Monthly Archives: September 2014

In Praise Of… Penelope Wilton

The Harold Pinter Festival presents

One of the best things about watching a truly great performance is that it inspires you to imagine yourself as a better actor. It must be the same for an athlete watching someone break a world record, or an artist looking at a masterpiece – it shows you just how powerful the craft can be – how close to perfection.

One performance that has always stayed with me and stood as an exemplar of just how high one can aspire to aim is Penelope Wilton’s performance as Deborah in Harold Pinter’s ‘A Kind Of Alaska’, at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998. The production was directed by Karel Reisz as part of a triple-bill of Pinter’s short plays.

Deborah wakes after 30 years, having contracted encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleeping sickness’, at 16, and she is forced to come to terms with herself as a middle-aged woman in a changed world. The text has an extraordinary beauty at times – a kind of irregular rhythmic poetry as Deborah’s shaky hold on language falters and breaks down, and she slips back into oblivion.

I was in my final term at LAMDA when I saw it and I remember finding Miss Wilton’s performance almost unbearably moving. She managed to convey the bewilderment, childlike confusion and fear of someone who has missed out on her own life. I was in awe of her ability to so completely inhabit a character whose experience is utterly unique.

It remains one of the finest performances I have ever seen. I was lucky enough to be able to collar her in the London Welsh Centre about 15 years later and thank her for her performance, and I am delighted to relate that she was entirely charming and kind as I stood and gibbered in front of her.

Of course, most sentient beings have known for decades that she is one of the very best there is – from ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ to ‘Cry Freedom’ she is always able to follow a direct line to the true humanity of the character. She can even make me cry in ‘Shaun Of The Dead’.

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Acting, a meritocracy? Oh, Mr Cumberbatch…

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There’s a lot of discussion in the air at the moment about the supposed predominance of actors from public school backgrounds, prompted by the release of ‘Riot Club’, the film adaptation of Laura Wade’s play ‘Posh’. This is a fascinating subject which is, of course, merely one aspect of a much wider debate about privilege and access in UK society, but as a side-issue, I was very struck by this quote from an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in the Daily Mail in April this year:

‘My parents wanted the best for me. I wasn’t sent to the school my dad went to. I’m not a hereditary peer. One of the best things about being an actor is that it’s a meritocracy.’

Now, make no mistake, I admire Benedict Cumberbatch very much. He is a fine actor and a great asset to the profession. But acting a meritocracy? I’m really not sure he’s got this right.

Larry or Vinnie?

Henry-V-(1944)---Laurence-Olivier-786625vinnie

Acting could indeed be considered a meritocracy if the most talented actors were always the most successful. The problem with this notion is that we immediately start to run into problems. Most importantly, how do we define who is the ‘best’? The question of talent is purely subjective – one man’s Larry Olivier is another man’s Vinnie Jones.

Of course, many of our most successful actors (i.e. the busiest, the best paid, winners of the most awards) would be deemed talented in anyone’s books. But most actors could point to contemporaries who haven’t achieved the level of success we thought they deserved – people who we considered the most accomplished actors at drama school, for example, yet who slipped through the net or didn’t move on to the career heights we expected for them. At the same time, we could name many more who have become successful, but whose achievements are harder to explain. And perhaps, in our most private moments, we might even admit to ourselves that there are actors more deserving of success than we are, but who never got a break.

Because I’m worth it

Success in acting is dependent on many variables, most of which have nothing at all to do with talent, but which instead are quite superficial. Looks, voice, physical presence – all these accidents of birth can have far more to do with whether an audience wants to watch us or not than the subtlety or effectiveness of our performances. This is without even touching on the question of luck, that great leveller to whose random and arbitrary whims we are all subject.

Let’s imagine that we have a scene of emotional intensity that needs performing, and two actors ready to perform it: one slightly ‘better’ than the other – a little more skilful with the text, say, a touch more sensitive in gesture and expression. Depressing to say, it isn’t necessarily the finer actor who would get the popular vote. At some point, the choice comes down to which actor we would most like to look at while the scene is happening. This can be because we find them sexy or scary, because they have a warm and comforting voice, or simply that they are closer in appearance to the character description – whatever the reason, audiences (and more importantly to those of us in the business, casting directors) are drawn to actors for so many intangible reasons, that the concept of a meritocracy within this peculiar profession of ours is pretty much meaningless. Does one actor really merit success because of how they look or sound?

beatlesEngelbert-Humperdi_2155508b

It is rather like claiming that the pop charts are a meritocracy – to which I can only respond by citing the UK Singles chart for the 4th of March 1967: at Number 2, the Beatles with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane’, and Number 1, Engelbert Humperdinck with ‘Release Me’. I mean, honestly.

Sorry Benedict.

William Hazlitt – ‘On Actors and Acting’

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My friend Tim Frances has just reminded me of some of the most acute words about the acting profession ever expressed – worth a few minutes of your time, I think:

‘PLAYERS are “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time;” the motley representatives of human nature. They are the only honest hypocrites. Their life is a voluntary dream; a studied madness. The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves. To-day kings, to-morrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves, that they are nothing. Made up of mimic laughter and tears, passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter’s call, they wear the livery of other men’s fortunes; their very thoughts are not their own. They are, as it were, train-bearers in the pageant of life, and hold a glass up to humanity, frailer than itself. We see ourselves at second-hand in them: they show us all that we are, all that we wish to be, and all that we dread to be. The stage is an epitome, a bettered likeness of the world, with the dull part left out: and, indeed, with this omission, it is nearly big enough to hold all the rest. What brings the resemblance nearer is, that, as they imitate us, we, in our turn, imitate them. How many fine gentlemen do we owe to the stage? How many romantic lovers are mere Romeos in masquerade? How many soft bosoms have heaved with Juliet’s sighs? They teach us when to laugh and when to weep, when to love and when to hate, upon principle and with a good grace! …

Actors have been accused, as a profession of being extravagant and dissipated. While they are said to be so as a piece of common cant, they are likely to continue so. With respect to the extravagance of actors, as a traditional character, it is not to be wondered at. They live from hand to mouth: they plunge from want to luxury; they have no means of making money breed, and all professions that do not live by turning money into money, or have not a certainty of accumulating it in the end by parsimony, spend it. Uncertain of the future, they make sure of the present moment. This is not unwise. Chilled with poverty, steeped in contempt, they sometimes pass into the sunshine of fortune, and are lifted to the very pinnacle of public favour; yet, even there, they cannot calculate on the continuance of success. With respect to the habit of convivial indulgence, an actor, to be a good one, must have a great spirit of enjoyment in himself—strong impulses, strong passions, and a strong sense of pleasure; for it his business to imitate the passions, to communicate pleasure to others. A man of genius is not a machine. The neglected actor may be excused if he drinks oblivion of his disappointments; the successful one if he quaffs the applause of the world in draughts of nectar. There is no path so steep as that of fame: no labour so hard as the pursuit of excellence. If there is any tendency to dissipation beyond this in the profession of the player, it is owing to the prejudices entertained against them. Players are only not so respectable as a profession as they might be, because their profession is not respected as it ought to be.’

An extract from William Hazlitt’s “On Actors and Acting”, first published in The Examiner, January 5, 1817. Hazlitt was a writer and philosopher, and a passionate advocate of the theatrical arts.

Singing The Unsung #1 – Corran Royle

We hear a lot about those with their names in lights, but often the most interesting work is being done further down the cast list, and in theatres a bit further away from London’s glittering West End… So here’s an occasional series where I champion a recent performance that has really stood out for me – and take the chance to point the spotlight in a new direction.

corran #1: Corran Royle in ‘The Wall’ by D C Jackson, directed by David Ricardo-Pearce at the Old Red Lion, 6th August 2014

A real treat, this one, as Corran is someone I have met a few times but have never seen act before. I had no concept of what sort of an actor he might be, so it was fascinating to watch such a strong and appealing characterisation. ‘The Wall’ of the title is a literal one which serves as the gathering point for a group of Scottish teenagers trying to kill time in the summer holidays, and is the backdrop for a tangle of adolescent passions and confusions.
Corran played Rab, a mouthy and confident young sort very given to doling out words of romantic wisdom, if not quite so good at taking his own advice. He showed a great comic sense and a bold and totally convincing physicality. A fine accent too.

I’ve just heard that ‘The Wall’ will have a fresh run at The Hope Theatre in Islington, from the 28th of October to the 15th of November, so audiences will have another chance to catch this brilliant performance:

http://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/the-wall/

In Defence Of Actors

how d'ye like me

Actors are, as a breed, some of the most socially able, intelligent and inquisitive people you could hope to meet. They are engaged with the world, highly dedicated to their work and constantly testing themselves. Acting is a risky and expensive career choice that requires determination, persistence and a good deal of courage in many areas.

But there is an intriguing dichotomy at work in the way actors are viewed. On one side, those who become famous and rich are idolised, endlessly scrutinised and obsessed over. On the other, the vast majority of the profession who are attempting to maintain a career are often pitied, patronised, or simply disregarded.

But do actors need defending? If so, from whom?

I believe that actors frequently suffer from damaging attitudes both outside and inside the profession. I think that many people view acting with a mixture of amusement and disdain – often underscored with the belief that it is not a serious job. In fact, of course, it is a very serious job, and what’s more, a precarious one with a high probability of failure – very high levels of unemployment and drop-out, and very poor pay. In my opinion, however, it is also a noble and entirely essential profession.

‘Luvvy! Darling! Sweetie!’

So why are actors denigrated? The stereotypical negative attitudes to the profession can be summed up by that dread word: ‘luvvies’. Can there be a more patronising, dismissive term? It implies a sort of emotional incontinence; an indiscriminate spray of superficial sentimental self-indulgence, coupled with a good squirt of self-absorption – they call each other ‘luvvie’ and ‘darling’ because they’re so wrapped up in themselves they can’t even remember anyone’s name.

Actors are often treated like children, as unintellectual and over-emotional, people who don’t really work for a living but just play all day, pretending to be trees and animals and sleeping in until lunchtime. Many times I have told people what I do for a job, and have been met with the amused response, ‘Oh, you’re an ac-TORRR!’ There is a clear element of envy underlying these attitudes. People often say to me ‘you’re so lucky to be doing a job that you love,’ which is certainly true, although it is assumed along with this that, because we have job satisfaction, we don’t really need those things that the rest of society considers essential, such as mortgages, holidays, cars, money and so on.

I think that this attitude is surprisingly pervasive, to the extent that it begins to erode an actor’s self-respect. Even within the industry, we often suffer from discrimation. Actors are easily dismissed for a number of reasons, the principal one being that there are just so many of us and we all want jobs. So we become irritants – the small fly that buzzes around your face. The industry Gatekeepers – directors and casting directors, even our own agents – must dread phone calls from actors, because after the small talk there will always come The Question: ‘Is there anything happening at the moment?’ Here’s a fun game – find the casting director at a first-night party and watch the look of panic in their eyes as you approach. Inevitably they build walls around themselves to hold back the relentless onslaught of desperation.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The result of all this is that people lose respect for actors. It makes perfect sense, really – when someone seems completely needy and vulnerable it’s hard to respect them. The consequence of this is that we can start to lose respect for ourselves. So an actor’s journey through their career becomes about trying to navigate a way through these hazards – trying to maintain a career while constantly questioning our worth and our choices, and feeling reluctant to approach the ‘gatekeepers’ because we know how unwanted our advances will be. The ultimate result is that many truly talented actors decide that the rewards are no longer worth the effort and step away from the profession.

Now, some actors are ridiculous. Of course they are. They take themselves far too seriously and seem to view the fact of their raised public profile as an invitation to make pronouncements on subjects which they are entirely unqualified to comment on. People are quite rightly scornful of this sort of person. But fundamentally, actors are essential. Most people might not visit the theatre regularly, but nearly everyone watches EastEnders, or Downton Abbey, or listens to The Archers. Millions watch the Harry Potter films, spend hours playing Grand Theft Auto or sitting in front of CBeebies with their children. None of these things could exist without actors. We have always needed stories, in the same way we need music – to help us escape from ourselves for a while, or to help us cope with life – and in order for these stories to be told, we must have storytellers.

Hi Diddle Dee Dee…

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This blog is a very personal attempt to explore the actor’s life – how it feels to progress through a career in theatre: drama school, first agent, first job, dealing with crisis and success.

I will be examining attitudes both outside and inside the profession, sharing my own experiences and talking to fellow actors, directors, casting directors and agents.

I will also be looking for ways to help support actors, and in particular, to encourage mid-career actors to stay in the profession.