Barrel-chested actor who could flood a theatre with passion

Gerard Murphy - Born: October 14th, 1948; Died August 26th, 2013

Gerard Murphy & Catherine Cusack in Second Age’s production of King Lear. Photograph: Anthony Woods

Gerard Murphy & Catherine Cusack in Second Age’s production of King Lear. Photograph: Anthony Woods

Sat, Sep 7, 2013, 10:36

Gerard Murphy, who has died aged 64, was a full-hearted actor, always on the front foot. He could flood a theatre with passion and squeeze the juice out of the most recalcitrant prose. Barrel-chested and large- (but not big-) headed, he looked and sounded like a rampaging farmer, with his distinctive carrot-coloured hair and stinging, musical, sardonic, Northern inflections. He once said that acting was like a drug and that doing it was an “inexplicable fusion of need and possession”. The ferocity of his acting was all part of his intellectual valour: he loved debating at school and university, and could stand up and argue with anyone, usually having the last word.

He made several films, including Waterworld (1995) and Batman Begins (2005), and appeared in lots of television, notably as Lord Steyne in Vanity Fair (1998) and most recently in the BBC’s Spooks. However, his province was the stage, where his flame burned with magnificent intensity over four decades, from the Glasgow Citizens Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was an associate artist, to the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the West End and the Almeida in Islington.


Key figure
A key figure for several years in the Citizens company, alongside such remarkable peers as Ciarán Hinds, David Hayman, Suzanne Bertish, Sian Thomas, Gary Oldman and Rupert Everett, he then switched successfully to the RSC. He opened the new Barbican theatre as Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 in 1982 and appeared in the first RSC season at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, four years later.

The oldest of three children, Murphy was born and raised in Newry, Co Down. His father, Peter, served in the merchant navy, and his mother, Dympna, was a teacher and librarian. Murphy was educated at the Abbey Christian Brothers’ grammar school in Newry and Queen’s University Belfast.

In Belfast, he hung around the Lyric Theatre. He had already appeared in school and amateur productions in Newry, and played piano and guitar. He had a walk-on part in the RSC’s Coriolanus, with Nicol Williamson, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Aldwych; but he emerged most powerfully at the Citizens between 1974 and 1977.

In 1980 he was Johnny Boyle opposite Judi Dench in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock; and in the Barbican Henry IV in 1982 he was Prince Hal, with Joss Ackland as Falstaff and Patrick Stewart as King Henry IV.

Staying with his predilection for extravagant roles and theatre, he went on to play Oberon, Petruchio and Oedipus in RSC productions in Stratford-upon-Avon, London and on tour, and directed not only a double bill of Jean Genet plays in the Pit of the Barbican, but also Simon Russell Beale as Marlowe’s Edward II at the Swan in 1990.

In the past decade he toured in repertory, playing Pozzo in Waiting for Godot at Northampton; Achilles in Troilus and Cressida in Mold; and Hector (the Richard Griffiths role) in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on tour. He completed a transition into comic bombast two years ago, playing Sir Lucius O’Trigger in Peter Hall’s revival of The Rivals.


Mighty frame
Last year, suffering acutely with a spinal cord compression from prostate cancer, he returned to the main stage of the Citizens in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, with all the enthusiasm, said one critic, of a man still clinging to life even though he knows the game is up. His mighty frame hovered above a tiny, illuminated desk and he padded back and forth in the pitch darkness beyond.

His sister, Deirdre, and his brother, Brian, survive him.