Gerard Murphy obituary
Gerard Murphy, who has died of prostate cancer aged 64, was a rare sort of 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 Irish vocal 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, 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 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.
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, and unusually, to the RSC – the Citizens was temperamentally and artistically opposed to everything the RSC stood for. 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, County Down. His father, Peter, served in the merchant navy, and his mother, Dympna, was a teacher and librarian. Murphy was educated at the in Newry and Queen's University Belfast, where he studied music, psychology, literature and anthropology.
In Belfast, he hung around the Lyric theatre. He had already appeared in school and amateur productions in Newry, and he always played piano and guitar. He walked on in the RSC's Coriolanus, with , directed by Trevor Nunn at the Aldwych, and took a small role in David Rudkin's Cries from Casement, starring Colin Blakely, in an RSC production at the Place in London.
But he emerged most powerfully at the Citizens between 1974 and 1977, as Piraquo in a spaghetti western kitsch version of The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley; in the British premiere of Mikhail Lermontov's Maskerade (the rewriting of Masquerade was deliberate), a salon world of fops and gamblers updated to the 1890s with lashings of Rachmaninov; and as a touching Miss Prism in an all-male The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Citizens in this period under Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and , was the most exciting, most "European" theatre in the land, slashing and re-energising the classics with style, verve and sexy actors, a very long way from most British theatre and the bourgeois earnestness of the founding father of the Citizens, James Bridie.
Their credo was articulated in MacDonald's (1977), directed by Prowse, in which Murphy played the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (known as "Chinchilla" because of a white flash in his dark, satiny hair), hunched and dying in a fur coat on the Venice Lido, while replacing Vaslav Nijinsky with Léonide Massine in his personal and professional affections at the Ballets Russes. On a bare white stage with waves lapping, music playing and boys dancing, this was the most beautiful aesthetic presentation of an aesthetic statement imaginable. Murphy's Diaghilev spoke for the Citizens itself in his "passion for reform, passion for power, passion for beauty, a thirst to show, a lust to tell, a rage to love".
Chinchilla was revived, with Murphy still as Diaghilev, at the 1979 Edinburgh international festival. In the same year in , he played Macbeth opposite Hayman as Lady M in a stripped-back, spartan version of Shakespeare's tragedy, one of Murphy's finest (and favourite) performances.
In almost the last RSC season at the Aldwych in 1980, he was Johnny Boyle opposite Judi Dench in Nunn's exquisite naturalistic revival of Seán O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock; and in the Barbican Henry IV in 1982 his Falstaff was Joss Ackland and his father, Henry IV, was Patrick Stewart (their deathbed scenes were electrifying).
He teamed once more with Prowse and MacDonald, as director and translator respectively, on Phedra, in true-to-Racine rhyming alexandrines, at the Old Vic in 1984; he was a grizzled, growling Theseus to Glenda Jackson's stupendous, sex-raddled incestuous queen. When Prowse directed a season at Greenwich theatre in the same year, he was a blood-curdling, murderous Brachiano in The White Devil by John Webster.
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, Murphy was itinerant around the reps, playing Pozzo for Rupert Goold in ; Achilles for Terry Hands in ; Chorus for Jonathan Munby in Henry V in Manchester; and Hector (the role) in Alan Bennett's The History Boys on tour. He is one of the few actors to have played both Prince Hal and Falstaff, tackling the latter at the Bristol Old Vic in 2002. He completed a transition into comic bombast two years ago, playing Sir Lucius O'Trigger in Peter Hall's revival of at the Theatre Royal, Bath, and the Haymarket in London.
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.
Murphy, always a free spirit, lived mostly in London but moved eight years ago to Cambridge, near his sister, Deirdre. She and his brother Brian survive him.
• Eamon Gerard Murphy, actor, born 14 October 1948; died 26 August 2013