Tag Archives: hamlet

Portrait: #2 – John Gielgud

John Gielgud by Chris Naylor 2015

John Gielgud’s extraordinary 80-year career encompassed every possible style and form the acting world could offer, from the romantic Edwardian stage tradition in his earliest days as Romeo, Hamlet and Richard II, through the avant-garde at the Royal Court and the National in plays like ‘Home’ and ‘No Man’s Land’, to his fine cinema work in films such as ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’, ‘Providence’ and ‘The Elephant Man’. Gielgud was a magnificent actor, his work always subtle, intelligent and human.

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To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Mobiles

cumberbatch hamlet

Once again, tonight at 7.15pm, the lights will go down and a certain Mr Cumberbatch will begin to intone the most famous words in theatrical history.

I haven’t landed a ticket for ‘Hamlet’, sadly, although plenty have (I’m looking at you, Naomi); the rest of us are awaiting the critical verdict in a couple of weeks’ time. But then, maybe we don’t need to wait – ‘Hamlet’ may be sold out, but it sounds like the whole thing will be up on YouTube soon.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s new show is the latest victim of the entertainment world’s most virulent blight: the unauthorised use of the mobile phone.

The theatre can offer many examples of device-based bad behaviour, and we frequently hear about actors stopping the show to complain.

Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ at the National

history boys richard griffiths

Kevin Spacey in ‘Clarence Darrow’ at the Old Vic

clarence darrow kevin spacey

and, famously, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in ‘A Steady Rain’ on Broadway were filmed (in character) berating an audience member whose phone rang repeatedly:

And, like most actors these days, I have many of my own stories to tell.

me and julian in the woman in black

I spent a year in The Woman In Black in the West End, and we often had great hordes of school parties in the audience. Their theatre etiquette might not have been as fully-formed as the average play-goer, and we would often be troubled by phones going off, people texting, playing games and so on. I remember delivering one of my many direct-address speeches and seeing the ghostly blue face of a girl in the front row of the dress circle, illuminated in the dark by the screen of her smart phone. I was particularly proud of this speech, and I became infuriated that here was I, giving my all, and this child wasn’t paying the slightest attention. I delivered the entire speech to her – or rather, at her – determined to get her to look up, even just for a moment. But she gave me not so much as a flicker. Eventually I realised that there were a few hundred others who actually were listening to the speech and left her to her Angry Birds.

But the really modern problem – and Benedict’s main gripe – is not simply phones ringing in the auditorium, people actually taking the call or even the freak event of a dolt mounting the stage to try and charge his ‘device’ from a dummy plug socket:

The main event these days is the audience trying film the show. The Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’ has been plagued in preview by super-fans attempting to record the proceedings, with the result that, when the actors look out into the darkness, they have been greeted with lots of little red dots winking back at them. Benedict himself paid a visit to his gaggle of stage-door Johnnies in an attempt to halt this sort of thing:

Of course, this isn’t just a theatre problem. The world of live music has become completely au fait with this troubling phenomenon over the past few years, and at any gig you choose to attend, a hefty chunk of the crowd will be holding their iPhones or Samsungs aloft, determined to capture every precious moment in perfect HD – wobbly, poorly-framed HD with bad sound.

cameras at a gig

Why is this? Have we become so wedded to screens that we can’t really experience anything, unless it is safely contained within a frame? Perhaps a live experience is just too unpredictable – after all, who knows what emotions might be stirred up in us if we surrender to the moment completely? At least when we watch it on the train later on there‘s no danger of our being surprised by anything.

Perhaps we should just accept that the creaking old tradition of live performance will have to adapt to survive. Maybe, when we visit the theatre in the future, we should expect our neighbour to be watching the whole thing on a screen the size of a packet of fags.

But then, maybe not. Last year’s hottest ticket – someone who had hardly been near a stage in 35 years – had other ideas.

Kate Bush

When Kate Bush announced her ‘Before The Dawn’ shows in Hammersmith, she made a specific request of her fans:

“It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”

I was delightfully lucky enough to be able to score a pair of tickets to the second night – cue unflattering photographic evidence of myself with my pal Lisa (from outside the venue):

Me and Lisa at Kate

and I don’t remember seeing a single phone, iPad or camera all night. But I know I shall never forget that extraordinary moment when Kate shimmied onto the stage, her backing singers conga-ing behind her. Or the thrill of recognition as the first chord of ‘Running Up That Hill’ began to grow. Or the breathtaking coup-de-theatre when her blackbird finally took flight. Those moments were all the more powerful because they were shared by everyone there, as they happened. That can’t be captured by a little electronic box.

As Kate Bush knows, performance, at its purest and most affecting, is about the artist communing with the audience. ‘Hamlet’ is the ultimate example – with those soliloquies, the Dane isn’t just talking to himself, he is asking for our help, our counsel. You can’t do that if your audience is just waiting to watch it when they get home.

cumberbatch hamlet 2

Interview With The Director: Paul Miller – part one

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller was appointed Artistic Director of London’s Orange Tree Theatre in June 2014, as successor to founder Sam Walters. His first season has been tremendously varied and successful, with plays such as ‘The Distance’ by Deborah Bruce, George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Widowers’ Houses’ and ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’ by D H Lawrence garnering four-star-reviews and sold-out performances. The extraordinary ‘Pomona’ by Alastair McDowell recently won five Offies at the Off West End Awards, including Best New Play and Best Director (Ned Bennett), and will transfer to the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre in September, followed by a run at the Royal Exchange Theatre in October. Paul Miller won Best Artistic Director at the Off West End Awards.

Paul was an Associate Director at Sheffield Crucible from 2009 to 2014, where his productions included ‘The Winter’s Tale’, ‘Democracy’ by Michael Frayn (which transferred to the Old Vic), and ‘Hamlet’ with John Simm.
For the National Theatre he has directed, amongst others, ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett (a revival for the West End and UK tour), ‘Baby Girl’ by Roy Williams, ‘DNA’ by Dennis Kelly. He was Associate Artist at the Bush Theatre from 2005 – 2008.

When we met, Paul’s production of ‘Each His Own Wilderness’ by Doris Lessing was playing at the Orange Tree. Lessing’s powerful play is set in 1958, and sees Tony (Joel MacCormack), back from National Service disillusioned and dissatisfied, and clashing with his political activist mother Myra (Clare Holman).

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CN Coming to see your show was very interesting, seeing somebody at the very beginning of their career and a number of actors who are quite established– from a director’s point of view, what difference do you notice between a young actor and a very established one – in terms of the way they approach rehearsals, for example?

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PM Well it’s interesting, because there is a well-observed comedic thing that can happen, where the young actors arrive half an hour before rehearsals and do their warm-up and vocal exercise and they’re studiously attacking their parts, and the older, more senior actors appear to roll up without a warm-up, appear to be giving it less application. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in a banal way that, ‘Oh, people get lazy as they get older’. In fact what I think happens is something much more interesting: the more you apply yourself when young, something happens, almost at a physical level, which means that, a bit like a dancer, you begin to do certain things, not exactly automatically but without having to consciously press that button –

CN – Like a runner might have a very developed muscle that is specific to the task –

PM Exactly. So the older actors who roll in going, ‘Oh, I don’t know why you’re bothering with all that’, making a joke of it all, are often concealing the fact – or indeed are unaware themselves – of what they can deploy, and it’s only in them because they were like that once.

Helen Baxendale The Distance rehearsal c Helen Warner

CN So in a show like this one, where there’s a tension between young and old anyway – that’s the point of the play, in many ways – you must find that in rehearsal too?

PM All the time. It’s very relatively unusual to find oneself in a rehearsal room with a group of people who all of similar age. That’s one of the attractive things about our business, that we routinely work with a lot of people of different backgrounds and ages – that’s not always true in the more ordinary world of work. But that is part of the job of directing: to create a room that will contain, without over-controlling, a lot of people with different approaches. I’ve noticed that some young actors come out of three years where they’ve spent all the time with people of their own age and at their own stage of development, and it can be disconcerting to find yourself in a rehearsal room where you’re doing your thing and other people appear to not be doing your thing. There can be some heavy duty grinding of gears as people have to try and work out how to work with an actor who’s a bit older than them, and who isn’t so actively engaged with the process.

Pomona

CN And similarly in the opposite direction, I’ve been in rehearsals where older actors have become quite frustrated with younger ones applying a method very deliberately, and which sometimes gets in the way of the work. But then that’s the director’s job isn’t it?

PM Yes, that is part of the director’s job, to hold that all together – hopefully in a creative tension, rather than simply a sort of deadlock.

CN So you have to find a different language to speak to each actor?

PM Yes, I think so, or help people to understand each other.

Ellie Piercy The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd photo Mark Douet

CN Do you try and get them to speak your language?

PM Well, I think some directors tackle this aspect of things by forcefully introducing a whole new dimension, which is them, their method, so the rehearsal room becomes about their artistic personality. That can solve the problem because both the young actor with his industrious process and the older actor with apparently no process at all are subsumed into this whole new thing. That’s not my thing, or at least I don’t feel that’s what I do. I think I tend to find myself doing plays where actually one wants to find the difference in people and somehow hold them together.

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CN There’s the great John Dexter tradition that we all fear as actors – walking into the room and finding the despot, with the suggestion that often the director will isolate the weakest… There are many bad stories about directors that actors share. And I wonder where that comes from?

PM I wonder. Of course one of the weirdnesses about being a director is that, after a certain point in your working life, you have no idea what goes on really in anybody else’s rehearsal room, except by hearsay. So one can easily have a distorted impression of what’s going on out there, but I feel as if that John Dexter stuff has largely gone away – I think the culture doesn’t permit that stuff any more. I think that out-and-out, ‘Why are you f***ing doing that? You’re a hopeless actor!’ – I feel like that’s gone, and perhaps been replaced by more subtle problems.
I feel that, by and large, it’s a much more democratic process. If there are problems with a younger generation individually, it might not come from being tyrants in the old model, but maybe people going, ‘You’re not obeying the rules! My method’s not being followed and therefore it’s all wrong.’

CN It’s quite a different experience to an actor going from one rehearsal room to another, one director to another. You’re in isolation in your career – you don’t have the influences that actors have on your working method, so you have to develop your own. I suppose a lot of your method comes from people you assisted at the start of your career?

PM Yes, I think inevitably you see how a rehearsal room works from those people – or doesn’t work. I think a great danger is if you assist people you find very compelling when you’re at a formative stage, you try to work out who you are by imitating them, and that can be a rather an unhappy period to go though.

Patrick Drury as Sartorius with Simon Gregor as Lickcheese in Widowers' Houses

CN You didn’t act at all?

PM At school, but not in any way professionally.

CN But you didn’t feel the bite – you weren’t torn in two directions?

PM No. Somehow or other, I decided I wanted to direct at 17, which is probably unhealthily early…

CN A lot of actors give up and become directors, and a lot of them keep the two strands going at the same time; do you feel it’s useful?

PM Actors who direct?

CN Or for directors to have some experience at acting – or do you think it’s a very different discipline?

PM Well, one of the benefits to being an actor who then turns to directing after a certain amount of time is that, unlike my experience, they will have had years in a lot of different directors’ rehearsal rooms, and so have perspective on what directing can be. I’m often amused at how relatively unsentimental actors-turned-directors are about actors. They can often be the hardest taskmasters, in my experience.

CN When I spoke to Joe Harmston about this – he has never acted – he thinks it hinders actor-directors because they don’t have sympathy; if they can see how to do it, they can’t understand why another actor can’t.

PM I’m sure that’s possible, though someone like Daniel Evans has taken to directing brilliantly and is still acting – I don’t feel he has fallen into that trap. If you’re really good at it you don’t.

daniel evans

CN Do you remember performances that made you think, ‘Oh wow, I want to make that happen’ – specific actors?

PM I tell you a performance that really did always stick with me – I was lucky enough to be at the University of Ulster at Coleraine when Yvonne Bryceland came – the great South African actress who, with her husband Brian Astbury, had run a theatre in South Africa.

yvonne bryceland

She was a long-term collaborator with Athol Fugard, and she recreated a production of a play called ‘People Are Living There’ by Fugard. She played a woman running a shabby boarding house on the night of her 50th birthday, and – typical Fugard – the play had a very simple action to it, and revolved around one moment: she had this speech about turning 50, just as the clock was striking midnight, and her unhappiness and disappointment in life, this terrible boyfriend that we never see; remembering herself as a little girl and saying, ‘There were promises, there were promises’. It was highly realistic acting, yet also with a kind of magnetism and a sense of emotional size to it. I can still see and hear her, and I thought she was a remarkable creature.

CN Are there actors you would like to work with that you see on the stage today?

Penelope Wilton

PM I think Penelope Wilton has a lot of what I described about Yvonne Bryceland actually – everything always truthful and drawn from life, and yet with this sense of an enormous emotional landscape behind it. It would be wonderful to work with someone like that.

Coming in Part Two, Paul talks casting, London and Artistic Director’s Guilt…

Use it or lose it?

beatles-in-Top-Ten-Club-Hamburg-April-1961

What was that statistic about the Beatles? Oh yes – Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Outliers’, posited the theory that one of the reasons the Beatles were able to reach such a pinnacle of fame and success was the amount of time they spent in preparation:

‘The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.’

Gladwell is careful not to suggest that it is experience alone that leads to success, but setting talent aside, he does imply that such intensive practise is what separates the merely ‘good’ from the ‘best’.

LAMDA 1998 Alison Hinds Mali Tudno Jones Annabel Capper Robert Wallace Colin Cook

Of course the Beatles also had that most vital attribute, the confidence of youth – something shared by many young actors. Early on at drama school, I can remember a time in the pub – after a heavy day’s cavorting – when I asked some fellow students who they thought was the best actor in our year. Most people umm-ed and aah-ed and gave a few names, until the final chap, who said, ‘I think I’m probably the best.’ The rest of us were suitably outraged of course, but perhaps he was being more honest than we were – after all, no actor can hope to succeed, even in a small way, without a hefty shovelful of self-confidence. Underneath our rather British reserve and self-deprecation, there burnt in all of us a white hot little core of ego and pride.

LAMDA 1998 Greg Jarvis Jack Tarlton

Whenever people would talk of how difficult a profession it is, and how many actors are unemployed at any one time, I can always remember thinking, ‘Yes, but I’ll be all right. Once they see how brilliant I am, I’ll never look back.’

But that early blithe confidence is all too easily eroded if it isn’t shored up with a bit of outside validation, in the form of some faith invested in you by a director. When someone places their confidence in you, it gives you more confidence in your own abilities. In order to develop and progress, we all need someone to say ‘Yes’ to us.

It is a wonderful thing to discover that you are able to do something you thought you couldn’t. I can remember being terrified at the idea of improvisation classes when I started drama school, but then discovering that I was actually quite good at it, and more importantly, that I really enjoyed it.
In the same way, sometimes the only way to discover that you can play a particular part is when someone casts you in it. Perhaps they can see something in you that you hadn’t seen yourself, and a door will open to a whole new range of parts, or a set of abilities you hadn’t previously used.

Those actors who are cast in large, challenging roles will be stretched and exercised, and will meet an array of opportunities they hadn’t previously encountered. After any big part, you bound into the next audition radiating fearlessness and with slightly less to prove to yourself. And of course this makes you a much more attractive proposition to a director than an actor who hasn’t worked for six months.

LAMDA 1998 Emma Bernbach Richard Morrison Joanna Van Kampen Sandra Paternostro Ayesha Mirza Gregory De Polnay

If our confidence – and therefore, our ability – can grow and grow with experience, it’s probably also true that these things can diminish with inactivity. Most of us would love to play Hamlet or Medea but few will get the chance; I’m sure the profession is full of great classical actors or film stars manqué. We all know talented actors who just didn’t seem to achieve the heights we thought they would, simply because they were never given the opportunity to discover what they were really capable of.

After any stretch of time without working, it does feel that the acting muscles become flabby – that first audition after a gap can be surprisingly daunting. It’s very easy to feel one’s momentum slowing – the question is, can you build that momentum up again?

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.

Staying In or Coming Out…

Can you be gay and happy in Hollywood?

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There was a time, now long lost in a mist of theatrical dry ice, when audiences had a taste for ham. They liked their acting big, artificial, transporting – theatrical, if you will. A leading actor might play Hamlet on Monday, Caliban on Wednesday and Lear on Friday, and he would achieve his transformations with greasepaint, false noses and an elastic array of voices and walks. If you were an actor-manager like Henry Irving you would seize the best part and attack it with gusto, and deliver a full-blooded, barnstorming performance.

A century or so on, there is really no place for that sort of thing. The arrival of cinema and the more sophisticated, subtle playwriting of the twentieth century combined to narrow the scope of our drama and bring about an appetite for a more naturalistic style of acting. These days we look to our actors for truth. We like our phrases broken and halting, our gestures restrained and our dialogue overlapping to the point of incomprehensibility.

And this appetite for candour extends to the real lives of actors. We want to know what goes on back stage – where they live, how they live, and, most importantly, with whom. A leading actor’s job description seems to require total disclosure.

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Of course, things have been like this since the golden days of Valentino and Louise Brooks. It picked up pace when the first paparazzi chased Burton and Taylor through Rome in the 60s, and now we have arrived at the point where most tabloids and celebrity magazines feel at liberty to invent wild, contradictory fantasies about Jennifer Aniston on a daily basis.
We are used to celebrities being fodder for gossip columns. We want our stars to live more interesting lives than ours – more torrid, more dramatic; and ideally they should be as close to their on-screen personae as possible – the strong, silent type, the ditzy-unlucky-in-love-girl-next-door – but things becomes more complicated when this attitude starts to infect the casting process.

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If you want someone to play a smouldering sex symbol, it seems that they must smoulder in real life too. Witness Bret Easton Ellis’s remarks when it was suggested that gay actor Matt Bomer should play the lead role in Fifty Shades of Grey. He claimed it ‘demands a man who is genuinely into women’.

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There are holes in this argument for all to see, but basically Ellis’s point can be countered by the fact that what actors are doing in films is acting. Jamie Dornan may well be heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean he’s really attracted to Dakota Johnson, and since it is not a porn film, the actors won’t really be having sex. So it doesn’t matter if Dornan fancies Johnson or not, or she him, as they will be pretending that they do. All actors do – all the time – is pretend. They pretend to be sad when they are happy, to be English when they are American, they even pretend to be apes when they are humans. This is their job. And usually, audiences are happy to accept this. We suspend our disbelief because we are following the story.

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But the gay/straight conundrum won’t seem to shift. Producers and casting directors still seem unwilling to cast gay actors in straight leading (i.e. romantic) roles. This has had drastic consequences for gay actors for decades. When Hollywood, television – even the apparently liberal world of the theatre – run scared of casting openly gay actors in those roles, even if the actor fits the part perfectly, the consequence has been that many of those actors choose to conceal their sexuality so they can continue to work. This point was raised by Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent interview with OUT magazine:

“I think if you’re going to sell yourself as a leading man in Hollywood,” he says, “to say ‘I’m gay,’ sadly, is still a huge obstacle. We all know actors who are [gay] who don’t want to talk about it or bring it up, or who deny it. I don’t really know what they do to deal with it.”

And this is my biggest concern – just how do they deal with it?

I struggled for a long time with whether to come out or not, and it wasn’t until drama school that I felt ready to be honest about it. But once I did, I felt much bolder in my acting, as well as in the rest of my life. Of course an audience need never know the details of our off-stage lives – and frankly they are usually less interesting than those we play out on stage or screen. But I think we need to have access to our real selves in order to empathise with a character: if a script asks an actor to play a love scene, most of us will draw on our own experiences to help us. Perhaps we might substitute a real lover from our own life for the other actor in the scene, and summon up the feeling of being in love. But how much harder must it be to show those feelings if we have always kept our sexuality in check, and never really expressed our true selves?

If acting is about telling the truth of human existence, then it must benefit your acting to be truthful to yourself – and conversely, surely your acting must suffer if you are living a lie.

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So why stay in the closet? Who makes that decision? I think we tend to imagine a Svengali-like agent or manager telling his client to hide the truth for the sake of his career – to attend the premiere with a girl on his arm or dodge the relationship question in interviews, and clearly some pressure must be exerted from on high, at producer-level at least. Witness the complicated case of Luke Evans, who was very open about being gay a decade ago as a stage actor in London, then became much more cagey once his Hollywood profile was rising and he had publicists steering his interviews. Happily, he now seems willing to discuss it again, as in this recent interview.

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Evans is a member of a small but significant group, including Ezra Miller and Neil Patrick Harris, who are openly gay but are still being cast in straight leading roles, and which is hopefully a sign of a more positive attitude in the future. But they are still very much a courageous minority. As Bret Easton Ellis said: ‘Hollywood is the most homophobic place in the entire world.’

But what if it comes from the actor him/herself? Inevitably all this homophobia must be internalised at some level.

Ultimately there is a choice to be made, between leading a successful career, and living a happy, open life. Which is more important? I can remember the fear of my sexuality being found out, of giving myself away. But that was 20-something years ago. I can’t imagine still carrying those fears with me now, and certainly not in the job I love.

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?’

gielgud gala

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.

simon

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 –

benedict

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.

dr_faustus gerard murphy

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.