One of the several alchemical secrets of John Gielgud’s mastery of speech was that he breathed the same way as a singer, from the diaphragm. His tone was rich anyway, but he multiplied its wealth with the way that he could sustain a syllable. (“We are such stuff as dreeeems are made on.”) On top of all that, he had an unmatched feeling for the rhythm of verse. He spoke Shakespeare as if the iambic pentameter had been specifically devised for him as a playground of melodic opportunity. Old and frail, he was still at the peak of his powers when he starred for the ultra-avant-garde director Peter Greenaway in Prospero’s Books. Splendidly attired as a Venetian Doge, the still, or almost still, centre of a teeming production, Gielgud delivered two long speeches from The Tempest as he moved slowly forward through Greenaway’s hectic and eclectic mise en scène while the camera dollied backwards. The demanding technical requirements would have been enough to set most actors screaming for some cutaways, but Gielgud revelled in an extended shot because it gave him the chance to treat the whole speech as single rhythmic unity. Another must-see Gielgud moment is John of Gaunt’s farewell aria in the 1978 BBC Richard II, where he begins with a lilting rendition of Shakespeare’s rhyming verse and then, as he segues into the “Sceptred isle” speech, conclusively demonstrates why Shakespeare came to prefer writing in blank verse instead – it allowed a longer paragraph. Derek Jacobi as Richard speaks magnificently, but you can see where he got it from: Gielgud. When I first came to England in the early 1960s, Gielgud could still be seen regularly on stage. I saw him starring in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On and I marvelled at his dynamism. Clad in an academic gown, he entered stage left like a benevolent Dracula and was at centre stage within a second, already unspooling a long comic speech and shaking his head impatiently when it was interrupted by laughter. In real life he was a famous dropper of bricks but on the boards, or on camera, he always got it right: beyond right, in fact. He made prose into poetry and with poetry he made music.
Disastrously, the beautiful scene from Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, graced by the ageing Gielgud at his still towering height, has been withdrawn completely from YouTube's list.
[I've reinstated Clive's then-missing scene from Prospero's Books, currently (August 2020) viewable in the UK — Archive Ed.]
The magnificent Wedding Scene from Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books”.
Watch John Gielgud as John of Gaunt in Richard II (1978), Act 2, Scene 1 : “Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d”.