Peter the great
Stately, plump Peter Ustinov comes from the rehearsal stage, bearing a plate of cardboard on which tuna and two pieces of toast lie crossed. He plops his plum-shaped person onto a plush sofa. He is sporting a summer shirt that is as busy as a painter’s palette. Resting alongside this profusion of color is the tiny tuna sandwich, at
which he gives a sidelong glance-that Nero might have reserved for a particularly voluptuous variety of grape. Pinkie poised on the ascent, he spirits the sandwich into his mouth, producing an effect of great delicacy which only the very large can accomplish while handling the very small. He then proceeds to talk with his mouth full, offering no apology, but demonstrating that he can, against the odds of tuna and bread, enunciate as clearly and mellifluously as the reformed Eliza Doolittle with her mouth full of marbles. He is, after all, Peter Ustinov; he can do many things.
At 58, advanced in achievement as well as avoirdupois, he has sallied into Stratford, Ontario, to essay the role of Shakespeare’s most troublesome king, Lear, which he will perform for four weeks beginning Oct. 5 before the production goes to Broadway. “You once said something interesting regarding an early play of yours, King Lear's Photographer,” remarks the interviewer earnestly. “I’m very relieved to hear it,” replies the interviewee. Pleased as punch with his riposte, he becomes his own audience and laughs. The soft, skittery sound is the vocal equivalent of
pebbles skimming a pond. And when he laughs, he shakes, his face a divertissement of dimples. Then he lets into Lear, as viewed by Peter Ustinov, proving that he is possibly the only man alive who can say, “Of course it’s very skilfully and brilliantly written by Shakespeare,” and make it sound like an original and perceptive observation.
When asked once whether Queen
Elizabeth ever experienced difficulty in keeping up her end of the many conversations she must encounter as Queen, the Queen Mother hastily replied that her daughter could, if necessary, carry on an entire conversation on the subject of spark plugs. No less a royal raconteur, Ustinov, given the grace of several seconds, could easily establish a connection between spark plugs and the price of bread in Bulgaria. The regal similitude is persistent: by pluralizing the very concept of career in the way he has, Ustinov qualifies for admission to that august company which avails itself of the royal “we.” In his time he has been variously known as actor (one Grammy, two Oscars, three Emmys), playwright, director, novelist, short-story writer, opera producer and set designer, master of mimicry, world traveller and polyglot (fluent in four languages, a smattering of others). Not to push a point, he has been a husband and a father several times, as well. Above all, he is a talker— the thinking man’s Sebastian Cabot, the darling of the chat-show circuit. (David Niven, no rusty raconteur him-
self, won’t be found on the same show with him for fear of being upstaged.) Being rather more than inclined to talk into the twilight of his listener’s interest, he can also be the savior of lazy or lousy interviewers. Obversely, painting a personality profile of him can be much like filling in an employment card for Sybil. Quite possibly the only major mistake he has allowed himself to make was when he titled his best-selling memoirs Dear Me and not Dear We.
“I behave,” he announces, “with a prudence that any great state requires.” The great state is himself, the country called “Me.” When, as a small boy, he saw a chicken have its neck wrung, he invented a mythical state (later dramatized in his small-is-beautiful play, Romanoff and Juliet), the first rule of which was that no chicken should henceforth have its neck wrung. That kingdom, he asserts, bears his only true allegiance. I salute thee, me. (Or like Chaplin as Heinkel in The Great Dictator— “Heil myself!”)
There is a rumor that Ustinov actually had a childhood, one which he confirms: “I was an only child and you develop quicker, I think, because you’re left more to your own devices. And when you’re left to your own devices you become more ingrown, more abstract.” Perhaps abstracted is the word he means. Having turned in upon himself, he has mapped out a distance between himself and the rest of the world. The precocity of his childhood implies the same distance—being a stranger to the
ordinary way of life he perceived as always having surrounded him. The landscape has remained unchanged: stranger in a strange land. He has always craved change, amending avocations as often as some people change underwear: today a play, tomorrow the whirl of travel for UNICEF. He is an internationalist on the go, buzzing from flower to flower, tasting different pollens. Peter Ustinov: The Butterfly Nero.
Though technically British, any place he parks himself is temporarily home. And though a latter-day Ulysses combing the globe, he does keep a pied-àterre in Paris and an operations base in Switzerland, the domicile of the truly anonymous: “A well-furnished cloister or monastic cell where I can walk around with nothing on if I feel so inclined.” Conceived, he claims, in Leningrad, but born in England, he is a heady admixture of Russian, German, French, Italian and Ethiopian blood. His travels, not to mention his genes, we are given to believe, account for the door to his mind always being open to new visitations. All people want a piece of him, notably Russian expatriates in Paris: they once approached him for $10,000 to finance a hip operation for an ailing Russian dancer who feared she “might never dance again.” She was 95.
It was, in fact, Lear’s age that drew Ustinov to the role, one he has wanted to play since he was 15. “I mean I think half the point of this play is that it’s about senility, and what makes senility moving is that it’s inconsistent. The basic discovery Lear makes is that we’re all naked people dressed up in various clothes, but one suddenly sees that everyone’s transparent.” No mental grunting is necessary to see the parallel between Lear and the man who would be Lear, a man who indeed wears a coat of many colors. One of the lures that Lear held for Ustinov was the chance to indulge himself: “Because everyone is shown to be transparent in the play, Lear is a political play and a military play.” This indulgence will also take the form of a certain liberty: Ustinov and Stratford Festival Director Robin Phillips have elected to play Lear as a military extravaganza set in the mid-19th century.
A larger liberty will be taken, too: Ustinov will emphasize comedy—an interpretation many will undoubtedly construe as controversial, if not ridiculous. “Lear is as mad as a hatter from the very beginning,” he insists. Daughters Goneril and Regan are not, to his mind, at all villainous: “They are just outraged housekeepers. When the old father keeps arriving with 100 knights, most of them drunk—well, it’s not something a daughter wants in her house.” Yet, when the old man is left to
the mercy of the heath and Gloucester has his eyes torn out—well, it’s not something a mind with a heart attached to it wants to find funny.
In taking on the mad king’s mantle Ustinov says he is not involving himself in any kind of artistic risk. “I have absolutely no fear as far as one single performance is concerned. I just don’t know what stamina one needs to play it fairly often.” Perhaps because Ustinov is not used to doing anything fairly often.
He chose Canada to present his “newer, fresher version” because he thought it would “fall upon a more sophisticated ear. Canadian audiences are a sort of bridge between Americans and Europeans, with a freshness that doesn’t exist in Europe anymore and a sophistication often lacking in the U.S.” To paraphrase the “skilful and brilliant” writer Ustinov has intröduced us to: Where Canada sits, there sit I... on the fence. The view from this position, especially for one so decidedly diplomatic, is most engaging.
A man of liberal temperament, as he likes to call himself, Ustinov protests that he occupies a very vulnerable place—in the middle of things: “Grey is a less dramatic color than black or white; the central notes of the piano don’t sound as exciting as the higher and lower ones. It requires enormous strength to be there in the middle, out in the cold much like the spy who was out there in the cold. I think it’s the only valid place to be.”
Moving from occupation to occupation, country to country, Ustinov is partisan of no particular political thought except his own, which is a well-guarded secret. For instance, “I believe in the censored world and the self-censoring world, and the end result is frightfully similar. To put it in terms of an aquarium, the Soviet system is to put all the fish in different tanks, grade them, and express pain and surprise when one fish asks to change its tank. And the American system is to put all the fish—from whales to sardines—in the same tank and advise them on their way in that
they’ve all got the same rights. I can’t really see the enormous advantage of one over the other.”
His total lack of commitment to anything permanent has resulted in an ongoing criticism of his work: that he’s jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Most critics (a race he abhors and compares with fleas hopping on a dog for a free ride) feel his scripting, directing and acting work on the film version of Melville’s Billy Budd is his finest achievement. Oddly enough, the character he played in it, Starry Vere, could never make up his mind—a prototypical fence-sitter and equivocator. The critics, still enjoying the ride and gloating over the dog’s inability to shake them, think further that Ustinov does brilliant turns, such as Nero in Quo Vadis or the thief in Topkapi, and writes brilliant one-acters, but never full-scale performances or fully fleshed-out plays.
Stability to him is as repulsive as the devil breaking wind. The sea-green eyes darting above the sensual, busy mouth take everything in, but give very little away. Having said that Lear will require “the higher mathematics of acting,” he will not explain the specific processes this grandiose gambit will involve. Masterfully evasive, he supplies a diverting anecdote. Like all raconteurs, he is not above recycling his arsenal of them. “Oh, well—er—you’ve heard that one then?”
His methods of working are those of someone who doesn’t like to be stranded alone with his thoughts. He doesn’t like silence and can’t work with it buzzing around his ears: “I have to have something to concentrate against. During the war it was the bombs. I got so used to them, though, I couldn’t hear them anymore. People would say, ‘How can you?’ and I would say [cupping his ear], ‘What?’ ” Not surprisingly, his favored mode of relaxation is daydreaming while driving. “I find I think at the wheel. I can still think and keep my eye
on the road. However, it’s dangerous when it gets like [director] Michael Curtiz who once got out of his car while it was in motion to jot down an idea on a piece of paper.” To divert his full attention from things he has a record library of more than 6,000 discs in his Swiss monastic retreat.
“You couldn’t live with Peter day and night. You’d get confused. Sometimes it is like living with 12 people,” says his wife, Hélène Du Lau d’Allemans, herself a dabbler—in journalism, modelling and films. And to keep the continuing pursuit at bay, Ustinov throws himself into his splintered activities with great gusto and energy. Director John McGreevy, who worked with Ustinov recently when Ustinov played tour guide in Leningrad in McGreevy’s Cities TV series, says, “The nine days in Leningrad was like watching nine symphonies being made. He turned every day into a symphony—he composed, orchestrated, conducted and played. You just had to sit back and marvel at how he does it.”
When McGreevy needed some lastminute narration dubbed, Ustinov was in London filming interiors for Death on the Nile. He had been at it since 5 a.m. but promised to show up and McGreevy caught him, at nine o’clock that night, trying to slink into the hotel lobby past detection. McGreevy nabbed him, Ustinov apologized and complained bitterly: “I had to dance a tango over and over in front of Bette Davis all day—and she didn’t have one damn line to say.” Terribly tired, he did remember his promise. “Can I at least go to the lavatory?” he asked, ladling an inimitable slur over all his vowels. To assuage the danced-out actor, McGreevy promised a feast after the dubbing. Dine they did, but when the bill arrived the establishment informed McGreevy that credit cards weren’t accepted. Ustinov picked up the tab and turned to his host. He directed two words at him, one of which was “you,” the other a word not used in polite society, every consonant of which was calcified. Then Ustinov perked up and inhaled what must have been his fifth or sixth wind and arrived back at the hotel just in time for the next day’s shooting.
“Peter is in constant contact with irony,” adds McGreevy. Ustinov’s habit— and knack—for saying something serious in an amusing way, while fun for others, often runs afoul as far as he’s concerned. “When I’m serious, people tend to laugh a great deal. When I’m trying to be funny, people are stonyfaced. I’m serious nearly all the time. Perhaps I should like to be taken more seriously, but I don’t want to be more serious.
“I am always trying to escape any
comfortable stereotype people have of me,” he says, and then declares with considerable fury, “I hate images!” Obligingly reproducing the accent, he tells of a German man who complained that Ustinov wasn’t wearing a beard. Ustinov inquired why he felt that way. “Zee image! Zee image!” replied the man. “Things are meant to change. I don’t think I have a favorite anything. Such questions imply a permanency of your condition which is really very depressing.” He pauses momentarily and fondles an ankh that hangs on his neck.
The ankh is an ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life.
Honoring a cliché, it could be said that Ustinov lives life to the fullest. Yet there’s a strain of desperation in his voice when he says, “There has to be a way to find new things. Old things can’t be good forever. It’s a contradiction to the whole nature of things. There are seasons. There’s death. Life would have no meaning unless there was death. Without it we wouldn’t know how to assess life. It would be a map without a scale.” How frightfully interesting.