Obituary of Mr William Devlin, Scholarly actor famous for his interpretation of Lear

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Date: Jan. 27, 1987
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Article
Length: 705 words

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Mr William Devlin, who established himself on the London stage when only 22 as the youngest major King Lear in recollection, died on January 25. He was 75.

It was a performance of great strength, preceding seasons that fortified his name in the Shakespearean theatre. Though he lacked height, he had a striking presence and a fine and fearlessly resonant voice; again and again he proved that few young players could assume age with his particular talent.

For over two decades, during which he acted mostly in the classics, the memory of his first majestically composed Lear remained constant. Though he returned to this on several stages, critics would hark back to the 1934 Westminster performance of which James Agate wrote that it was good enough for him to disregard Devlin's age: 'His understanding of the text and his sense of beauty are everywhere apparent'.

William George Devlin was born on December 5, 1911, at Aberdeen, the son of an architect (Lord Devlin is his brother). He was educated at Stoneyhurst and Merton College, Oxford.

He showed with the Oxford University Dramatic Society, of which he was secretary, the course his career would take: he was Tybalt in a celebrated production of Romeo and Juliet by John Gielgud; Ishak in Hassan; and the Oedipus of Oedipus Tyrannus.

Trained for a year at the Embassy Theatre School of Acting, he came to the professional stage in 1934, reaching his Lear that autumn in a production by Hugh Hunt who had acted with him in the OUDS. Immediately afterwards he went to Gielgud's company at what was then the New Theatre (as the Ghost in Hamlet). Very briefly, in the next year, he followed Gielgud as Noah in the play of that name.

When, in September 1935, at the age of 23, he joined the Old Vic, he rose as Peer Gynt to another exacting challenge. He added to this Cassius, a Tusenbach (Garrick's The Three Sisters) of great subtlety and pathos, as well as Banquo, Richard III and Leontes. He ended the season, as one would have expected, with a richly praised Lear.

Thenceforward, in other theatres - still in his twenties - he created a variety of characters that included: Clemenceau in The Tiger (Embassy), Parnell in The Lost Leader (Abbey, Dublin), and the title role of Mr Gladstone (Gate Theatre, London). At the Old Vic in April 1938 he played Tullus Aufidius to Olivier's Coriolanus.

At the outbreak of war he enlisted as a trooper in the Horsed Cavalry. He was then commissioned in the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and served with the 8th Army in Africa and Italy for four-and-a-half years, reaching the rank of major.

Released in November 1945, he became for three seasons leading man at Bristol Old Vic, under Hugh Hunt, adding to Lear such principal classic roles as Othello, Shylock and Macbeth.

In London (1949) he was in Rattigan's Adventure Story. He crossed to the United States in the following spring to play Lear at the Brattle Theater at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thereafter, though he continued in Shakespeare (various Vic seasons between 1950 and 1953), his parts declined in scope: Brutus (1953) was the most important.

He had two seasons (1954 and 1955) - with Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida - at Stratford-upon-Avon; and, in the summer of 1957, toured Europe as Emilius in Peter Brook's revival of Titus Andronicus, and in the London showing at the Stoll. He also turned his voice - his greatest asset - to some broadcasting work.

At this point he came into some money and, fundamentally lacking ambition, decided to retire to Somerset to lead the life of a minor squire. The affairs of Monksilver Parish Council took up some of his time, as did fishing and golf.

Devlin was a scholarly man who would probably have been happier as a don. He loved Greek, Latin and Old English, and his favourite reading was Chaucer.

He did The Times crossword every morning, warming the paper in front of the fire before he began.

He married, in 1936, Mary Casson, with whom he had a daughter. They were divorced in 1948. That year he married Meriel Moore, who died in 1981. Copyright (C) The Times, 1987

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A117698776