Empire of the Stage
Last week, when covering the news of Lord Snowdon’s death, we briefly mentioned the work he did for Vanity Fair, covering British theatre, in November 1995.
John Osborne, the playwright who transformed modern English theatre with his plays “Look Back in Anger” and “The Entertainer”, had died previous December and Vanity Fair sent John Heilpern, a theatre critic who would later become Osborne’s authorized biographer, to cover his memorial service. Heilpern quotes, “It is impossible to speak of John Osborne without using the word ‘England'” and adds, “So it is impossible to imagine England without its theater.” Fittingly his article was accompanied by Snowdon’s photos.
It was a bravura effort — the largest photographic portfolio Vanity Fair ever commissioned. He flew back and forth between Britain and New York to photograph theatre luminaries, from the 22-year-old Jude Law to the 91-year-old Sir John Gielgud.
They were atmospheric portraits, sometimes in costume, sometimes in personal private moments. Alan Rickman stood arms akimbo on the Albert memorial as a clan chieftain in honor of a Highland play he directed. Ian McKellen embraced a statue of Bacchus; Derek Jacobi posed as Pope Hadrian, John Hurt as a pantomime dame. He got Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh — former collaborators, now competitors — together in a group shot. “That needed a fast shutter speed,” Snowdon remembered.
“There are a lot of little private jokes,” Snowdon reflected. Jonathan Pryce, the actor and Lexus spokesman, was photographed in a Mercedes. Michael Gambon scowled in Poets’ Corner as a languid Shakespeare looked on. Patrick Stewart, looking Picardian, posed at Heathrow Airport. Peter Ustinov sat in a bath chair outside Theatre Royal in Bath, where he led a fundraising program for a studio which now bears his name.
[I couldn’t find the portfolio online, which was a shame, so I did digging around in old family cottage’s damp basement for a physical copy. The resulting scan is huge at 60 MB, but linked here.]