"It's a kind of farewell," Sir John Gielgud is saying about his title role in Peter Greenaway's new film "Prospero's Books."
"Doing Prospero was a kind of culmination for me, which is, of course, why I wanted to do it. It's the only Shakespearean role I'm still the right age to play. There is Lear, of course, but Olivier did Lear and one doesn't want to compete with Olivier."
At 87, Gielgud, whose thrilling vibrato has virtually defined the delivery of classical drama texts for the past 50 years, has announced he will no longer do theater. And after two grueling pieces of work--the ABC-TV maxi-series "War and Remembrance" in 1988 and now Greenaway's "Prospero's Books"--he says he may never again be tempted to work in any medium.
One meets him at his home, an exquisite 17th-Century pavilion house in rural Buckinghamshire. Works of art and period furniture adorn its spacious rooms. Peacocks strut around the formal gardens.
He sits back on a sofa in a small lounge, pink-faced and amiable in a wool check shirt, cardigan sweater and gray cord pants. "Would wine be agreeable?" he asks solicitously. His eyes twinkle when his reminiscences become playful, as they frequently do.
Playing Prospero on film in "The Tempest" is something Gielgud has wanted to do for 15 years. "I approached Ingmar Bergman, but he wouldn't do it," Gielgud says. "I couldn't reach Kurosawa. The BBC asked me to do it, but I didn't feel I wanted to. They have a tendency to make their productions look like televised stage plays, and I wanted . . . more than that."
He certainly got more; Gielgud may not have bargained for such a radical re-interpretation of "The Tempest" as the one presented to him by Greenaway, director of last year's controversial "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." The two men met when the British director asked Gielgud to do some work on "A TV Dante," his extraordinary re-imagining of Dante's "Inferno," which incorporates compartmentalized images and state-of-the-art video.
"On my second day of work, I was having lunch with Peter and I told him I'd always wanted to make a film of 'The Tempest,' " Gielgud recalls. "Within three months he'd sent the first half of a script, very complete, with every shot detailed."
Gielgud spent two months in Greenaway's studio--a disused aircraft hangar in Amsterdam--playing Prospero, but also speaking all the other lines of the characters in "The Tempest." This being Greenaway, the scheme of "Prospero's Books" is numerological; the film is also characterized, like other Greenaway works, by Michael Nyman's baroque-minimalist score. Water is a recurrent Greenaway image, and much of the action takes place around a large pool. The director again employs lengthy tracking shots depicting frenzied action from a large cast of extras, many of whom spend most of the film naked.
"I've never been on a set where there was so little chaos, shouting and confusion," Gielgud says. "But it was cold and quite uncomfortable. I was either overdressed in this robe, which was so heavy it almost killed me, or I was naked in the pool. But it was very exciting because every day I would come in and have no idea what the set would look like. There were colonnades with interiors inside them which would change every day to become a library, say, or a cornfield. Peter's a painter, of course, with a painter's eye; that's obvious from his films."
Gielgud admits to some trepidation about "Prospero's Books." "I was nervous that I would come out very hammy and Shakespearean, because Prospero is a very declamatory part. But there's something about the poetry that's so magnificent, I think. And it's wonderful at my time of life to be in a thing which is part of the new school. It's so invigorating to be associated with younger artists."
This philosophy has helped make the last decade one of the busiest of Gielgud's long life. Apart from "Prospero's Books" and "War and Remembrance," he won a best supporting actor Oscar in "Arthur." He was in the TV miniseries "Brideshead Revisited." "I just won a prize the other day in America," he says vaguely of his work in the "Masterpiece Theatre" series "Summer's Lease" last season. (He won an Emmy.)
"I've been so lucky in this last part of my career," he says animatedly. "I've had such an exciting range of parts. 'Arthur' was completely in one mood, 'Brideshead' in another, and I've had some comedy parts. That's lovely for an actor. I was so afraid I'd just end up playing diplomats and heavy fathers."
However, he retreated from London's hurly-burly 15 years ago by moving to Buckinghamshire to savor its tranquility. Public life no longer holds much allure. "American universities very kindly offer me degrees, but I tell them no. I get invited to film festivals, but I don't like all those gatherings of just chatter. I used to, but they're no fun any more."
In fact his conversation is marked by an acute awareness of his mortality. "I was only afraid I wouldn't live to finish the work on 'Prospero's Books,' he admits. "Then I worried I wouldn't live to see it. I felt the same way about 'War and Remembrance.' . . .
"But one horrid thing about growing old is that your friends get ill and die. I've got a very small circle of intimate friends now instead of the 20 or 30 I used to have. One misses them terribly." His eyes mist over.
Gielgud is the last survivor of an extraordinary generation of British classical actors. Along with his contemporaries Olivier and Ralph Richardson, he became one of the three acting knights who bestrode the London stage like giants in their heyday.
Theater, literally, is in his blood. Ellen Terry, Henry Irving's leading lady, was his great-aunt and Gordon Craig his second cousin. Gielgud made his debut as a herald in "Henry V" at the Old Vic 70 years ago, speaking the single line: "Here is the number of the slaughter's French."
In 1924, he understudied Noel Coward in "The Vortex," and became a star 10 years later in "Richard of Bordeaux." In the 1930s he broke with tradition as the first relatively young Hamlet at the Old Vic. Critic James Agate called his work "the high-water mark of English Shakespearean acting in our time"; he played the part for 155 performances to packed houses.
And while contemporaries like Olivier were looking toward Hollywood, Gielgud doggedly stayed with the stage, despite lucrative offers. (Olivier became an international movie star through "Wuthering Heights" in 1939 and "Rebecca" the following year.)
"Alexander Korda (the British film producer) asked me to do Hamlet for film in 1934," Gielgud says. "I tossed my head and said I didn't think Shakespeare would be any good on screen. So he never offered me another job. And I did get jealous when Olivier, Emlyn Williams and all those people got big contracts and wonderful parts. I started to think I was missing big salaries, which I was." He finally committed to films after World War II. "It wasn't until 1950 or thereabouts that I played Cassius in 'Julius Caesar' with Marlon Brando that I became thrilled with films and people began to think of me as a film actor too," Gielgud says.
"Marlon was very modest and respectful to me. In his caravan he had tapes of Barrymore, Maurice Evans, Larry (Olivier)) and me. He was very nervous about playing Shakespeare. We rehearsed a scene together and he asked me what I thought. I said, do you really want to know? And he said yes. So I went through the scene line by line with him, showing him where to place the emphasis. And the next morning we did the scene exactly as I'd told him. He was quite excellent. Two weeks later, the director came and said--come and see Marlon's scene over Caesar's body, it's brilliant. But this time he was copying Larry, with all those great shouts of his. Marlon could have done it much better. . . .
"I've had the most extraordinary luck with directors, you know," he says of his willingness to try his hand at new, bold work--of which "Prospero's Books" is merely the latest example. "There was Peter Brook in the '50s, Lindsay Anderson in the '60s, Peter Hall in the '70s and now Peter Greenaway. All those influences helped me, and gave me new ideas. They exposed me to plays by modern authors, like "Home" and "No Man's Land," which I didn't think I'd have a chance of playing."
He's not "modern" in every respect, as he admits. For one thing he cannot understand the tendency of actors to talk freely about personal matters. "I know it's always been a pull for the media to have private lives dissected, but you won't find me giving disquisitions about my sex life. I find that most unattractive."
Gielgud lives with his longtime companion Martin Hensler. A few years ago he admitted his sexuality: but he says he still resists overtures to campaign actively for gay rights or AIDS-related causes.
Though Gielgud and Olivier are often spoken of in the same breath, they rarely collaborated. "I don't think we would ever have worked well together regularly," Gielgud says. "I'm sorry we didn't, but Larry was a great dominator, you know. He and I had some of the same talents, though he had a physical power on stage which I never achieved.
"I was much closer to Ralph Richardson, which Larry wasn't happy about at all. I'd known Ralph since the '30s, and at first he was suspicious of me. But our personalities were so contrasting, I think he saw, as I did, how effective it was for us to play together."
Gielgud feels a sense of achievement in having completed both "War and Remembrance" and "Prospero's Books." "I know 'War and Remembrance' wasn't a great success, but it was a wonderful part, and I enjoyed it very much."
It is time to leave, and Gielgud lights a cigarette and dons a hat and raincoat to protect him from a cold, blustery November day. We stroll through the formal gardens and he opens a wooden gate set into a white-painted wall surrounding his house.
"Safe journey," he says.