life of a working actor in spite of failing health. In 2012, at age 89, he appeared as Hallyne the Pyromancer in the second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Two years later, in October 2014, Dotrice recorded an audiobook of George R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, a fictional history of the fantasy events depicted in Game of Thrones and other Martin books. Dotrice had earned his second Guinness world record in 2004 for playing all the characters (224) in the first audiobook of the Ice and Fire series. This past week, that first audiobook was still on audible.com’s Top 10 best-seller list, sitting at No. 5.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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