A new stage: Actor John Neville

Tall, elegant and aristocratic in appearance, John Neville acknowledges he’s known as “the Red Adair of Canadian theatre” for his legendary capacity to haul theatres back from the brink of disaster. “Adair put out a lot of fires. I don’t mind that comparison at all,” Neville says, “it’s very flattering.”

Over lunch Neville talks about his long and adventurous career in television, film, and his greatest love — theatre. He’s on a break from a Canadian Opera Company rehearsal in Toronto, where he’s directing a one-act chamber opera. At 72, his career has scarcely slowed, but it may be at a turning point.

Neville received the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) from the Queen in 1965. Had he stayed in Britain, by now he’d probably be Sir John Neville, but at the height of a hugely successful classical career in one of the most important theatrical cities in the English speaking world, he accepted an invitation to direct Sheridan’s The Rivals at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and fell in love with Canada.

Now, after more than 25 years working on (and off) some of the best-known Canadian stages, Neville’s career is about to head in a new direction. On Feb. 16, 18, Neville will open in Toronto in The Canadian Stage Company’s production of Molly Sweeney. He’ll portray Dr. Rice, an alcoholic but once famous surgeon struggling to re-establish his reputation by restoring Molly’s sight. The play, by Irish playwright Brian Friel, is demanding and with just three actors, there’s a lot of dialogue to learn and a fair bit of time on stage.

Neville reflects that as an actor ages, it takes longer to perfect a role; performing requires a huge amount of energy. “The other thing is,” he says, “eight performances a week, at my age, becomes drudgery. And that takes much of the sheer joy out of it. It may well be the last play I do on stage, which in a way is sad — it’s been my life. But it won’t stop me doing movies and television.”

Nor does it stop him directing or even taking on the job of artistic director for a small company. “I want to direct projects that strike a chord with me. Directing the opera did just that.”

This past fall, Richard Bradshaw, artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company, hired Neville to direct The Emperor of Atlantis for the company’s young Ensemble Studio. Bradshaw remembers him from England as being “rather a grand figure… a marvelous actor but also an extraordinary director. He’s capable of being firm but still being empathetic. And he has a particular gift with young people.”

Written by Viktor Ullmann while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, the opera, Neville notes, is “a thinly disguised criticism of the regime or totalitarianism.” Somehow the work survived on paper, while everyone associated with it was shipped off to Auschwitz and killed. A product of Britain’s classical theatre, Neville received a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London but schooling was delayed by service in the Royal Navy he took part in the Normandy landings and then served in the Pacific. At RADA, he worked hard to lose his working class accent, but maintained a solid respect for budgeting that proved invaluable later in his role as artistic director in various theatres.

During his years at the Old Vic in London, Neville did all of Shakespeare’s plays. “By the end of that time,” he chuckles, “I was dying to wear a complete pair of pants.” He became Joint Theatre Director of Nottingham Playhouse in 1963 with a career in full swing. He’d toured the U.S. twice, been in films (Oscar Wilde, Billy Budd, Topaze) and originated the role of Alfie, later a film starring a budding young actor named Michael Caine. Television beckoned with a 26 part BBC/PBS series called The First Churchills, with Neville starring as John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. He played John Milton in the BBC production of Paradise Regained. “It was a good living.” says Neville bluntly, “I had a house in Hampstead and all the trappings, but I got tired of it.”

Once in Canada, “I began to be offered extremely interesting work,” he says. “I directed an opera in Ottawa, Don Giovanni; I did other plays there, acting, and then was asked to go out to Winnipeg to do Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. While I was there, I was invited to take over at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.”

It was while in Alberta that he became a Canadian citizen. “I left a country that almost automatically looked back over its shoulder,” he says, “and I arrived in Alberta and everyone is looking forward. You’d say ‘Look, I have an idea,’ and they’d say `Can we start tomorrow?’ In England, they’d say ‘It’s been done,’ or ‘We can’t afford that.’ There’d be all kinds of reasons why you wouldn’t do it. In Alberta, they’d say ‘Come on, let’s go!’ I loved that.”

In Edmonton, Neville was faced with the challenge of running a theatre while building its new home.

“John’s a fighter,” says Herbert Whittaker, respected drama critic emeritus for the Globe and Mail. “He’s something of a radical. In Edmonton, he managed to carry on while they built the theatre.” In 1976, the Citadel — regarded by Neville as “probably the best theatre facility on this continent” — opened its doors.

A similar situation faced him in Halifax where he moved in 1978 to become artistic director of The Neptune Theatre. Once again, Neville persevered, offering quality theatre, attracting large audiences and doubling subscriptions.

His high artistic standards and pragmatic financial approach helped restore an ailing Stratford Festival following his appointment as artistic director in 1985. “He’s been fighting for Canadian theatre from the inside from the beginning,” says Whittaker, “We don’t have enough fighters in our cultural ranks he’s one.”

He’s also a living example of the benefits of a classical training at home in drama, from Shakespeare to Strindberg, and equally at ease with comedy or musical theatre. Throughout his career as artistic director, he’s continued to act, playing such diverse characters as Othello and Noel Coward, even touring in the U. S. as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Perhaps one of his most widely known, if eccentric roles, is the title character in Terry Gilliam’s critically lauded film about the celebrated 18th century liar, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Neville and his wife Caroline moved to Toronto last year. Living in Stratford was just too close to his old job, he admits. “It’s better for me to get the hell out of there because I don’t approve of a variety of management and artistic choices. I don’t want to cause an undue fuss, but when you’ve got rid of a $4.5 million deficit, I think you’ve a right to an opinion.”

The couple loves Toronto’s year round offering of live music, art galleries, dance and it’s theatrical productions. But the move also redressed a family imbalance: Half of the Nevilles’ six children live in Stratford; now there’s the opportunity to see the Toronto half more frequently, including a new granddaughter.

Coping with a large family and a busy career wasn’t easy and he credits his wife of 48 years for their success. “I have the greatest wife in the world,” he says. “Smart, intelligent, beautiful my best friend. I owe my entire life and career to her really,” he says firmly. Look for Neville in the current Canadian television series Emily of New Moon, based on a Lucy Maude Montgomery character. He had rejected the recurring role because of his commitment to the opera project. The producers offered to re schedule until he was available to fly to Prince Edward Island for the filming they knew that vintage quality is worth the wait.