At 75, William Hutt still treads the boards brilliantly
The masks of a great pretender
At 75, William Hutt still treads the boards brilliantly
The white Cadillac sits angled beside the big Victorian house, its licence plates stamped with the name of the man who lives inside: WM HUTT. There is an irony here, because—of all the 26,000 citizens of Stratford, Ont.—William Hutt is probably the least in need of vanity plates to identify himself. The silver-haired actor, who for decades has been a mainstay of the Stratford Festival, is something of a fixture around the town, whether sipping martinis in The Church Restaurant or strolling on the paths beside the Avon River. Yet the plates are more than just the expression of an actor’s ego. They reflect the groundbreaking ambition of a man who, more than 40 years ago, made up his mind to become a star of the classical stage and—what was considered impossible at the time—do it by staying in Canada.
Hutt not only succeeded but, having just turned 75, is still acting at the top of his form. In the current festival season, he shoulders three major roles: Falstaff in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, diplomat Harry Raymond in Timothy Findley’s The Stillborn Lover, and actor James Tyrone in a repeat of last year’s triumphant production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. “What Hutt is doing this season is preposterous,” laughs Richard Monette, who as Stratford’s artistic director assigned Hutt those parts. “I wouldn’t give this much work to a 40-year-old.” Monette celebrated the actor’s birthday last month with a party at which Hutt was presented with a book just published in his honor. Masks and Faces (Mosaic Press), an anthology compiled by theatre writer Keith Garebian, pays tribute to what one of its contributors, Canadian actor James Blendick, calls “one of the English-speaking world’s great stage actors.”
Hutt opens his front door and rumbles out a greeting. He has a fleshily handsome, rather melancholic face that would look right at home on Mount Rushmore. The actor is thicker around the middle than he used to be, and carries his six-foot, two-inch frame with a shambling indolence. Behind the lenses of his aviator glasses, the blue eyes look tired, a little blurred. For someone used to the precision of his stage presence, seeing him at home is a bit disconcerting, like finding the Queen in bedroom slippers. He offers a tour of the restored house, pointing out his collection of art nouveau vases and oriental wall hangings. His manner is courtly, old-fashioned, but it is the penetrating baritone that enthralls—“the God-given great voice,” as Monette calls it.
Hutt settles in a wing chair and asks permission to light up a cigarette. Taking a moment to contemplate the season’s heavy workload, he admits that “on very damp days my legs do ache.” Hutt also has a bad back, first injured almost 40 years ago when, acting in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he jumped into a laundry hamper and jolted his spine. Now he is cavorting with the wives and once more clambering into the dirty clothes. “So far, it’s not so bad,” he says, touching the wooden table beside him. He is particularly grateful to Monette, he says, for arranging the performance schedule to allow him as much rest as possible. “Every week, I get Sunday night, Monday and most of Tuesday off. That leaves
me doing six or seven performances a week, and that is manageable.” The talk turns to Hutt’s long career. Unlike some great performers—Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer—who rose quickly to stardom, Hutt took many years to grow out of his early awkwardness. He was over 40 before he earned his first major role at Stratford and, even then, he admits, he had much to learn. “I was as bombastic as most young actors,” he recalls, “but I came to realize that what is not said is as interesting as what is.” To illustrate the point, he drawls out a few of Lady Bracknell’s lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, infusing them with layers of sly innuendo and self-parody.
Hutt raised eyebrows when he played Bracknell in 1975, but he triumphed in the role and now looks on it as a kind of watershed. The actor claims to have learned stillness from Bracknell, whose lofty feathered hat, added to Hutt’s own commanding height, made it difficult for him to move without awkwardness. Hutt recalls how he got some unexpected help from U.S. politician Edmund Muskie, who in a TV interview said he never spoke unless it improved on silence. “I took that step further in my mind,” Hutt says, “and now I don’t believe in moving onstage unless it improves on stillness.”
Hutt’s uncanny stage presence can make him seem twice as real as any actor standing near him. His friend and biographer, Garebian, be-
lieves that Hutt draws his credibility from a very different source than another great performer, Olivier. “Olivier had a hollowness in his core, which he filled in with whatever role he was playing,” Garebian contends. “But Hutt has a very strong core as a person, and he uses its strength, its vulnerability in different roles.”
Some of Hutt’s performances have been criticized as being too coolly technical. But when Hutt does move audiences to merriment or sadness, his success may well have something to do with the way he rechannels and transforms the energies of his offstage life. Hutt is a notoriously private person, but there is general agreement that he has endured his share of disappointments, from being passed over when the festival was looking for a new artistic director (the job has seemed in the offing at least twice) to the absence of a long-term relationship in his life.
Admits Hutt: “I don’t pretend I’ve not had failures in my life that have hurt me deeply. Of course I have.”
But it is an article of faith with him that an actor will use such experiences to enhance his performance.
Born to journalist Edward Hutt and his homemaker wife, Caroline, in Toronto in 1920,
William was the middle child of three—a sensitive, somewhat lonely boy who during his teenage years realized that he was homosexual. Garebian’s 1988 biography, William Hutt: A Theatre Portrait, leaves no doubt that this was a defining event in Hutt’s life: at a time when homosexuality was very much a taboo subject, it cast Hutt as a secret outsider, reinforcing the sense of isolation people have often remarked in him.
Hutt first acted in high school, but his passion for the stage did not fully flower until the Second World War, when, as a Canadian serviceman in London, he watched stars Sybil Thorndike and Lillian Braithwaite perform in Arsenic and Old Lace. “I was just fascinated,” he recalls. “They seemed so real
to me.” Hutt saw active service as a medic in the European battlefields, receiving a decoration for his courage under fire. “Seeing that young blood spread over the fields of Italy and France, I became cognizant of the value of the individual soul,” he says, “and that has had a great effect on my feeling about the roles I play.” Each of his roles, he explains, has its own unique soul: “I don’t want to bastardize them in any way. They are very precious to me, each and every one of them.” After the war, Hutt earned a BA in humanities at the University of Toronto, going on to struggle for several years to establish a career in a country where the phrase “great play” was more likely to recall Rocket Richard than William Shakespeare. Then, in 1953, a young journalist named Tom Patterson launched the Stratford Festival. “I thought he was out of his cotton-picking mind,” Hutt recalls, claiming he had to look up Stratford, located 140 km west of Toronto, on a map. But Hutt signed on, and served almost a decade-long apprenticeship in minor and supporting roles. His breakthrough came in 1962, when he played Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Helping pioneer a new standard, Hutt spoke the great verse not in the plummy British tones so many North American actors of the time affected, but with a Canadian accent enhanced by only a slight rounding of the vowels.
His performance was well received, and the following year he dazzled critics and audiences with his sexually ambivalent portrayal of Pandarus, the sleazy procurer in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Over the next two decades, Hutt continued to demonstrate that he was not interested only in roles that enhance a romantic or heroic self-image. One of his greatest triumphs came in 1979, when he played The Fool in King Lear. Hutt modestly took the supporting role to Peter Ustinov’s king (a part that, Hutt himself had played twice
before). The British actor had been invited to Canada as a celebrity box-office draw, but it was Hutt’s tragic deathhaunted fool that drew the raves. Garebian later heard through the actors grapevine that “Ustinov was quite shaken by Bill Hutt’s greatness. He couldn’t believe such an actor was here on this continent.”
If Hutt is less well-known, even in Canada, than his achievements warrant, it is probably because he has made relatively few forays into film and television. Yet
clearly he is at home in both media: one of his finest performances was as a boozy Sir John A, Macdonald in the 1974 CBC production The National Dream. His portrayal elicited a flood of fan letters, including one that began: “All the drunkards of our village just worship you.”
Hutt has played more than 200 roles, achieving greatness in several, and in brief stints abroad he has acted in London and New York City with the likes of Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir John Gielgud. He has also worked as a director, particularly at Stratford, and at Theatre London (now called The Grand Theatre), in London, Ont., where he was artistic director in the late 1970s. Yet success does not in itself make William Hutt content. As he sits smoking in his wing chair, this most accomplished of actors seems a lit! tie fretful and out of place, as though he were too large somehow for the banalities of ordinary life. It is not surprising to learn that he once told Monette: ‘You know, I’m more at home on the stage than I am in my own home.” His element is with Lear and Falstaff and Lady Bracknell, making those extravagant, life-giving fantasies ring true. □
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