Onstage, Michael Gambon's depth transcended the unspoken

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Onstage, Michael Gambon's depth transcended the unspoken
Michael Gambon, left, and Eileen Atkins in a scene from “All That Fall” at 59E59 Theater in Manhattan on Nov. 5, 2013. Gambon conveyed the gravitational force of mortality, tugging the men he played so commandingly toward a void beyond meaning, Ben Brantley a New York Times critic writes. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Ben Brantley

NEW YORK, NY.- Even in silence, he thundered. Make that, especially in silence.

The last two times I saw the mighty Michael Gambon onstage, his characters didn’t have much to say, and in one case, nothing at all. Both the plays in which this British actor, who died Wednesday at the age of 82, was appearing on those occasions were by Samuel Beckett, “Eh Joe” and “All That Fall.”

Few, if any dramatists, made better use of the resonance of the unspoken than Beckett. And few actors brought such profound visceral weariness — and agitation — to Beckett’s wordlessness. Even in performances that required him to bellow, quip or speechify, Gambon made sure we were aware of the gravitational force of mortality, tugging the men he played so commandingly toward a void beyond meaning, beyond will, beyond life.

He was not an obese man, but he was an uncommonly solid and fleshly presence in live theater, from his haunted, corrugated face to his bearlike torso and unexpectedly expressive feet. Here was someone, you felt, whom it was better never to cross.

That impressive avoirdupois made him a natural on-screen for roles as different as the magisterial wizard Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” movies; the terrifying, vengeful gangster in Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”; and the hospital patient, fantasist mystery writer in Dennis Potter’s sublime television miniseries “The Singing Detective.” Onstage that presence allowed Gambon to convey, effortlessly, the subliminal menace and explosiveness in the husband and lover of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” and David Hare’s “Skylight,” and the rueful rage beneath Falstaff’s heartiness in the Henry IV plays.

Yet he always gave the impression that all that powerful density might melt into the helplessness we associate with the newborn and the dying, a sense that thrums like a bass line through Beckett’s work. In “Eh Joe,” a television play that was brought to the London stage by director Atom Egoyan in 2006, Gambon’s role was almost entirely passive.

The only words we heard were spoken by an unseen woman, who voiced a droning litany of accusations of a life lived in bad faith. It was Egoyan’s conceit to have Gambon’s face projected on a scrim in immense, simultaneous video close-up, registering each blow of memory with flickers of expression so subtle as to seem subterranean.

It was a device that reminded us of the miraculous way cameras can discover, in certain seemingly unchanging faces, a multitude of conflicted feelings. The astonishment was how even more complete a portrait Gambon provided through the physicality of his live presence, when the camera wasn’t running.

Wearing a threadbare bathrobe in a shadowed, shabby room, Gambon’s Joe began the play by running his fingers across window curtains as he closed them, then sitting with immense weariness onto his bed. For much of those opening moments, you couldn’t even see his face.

Nonetheless, you sensed you had been vouchsafed a vision of a man at his most defeated, so overcome by his own futility that movement had become pointless. The very set of his shoulders let us know that Joe was so raw, so spent that you felt, as you sometimes do with great actors, that you were violating a privacy you had no right to witness.

I am sorry I missed Gambon in Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in London in 2010. But I did get to see him in a lesser-known Beckett work, “All That Fall,” three years later in New York. Brought to the stage by director Trevor Nunn, “All That Fall” follows a day in the life of the chattery, scrappy Mrs. Rooney (played, wonderfully, by Eileen Atkins), who goes to pick up her blind, broken-down husband at the train station.

Gambon’s Mr. Rooney made his entrance late and didn’t begin to match his wife in loquacity. His physique, though, spoke volumes. He was, I wrote at the time, “a crumpled Goliath,” as he sloped onto the frail support of Atkins’ shoulder. Just to see the two of them, side by side, alone, in their codependency, was to understand the dynamic of a marriage.

It is, however, as perhaps befits what was originally a radio play, a single sound that I remember most vividly from that production. The wife had quoted the text from the local church sermon: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.”

And with those words, Gambon and Atkins roared, coarsely and deeply, with laughter. To grasp the absurdity of the text, you had only to look at the derelict couple before you. But there was the triumph of defiance in their laughter.

That triumph was implicit in every performance that Gambon gave us.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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