I I have never forgotten my first vision of David Warner, who died at the age of 80. As a teenager in Leamington Spa in the late 1950s, I used to haunt the bookshop of a local department store, Burgis and Colbourne, where serving behind the counter was a lanky, straw-haired man in an ill-fitting Dickensian suit . I had no idea who he was until in 1963 I saw him on the Stratford stage playing Trinculo, Cinna the Poet and eventually Henry VI. The quirky-looking bookseller was, I suddenly realized, a potentially formidable actor.
Warner’s stage career falls into two distinct halves: a young decade of tumultuous acclaim and a late bloom separated by a period from 1972 to 2001 where he abandoned the stage to carve out a career in film. However, in his youth as in his old age, he showed similar gifts: an innate sweetness of mind, a feeling of latent melancholy, an inquisitive intelligence. Gathered later by our shared experience in the Midlands, I discovered that the qualities that influenced his playing were also an essential part of his character.
Warner seemed to have parachuted out of Parnassus in that at the age of 22 he became famous overnight for his Henry VI in the great Peter Hall-John Barton RSC production of The Wars of the Roses . As always, the truth was a bit more complicated in that Warner had already established himself as one of the fruit-pickers in an RSC production of David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come (affectionately dubbed by the cast The Pear-Taker ). But there is no doubt that his Henry VI was a stunning performance. Paired with Peggy Ashcroft as an evil queen and surrounded by sword-wielding lords, Warner seemed a saintly, almost Dostoevskyan figure adrift in a world of brutal realpolitik. “When he is murdered by Richard of York,” writes Kenneth Tynan, “he accepts the blade not only with forgiveness but with a kind of ironic affection for his killer. I have never seen anything more Christian in the modern theatre.
It was a performance that made Warner an integral part of the RSC in its formative years. In a complete Shakespeare story cycle in 1964 he went on to play Richard II and Moldy in Henry IV Part Two as well as rehearsing his Henry VI. Almost inevitably the following year he was Hamlet in a Hall production. With his angular presence, tousled hair and a rusty red muffler around his neck, he seemed to embody the alienation and anti-establishment rebellion of the 1960s youth that flocked to his performance. As Tony Church, who played Polonius, remarked, “They recognized themselves in David. He was one of them and they felt he was a hero speaking to them.
Passing by the Avoncliffe site, where Hall was living at the time, Warner once told me that he had taken up residence in the Hall house during rehearsals to soak up the role. But, although film companies were quick to call, leading to a stunning performance as the hero of Morgan’s Mooncalf – A Suitable Case for Treatment, Warner continued to work in theatre: he was a reclusive Labor MP who passes her days growing pot in David Hare. The Great Exhibition and the stammering Roman Emperor in John Mortimer’s adaptation of I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
Ultimately, however, the films claimed him and for three decades Warner was one of the finest actors not on the English stage. He returned in 2001 to play Andrew Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara in New York and, instead of the usual pompous mogul, offered a moving and unexpected portrayal of a man driven by a deep love for his daughter. In 2005 he was in Chichester playing King Lear in a Steven Pimlott production and, although I complained he lacked Lear’s untimely fury, few actors were better in the final scenes. : when Cordelia, in captivity, asked him if they would see her victorious sisters, Warner replied “No, no, no, no” with an unforgettable determination.
After making a name for himself with the RSC in The Wars of the Roses, it seemed fitting that his last notable stage performance was as Falstaff in Michael Boyd’s 2007 story cycle: he was particularly brilliant in Henry IV, second part, where he gave us a Falstaff. aware of the lengthening shadows of life and approaching its inevitable end with all the dignity it can muster. I leave the judgment of Warner’s cinematic work to others, but in the theater he embodied a spirituality, a natural grace and an exquisite sadness that will be sorely missed.