Monthly Archives: January 2015

Who’s The Greatest?

Generics

So, Wolf Hall! Very exciting, beautifully made, completely unmissable television after only one episode. It does make me feel even more guilty when I see the novel sitting on my shelf staring at me, saying ‘Why haven’t you read me yet?’, but still, what an achievement. Stunning design, locations, costumes; the script is thrillingly good. And as for the acting – Mark Rylance seems, on the evidence of the first part, to be delivering an era-defining performance. He shows us the warmth of the father and husband, the guile of the politician, the smoothness of the courtier.

Watching something as skilful as Rylance’s Cromwell, surely we can feel confident that we are witnessing truly great acting – a performance which will be remembered and studied for years – and that most observers would agree with that assessment.

Of course, each generation likes to crown its theatrical royalty – to bestow the mantle of ‘Great Acting’ – but, like every other art form, acting is subject to changing tastes and fashions. The years roll by, and sooner or later, what seemed cutting edge and the absolute pinnacle of theatrical perfection, when viewed with fresh eyes starts to look a bit – well, dated. What was once considered bold and exciting looks rather stagey and over the top, and the most tasteful, restrained performance suddenly seems mumbly and mannered.

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We are now deep in awards season, an odd time when one actor is rated over another and officially designated The Best. Will it be Felicity Jones or Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch? Often the choice of winner can be very divisive, with people becoming outraged that their own personal favourite has been overlooked – this year’s Oscar nominations being a case in point, as David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King failed to make the list. And looking back over past winners, can we really say that Tom Hanks in ‘Philadelphia’ was better than Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘In The Name of the Father’, or Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’? Frances McDormand is wonderful in ‘Fargo’, but what about Brenda Blethyn in ‘Secrets and Lies’ or Emily Watson in ‘Breaking the Waves’?

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But more pertinently, would some of those past winners still be rated so highly today? Fredric March is wonderful in 1931’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, but I have a feeling his performance might seem a little too ripe for modern tastes. Similarly with Charles Laughton in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ from 1933. It’s quite a conundrum. How can we communicate the effect a performance had on us, once tastes have changed? Can we ever really talk meaningfully about ‘Great Acting’?

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Theatregoers in the 20th century spoke in awe of Laurence Olivier, renowned as the finest actor of his generation. But when you view his film work – the only real record we have of his acting – it seems rather strident, a little blunt and mechanical. Was this really the best acting of its time? In the 1950s, Richard Burton tore through the theatrical establishment with a series of electrifying performances at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and established himself as the most exciting new actor for decades. But anyone looking at his screen work now might be hard pressed to locate this mercurial talent. There are flashes of it in ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ or ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’, and his later work has a wounded poignancy as hard living took its toll, but for much of the time he seems insincere, uncommitted, distracted even. There is a theatricality too, which these days we would probably judge as far too artificial.
But talk to anyone who saw these actors on stage, and they would give a very different account. There is something so much more powerful about being in the same room as someone, sharing the moment, being held by the spell of a performance, and it’s very hard to communicate these feelings after the event.

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As for screen acting, our current tastes are for underplaying, subtlety and above all, naturalism.
I wonder if we’re missing something. Jack Nicholson in the documentary ‘Making The Shining’ talks of his conversations with Stanley Kubrick about realism in acting. “They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real and you, you know, you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley who says, “Yeah, it’s real but it’s not interesting.”

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A case in point can be found in the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, where, amongst the host of brilliant performances from the leading lights of the British acting world, was a piece of footage from their 1964 production of ‘Hay Fever’, featuring Maggie Smith and Anthony Nicholls. Despite being 50 years old, and having been shot in a dark TV studio, it was still completely scintillating. Maggie Smith’s performance as Myra Arundel was, even in that brief excerpt, perhaps the most brilliant scene of the evening. Theatrical, stylised, but captivating – and most importantly, hilarious:

Does ‘Great Acting’ even really exist? Acting is such an ephemeral art. John Gielgud used to talk of his wish to capture some of his past performances, so he could wake in the night and regard them dispassionately as they sat on the mantelpiece. But perhaps Gielgud himself is the ultimate example of an actor who was able to work across different mediums with equal skill and success.

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Contemporary theatregoers would swoon over his Golden Voice and romantic early performances, and he could have become a relic of the post-Edwardian West End theatre tradition. But he was able to jettison that part of himself and embrace the avant-garde, working with Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court and Pinter and Peter Hall at the National. A whole new audience fell for him. He then slipped effortlessly into film, deploying an acting style that we can still appreciate today – an understatement and hesitancy – indeed, a distinct lack of theatricality from this great Knight of the stage. Watch him as Lord Raglan in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and see what I mean.

But this is just my opinion. Someone else will no doubt watch Gielgud and think, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’
So perhaps a term like ‘Great Acting’ is too subjective to ever really mean anything. The appreciation of acting, as with all creative work, will always be a matter of taste.

I still think Mark Rylance is great, though.

Resisting The Drift…

lifepreserver

What do you want in life? Actors are often told how lucky we are to really know what we want to do, when so many people drift through life without a proper sense of direction or purpose. But knowing ‘I want to be an actor’ is only the beginning of the journey – once you have taken that first step, there are many more possible paths to take.

 

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In fact, in the past I have looked at other actors and envied the purity and precision of their ambition. I remember reading an article about Elliot Cowan, which described how he had emailed Dominic Dromgoole from a holiday on the beach with a list of the leading parts he wanted to play. More recently I read an interview with Richard Armitage, who said he had made the decision to head for Hollywood and work in films so that when he returned to London he could have some clout in theatre. These actors clearly have a strong sense, not only of what they want to do in the profession, but also of their ability to achieve it. Where do you get that clarity of vision, that level of self-confidence?

In my first ever theatre job back in 1998, I remember propping up the bar with the director, who said, ‘I expect you want to play Hamlet at the RSC, don’t you?’ and thinking, ‘No, not really.’ But I had no strong idea of the parts I did want to play. Whenever the question came up, ‘What is your dream part?’, my mind would go blank. I had a vague thought that I might like to have a crack at Richard II, and a wistful dream of playing Jaques in ‘As You Like It’, but nothing really concrete beyond that.

My problem was, I was prone to drift. I was in love with acting, with being an actor, and so I was happy just to be on set, or on stage – no matter what the part – because it meant I was really doing it. But I couldn’t summon up a crystal-clear image of myself bestriding the profession, Colossus-like, Faustus one minute, Prince Hal the next. I expected the profession to find me, to recognise the full weight of my genius and to show me what work I should be doing. Of course, the profession doesn’t care. It doesn’t notice. If you don’t clearly tell it what you want, show it what you can do, it will pass you by. It is very happy for you to drift, making no demands. There are plenty of others who do know what they want.

 

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But is self-determination really possible? Can you, Noel Edmonds-like, place a Cosmic Order for a lead at the Donmar? I’m not sure any actor can really have a career plan and confidently expect to carry it out – surely a hefty spadeful of luck is involved somewhere. Plenty of talented actors could email artistic directors with long lists of roles they would like to play, and be met with blank rejection, and the streets of Los Angeles are littered with the dried-out husks of British actors who dreamt of cinematic immortality followed by a triumphant homecoming.

So, if you aren’t able to choose the parts you want to play, at the very least, you can decide what you really don’t want. Acting is a difficult enough profession to pick – low pay, high unemployment etc. – so why accept acting work you don’t enjoy? You could just choose a conventional job and make some real money instead. If you are going to make all these sacrifices to be an actor, then for your own sake, you need to be sure that you are pursuing the right work.

I think it is possible to point your career in a particular direction, be it classical theatre, musical comedy or art-house films, and be purist about it, rejecting anything that doesn’t meet the criteria. Of course, you might not work much, but at least you’ll have more direction than if you drift.