When Ben Whishaw launched his career with Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2004, theatregoers (and critics) with long memories were driven to compare Whishaw’s performance as a wide-eyed, near-impotent Dane to David Warner’s legendary RSC interpretation of the role in 1965 .
As directed by Peter Hall, Warner, who has died at the age of 80, played Hamlet less as a would-be avenger and more as a frightened scarf-clad student, forced into maturity and purpose long before he would ever have wanted. The theater critic Ronald Bryden said of his performance that he brought “more of humanity into the part than any previous Hamlet I’ve seen”, and it remains one of the definitive 20th century interpretations of the role.
Warner, at the age of 24, was lauded as not merely one of the greatest actors of his generation, but someone of near-limitless gifts. It therefore comes as a surprise to look at his career and see that, with a few exceptions, his heyday gave way to a solid but largely unexceptional career as a character actor. He offered intelligence and class in every project that he took on, but he was seldom offered the kind of roles that really gave him a chance to demonstrate his range from him.
It is perhaps ironic that the part that he may be best known for – as the brutish valet Spicer Lovejoy in Titanic – offered this most sophisticated and intelligent of performers remarkably little to work with, save the opportunity to skulk about looking angry.
Nevertheless, his early work on both stage and screen remains both vital and surprising, whether it was his early performance as Henry VI for the RSC – of which Kenneth Tynan wrote “I have seldom witnessed such a finished performance by an actor who has barely started … I have seen nothing more Christ-like in modern theatre” – or his film performances, which saw him associated with the likes of Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Albert Finney in the Angry Young Man movement.