Greg Hicks (Doctor of Letters)

Oration by Professor Gordon Campbell

Greg Hicks is one of the finest actors of his generation. He will be familiar to some from his work on television, which in recent years has included roles in Miss Marple and the mini-series on The Bible, in which he played Pontius Pilate. Others will recognise him from his work in film, which includes Black Knight General in Snow White and the Huntsman. Greg Hicks is of course best known as a stage actor. After early experience in repertory and the 1976 Stratford season, he played more than twenty major parts at the National Theatre, including Aufidius in Coriolanus, Orestes in the Oresteia, and Dionysius in The Bacchae. All these productions were directed by Sir Peter Hall, who is also an honorary graduate of this University. Greg subsequently worked with Sir Peter in Pinter's The Homecoming in 1990, and in the Peter Hall Company season at the Old Vic in 1997, where his remarkable Edgar in King Lear dominated the play. He has worked in many other theatres, including the Bristol Old Vic, where he achieved a particular triumph as Marlowe's Tamburlaine in 2005. He returned to Stratford in 2001, beginning with Edward Hall's production of Julius Caesar in 2001, in which Greg played Brutus in an extraordinary partnership with the Cassius of Tim Pigott-Smith, another of our honorary graduates. The next year he played the title role in Coriolanus, articulating his venomous lines with intimidating clarity. Clarity can of course be suppressed for dramatic purposes, as became apparent in the Stratford production of Macbeth in 2004, when Greg, in the title role, choked on the word 'Amen', which he could not manage to say over the bodies of the slaughtered grooms. Five years later he played Leontes in the Winter's Tale, and in the scene in which Leontes wrongly accuses his wife of infidelity, Greg managed to hurl terms such as 'bed-swerver' in a way that simultaneously indicated disgust and a kind of prurient vicarious excitement. The following year Greg returned to play King Lear, memorably drawing on the extraordinary resources of his voice: his cursing of Goneril had a vehemence seldom achieved, and the modulation of his voice as he moved from anger to self-pity and from madness to clarity left a lasting impression on those who saw the production.

Alongside his work on Shakespeare, Greg Hicks has a formidable reputation for his performances in plays set in the ancient world. This side of his work first emerged in 1980, when Greg acted at the National Theatre in both Howard Brenton's Romans in Britain and Iris Murdoch's Acastos.  He later acted in an adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae called In Blood. This was a version centred on capoeira, which is an athletic Afro-Brazilian blend of dance and martial art characterised by acrobatic fighting manoeuvres, and in this production Greg Hicks revealed himself to be a fine exponent of this demanding form. He also played the central role in Peter and Edward Hall's magisterial adaptation of John Barton's Trojan War cycle, called Tantalus. Greg played Agamemnon and King Priam, and in the latter role he strode the stage on stilts. The idea of a nine-hour series of Greek plays may seem unappetising, but for those of us who were there, it was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of our lives, not least because of the part played by Greg Hicks.

Greg Hicks is a son of Leicester. His mother Beryl was a native of Rutland, and his father Reuben was a Londoner who had served as a flight engineer in Bomber Command. At the end of the War he aimed a pin at a map, and it stuck at Market Harborough; he decided to settle in the nearest city, which was Leicester, and here he ran a market stall for 50 years, founded a nightclub called Les Ambassadeurs on Charles Street, and became a founder member of the Leicester Progressive Jewish Synagogue. Young Greg attended Stoneygate Prep School, which was then on the London Road, and went on to Oakham School in Rutland. Two of his teachers, Mr Puffer at Stoneygate and Rod Smith at Oakham, encouraged Greg in his aspiration to become a professional actor. Reuben Hicks was not convinced, but publicly changed his position on the eve of his 100th birthday, when he appeared on the stage with Greg at the end of a performance of King Lear.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and the Council, I present to you Greg Hicks, that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters.

Written and delivered by Professor Gordon Campbell on 23 January 2015 at 4pm

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