He was already deep into the filming of Gandhi and getting accustomed to the guise of playing a charismatic, larger-than-life hero. Yet, when another such script arrived at his dressing room in India, actor Ben Kingsley saw a new challenge. Could he capture the incandescent personality of the flamboyant 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean? “When Kean gave a performance of The Merchant of Venice or Richard III, it was like a concert given by Donna Summer or The Who,” says Kingsley. “Auditoriums were packed. Cheers would break out during the opening line of a soliloquy.” Intrigued by the idea of playing Kean on the British stage, Kingsley, 39, was eager to do so—but then faced yet another problem: The director was to be his wife, Alison Sutcliffe, 32. “We didn’t have any doubts about our relationship being safe through the collaboration,” recalls the actor. “But we began to get nervous when people we respected started saying it was dangerous.”
Two years later, however, after mesmerizing London audiences in a sold-out run, the Kingsleys have proved that the couple that does a play together stays together. They are now happily ensconced in a Manhattan hotel with their son, Edmund, 15 months (named after Kean, of course), while Ben performs his role for six weeks on Broadway. Costumed in a doublet and tights and a dark curly wig, slipping in and out of soliloquies from Macbeth, Othello and Richard III, he is alone onstage for nearly two hours. His bravura one-man show, which chronicles Kean’s rise and eventual fall into a megalomaniac lunacy and debauchery, has won standing ovations, if only measured respect from critics. “Kingsley is keen, but he just isn’t Kean,” observed one reviewer archly. (Alison was praised for her “resourceful direction.”)
Though Kingsley may not have caught Edmund’s effusive acting style completely (Coleridge said that watching Kean act was like “reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”), he has at least proved his versatility. While he exhorts nightly as Kean, movie audiences can watch Kingsley’s far more restrained portrayal of the cuckolded husband in Betrayal and his Oscar-winning performance in Gandhi.
The Edmund Kean collaboration came about at the suggestion of Alison, who was then a resident director of Yorkshire’s Harrogate Theatre. “I had seen her stagework and admired it greatly,” says Kingsley, himself a member of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. Because they had never worked together before, the couple was understandably cautious. “On the first day of rehearsal,” recalls Ben, “we were both running through the catalog of what could go wrong and waiting for it to happen.” But the work proceeded smoothly, with no major conflicts, a fact Kingsley attributes to his wife’s “extremely loving, attentive and provoking direction” and to their similar tastes and sensibilities. “I can even buy Alison clothes,” boasts Kingsley. “I know what she likes.” For her part, Sutcliffe praises Ben’s intensity. “He never becomes complacent,” she says of her husband, who prepared for his demanding role by reading four biographies of Kean and studying portraits of the actor in various guises.
For both Kingsleys, one of the hardest moments was the London opening of the play, which came two days after Ben won the Oscar for Gandhi. “We realized people would be waiting to say. ‘Can he do it onstage?’ ” observes Alison. Reflects Ben: “I suppose my level of nervousness before the show was greater because I was suddenly a little bit bigger target.”
The nightly nervousness persists, along with a determination on the part of director and star to make the show even better. Alison sits through Edmund Kean in its entirety twice a week and drops by each evening to “see how things are going.”
Next month the Kingsleys return to their antique-filled, three-bedroom home 10 miles outside Stratford-upon-Avon. Ben is already interested in playing Tom Paine in a film about the American patriot. Alison plans to continue directing. Will they work together again? “Yes,” says Ben. “If we’re asked and the material appeals to both of us.” But his major goal is to survive in his grueling profession and become an “old actor.” The real Edmund Kean is no inspiration. In 1833 he collapsed during a performance of Othello, and died a dissolute wreck at age 44.