Since his death in January 1990 I have looked for an actor to match him as the ideal stage actor but have yet to find one.Ian shares the misfortune of many great British stage actors that, apart from his heartfelt performance as Eric Liddell in CHARIOTS OF FIRE and his gay punk in JUBILEE!, his negligible film roles are how he will be viewed by posterity. He had hoped for great things after the worldwide success of CHARIOTS but it never really happened for him.
It was through CHARIOTS that I first became excited by him and so the chance to see him on stage in the National Theatre's GUYS AND DOLLS in 1982 made it a must-see.
Before that however I saw him onstage with Vanessa Redgrave in two Sunday benefit performances at the Roundhouse in which they did scenes from Chekhov, Shakespeare - even GUYS! They had a great chemistry on stage and I still remember their nought-to-hundred performances as 'Nina' and 'Konstantin' in their heartbreaking last scene from THE SEAGULL.
His performance as 'Sky Masterson' at the National was a revelation: humourous, laconic, romantic, winning and even more importantly, a great tenor voice - taut and teasing in "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" and swooningly romantic in "I've Never Been In Love Before".
He burned up the stage with Julie Walters in Sam Shepherd's emotionally bruising FOOL FOR LOVE, was a witty and charismatic Boito to Richard Griffith's Verdi in AFTER AIDA - in which he handled a few arias with ease - and was a tortured and torturing Brick in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, easily matching Eric Porter's Big Daddy in their confrontation scene.
Then he took over from Daniel Day-Lewis in Richard Eyre's production of HAMLET at the National Theatre and as I blogged recently after seeing Jude Law in the role, for me he will always be the definitive Hamlet. Even with his handsome face swollen due to chronic sinus conditions and struggling with the after-effects of a punitive attack of Pneumonia, Ian gave one of the greatest performances I have seen on stage.
Three months later he was gone.
In his moving epitaph to Ian, his GUYS AND DOLLS and HAMLET director Richard Eyre said the following:
We're often accused of sentimentality in the theatre, but it can't be sentimental to miss terribly someone whose company gave so much joy, whose talent really did add to the sum of human happiness, and whose courage was beyond admiration.Ian's name lives on in the annual award given to young actors who excel in a classical role but tonight I am sad when I think of the roles he never had the chance to play and of the huge loss the British stage suffered when he died 19 years ago.