Alan Rickman: Captivating until the end

Elsa Maishman 15 January 2016

"I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even put a stopper on death": So goes the now hollow phrase immortalised in the distinctive tone of Alan Rickman and his iconic portrayal of Severus Snape, for a significant number of our generation the actor’s definitive character. The British performer, whose talents saw him cast in such disparate roles as Tybalt and Éamon de Valera, has died of cancer, aged 69.

Of course for many it won’t be the menacing flick of jet black hair for which Rickman will be remembered. Long before he prowled the labyrinthine corridors of Hogwarts he was treading the boards at the RSC, in the same year (1985) taking on the role of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, Jacques in As You Like It, and most notably the rapacious and seductive Vicomte de Valmont in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, from which he received a Tony nomination when it transferred to Broadway in 1987.

Not just one of Harry Potter’s school nemeses, Rickman even had a head start on the extraordinarily vast quantity of Snape fan art that has emerged on the internet since he donned the black cloak and enigmatic expression, himself having attended the Royal College of Art and then established the graphic design company ‘Graphiti’ with friends before he moved on to RADA to pursue acting professionally – first in the theatre, and then on our TVs.

Unsurprisingly, Rickman’s original appearance on our screens wasn’t as a shirtless professor of potions brandishing a wand as a hippogriff looks on forlornly (see the fan art), but rather as the short-tempered antagonist in the BBC’s 1978 version of Romeo and Juliet. Establishing a fruitful predisposition for villainous typecasting, Rickman’s next and most infamous antihero (albeit for another generation) was the German mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988), a role that truly cemented the stereotype and his line of bad-guys: the Sheriff of Nottingham in Costner’s Robin Hood (1991); Rasputin in the 1996 TV film; Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd (2007) etc.

Himself aware and at issue with being stereotyped as the villain, Rickman’s infamy in this regard masks the subtly with which many of these characters were played. Not simply a thuggish, trigger-happy psychopath, Rickman’s Hans Gruber established a tradition of chilling precision and menacing complexity to those characters on the ‘wrong side’, only to be upstaged by his Bafta-winning Nottingham, enticing and deliciously evil. Epitomised by the masterfully disguised sensitivity of Severus Snape, Rickman’s performance in front of the camera was irresistible. Despite this, for many, his performance on stage was the hidden gem.

Rickman was a consummate man of the theatre, first and foremost, and even once he’d found success on film he continued to delight, terrify, and challenge live audiences from the stage. Following a diverse performance of Yukio Ninagawa’s 1991 Tango at the End of Winter – a modern Japanese play about a performers rejection of the stage in lieu of the fantastical – Rickman returned to Shakespeare playing Hamlet at the Riverside Theatre, and then as Mark Antony in the National’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1998.

He even turned his talents to directing, firstly guiding Emma Thompson in The Winter Guest, and then editing and directing the premiere of the controversial My Name is Rachel Corrie, a drama that recently played at the ADC. Not solely inclined to hard-hitting parts, Rickman returned to Broadway in a 2011 comedy, Rebeck’s Seminar, playing the perennially-struggling writer Leonard.

In 2005 Rickman’s voiced an even more world weary character, Marvin the Paranoid Android, in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Afflicted with severe boredom and depressed by the tedium of the world around him for someone with a ‘'brain the size of a planet’', Rickman’s Marvin commands all his scenes with that iconic delivery, languid, sardonic, and hilarious. In Douglas Adam’s series of books Marvin recounts a lullaby: "Now the world has gone to bed / Darkness won't engulf my head". Rickman’s death couldn’t possibly engulf his cinematic legacy, nor could it plunge us into darkness. He couldn’t put a stop to death, but no one could put a stopper on the impact of his roles immemorial.