Tag Archives: doctor faustus

Resisting The Drift…

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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.

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Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 3

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Chris Naylor: Can you remember particular performances that inspired you?

Joe Harmston: Lots of things. I went to the National just endlessly, and the RSC in the Eighties, so for about ten years I saw everything that was on. I remember seeing a lot of things at the Cottesloe – things like ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’, ‘The Mysteries’, and actors who had a wild but also playful energy, people like Jack Shepherd, and Brian Glover –

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CN: Real people.

JH: Real people, and very, very exciting. No tricks, no fuss, no pretence about what they were doing; it was really simple. And then I remember seeing Ian McKellen’s show for London Lighthouse, ‘Acting Shakespeare’.

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CN: I didn’t know about that.

JH: Yeah, it must have been ‘87, ‘88 something like that, at the Playhouse – he had this show raising money for AIDS research, and it was just him.

CN: Was it like Gielgud’s ‘Ages of Man’?

JH: Yes, but it was a bit more anarchic than that. At the beginning of the second act, I remember the house lights were on, and we were all chatting away, and a lot of people didn’t notice, but he just walked on and stood in the middle of the stage and he just gazed at his hand, and very, very slowly just raised it, and suddenly he literally had the audience in the palm of his hand. And it was just a wonderful moment.

I remember directing and producing a gala for John Gielgud’s centenary at the Gielgud theatre, and my cast was Paul Scofield – bizarrely, I was the last person to direct him – and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and Ian Richardson – I mean, it was just everybody who had ever worked with Gielgud. And Scofield was on doing ‘I’ll burn my books’, Prospero’s last speech, it was just unbelievable. And he came off and said, ‘Any notes?’

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But while he was doing his bit, I remember Judi was crouching there, Ian Richardson peering over her, and Ian McKellen down the side and everybody was just watching him. Then somebody did a bit of chat in between, and Judi and Ian and Ian were all sort of pissing about and giggling and gossiping about people, and then Judi heard her cue, kicked her shoes off and just turned round, stepped on stage and was Titania. I think all the actors that I really love, they could be, you know, swigging on a bottle of beer, or having a gossip about somebody, and turn 180 degrees and step on stage and be Macbeth or Titania –

CN: – and their concentration would 100 per cent.

JH: And it would be utterly real. I’m always dubious about actors who turn up two hours before the performance and start warming up and say, ‘you can’t talk to me until I‘ve done this’, because acting is about real people.

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This is a terrible confession, because you know, he’s so popular – but I can’t bear Simon Russell Beale. I never believe anything he does. I can never believe that this man has ever got on a bus, wiped his arse, had a cold, f***ed anybody, gone to Tesco’s to buy some milk, and therefore I don’t care. Technically wonderful actor but I just don’t connect with him. I love actors to be messy, to be human, to be real, to be vulnerable, and dangerous and frightening and fearful and I think sadly now our fixation is with actors who are sort of superhuman in some way, I mean Benedict Cumberbatch is a kind of uber-human –

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CN: – and Tom Hiddleston.

JH: Something very interesting has happened in the period that I’ve been going to and working in the theatre. I‘m an old-fashioned, unreconstructed lefty with working class parents, who fell in love with the theatre because it was about people, and seemed to be dealing with issues. It was messy and exciting and human, and it was about communication. And the people who were part of the word I fell in love with were all kind of ‘working class heroes’. I mean, it was Jack Shepard and it was Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Actually it went too far – you know, you had to have a father who was coal miner in order to play a part on stage, whether in fact it was Caesar or a coalminer. Now we’re going through this much more patrician thing, where the only people who can play any part, whether it’s Caesar or a coalminer, have been to Eton. And casting directors I know stop going to drama schools, they go to Eton or Lancing.

CN: How do you think that affects casting? I can remember being very inspired when I was at school, by going up to Stratford – we saw loads of shows, and the one that really struck me was Gerard Murphy playing Doctor Faustus. It was incredible, a really visceral performance, but nobody knows who he is – nobody had heard of him; at the time he was an RSC actor, I guess.

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JH: I remember seeing Gerard in Henry IV parts 1&2 at the Barbican – they were the shows that opened the Barbican – and I thought he was just stunning. And interestingly, he was playing Hal, and his Henry IV, his father was Patrick Stewart, and then Patrick Stewart was the solid dependable actor to play those slightly dull parts. And very good. But you looked then and thought that Gerard was the person who was going to be… I mean he was, God, electric.

CN: I remember him crawling up, trying to get away, and being pulled down this wrought iron ladder back to Hell; it was extraordinary. But now, would you cast somebody from the ranks, an RSC regular, or would you cast Jude Law?

JH: Or Daniel Radcliffe. Simon Russell Beale, if you were at the National.

CN: But do you feel – as a director – that you have pressure on you from producers?

JH: Oh, endless, endless. I mean the first question that anybody ever asks is, ‘Who’s in it?’ and that means which of the 12 acceptable people are in it, and that‘s it.

CN: Are you aware of projects being constructed around somebody?

JH: Oh yeah. I mean look at the Mamet play with Lindsay Lohan.

CN: I wonder if audiences feel the same. Maybe I’m being completely naïve but I would have thought that audiences go to the theatre because they want to see the story that the play is about. Do you think that’s true?

JH: Well, I think some of the audience do. I think these days, particularly in the West End we’re in a period of sort of cultural materialism in a sense, that people have this idea that the next big show is a thing to acquire. Which I suppose is not a new thing, you know, ‘Have you seen O’Toole’s Hamlet?’ – I mean that’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance now.

CN: Thank you Joe.