Dryden’s Actors

From 1682 to 1695 only one acting company operated in London. In that one company were gathered all the finest performers of the age, and they presented an amazing line-up of talent and originality. It is unlikely that there has ever been a single ensemble in England which exceeded them in quality.   Dryden knew the particular strengths of its leading actors intimately, from watching them over a long period. He crafted Amphitryon to play to their particular brilliances. Thomas Betterton (Jupiter ) was the greatest actor of the century, with an unparalleled range, but a particular specialist in libertine roles, which deploy seductive fluency, destabilising wit, and an ability to change tactics in mid-speech. Elizabeth Barry (Alcmena) was the first great actress of the English stage. She too was strikingly versatile and played, with equal command, roles across a span from shameless manipulators to the most innocent of victims. The combination of forensic force, erotic presence and empathetic pain Dryden’s Alcmena requires is subtly attuned to her proven powers. In Nokes and Leigh, Dryden could build on the established rapport between one of the most extraordinary comedy partnerships of English theatre history. Their duo could reshape its internal dynamic to fit the needs of the current script; but one recurrent pattern is for Leigh (Mercury) to be deftly exploitative and Nokes (Sosia) to be infinitely deceivable, though fighting hard to unpick all that puzzles him in the world he confronts. In Amphitryon, Dryden weaves dazzling variations on that basic proposition.

 

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