Tag Archives: ian mckellen

I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter…

macbeth

The theatre year is slowly grinding into gear, and the hot tickets are starting to warm up. Will you be able to snaffle one for McKellen’s Lear in the West End, or Alan Bennett’s new show ‘Allelujah!’ at the Bridge? Maybe you already have a treasured Upper Circle vertigo seat for ‘Hamilton’ burning a hole in your safety deposit box.

Personally, the show I’m most excited about this year is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s forthcoming production of ‘Macbeth’, with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston in the title role and Niamh Cusack as Lady M. To coin a phrase, it’s going to be fantastic (one for the Whovians amongst you there). But, if Mr Eccleston himself is to be believed, it nearly didn’t happen at all. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, he claimed that he has always felt snubbed by the Shakespearean theatrical establishment because of his Lancashire accent, and is only playing the Scottish King because he wrote to the artistic director of the RSC, Gregory Doran:

“I wrote an old-fashioned letter to him and I said, ‘Since I was 17 I’ve always wanted to play Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so can I do it?’… I’m never offered Shakespeare…”

Good for you Mr Eccleston, I say. There are many lovely things about this – it’s great that he isn’t above asking for work, great too that he has finally achieved a childhood ambition, but I think what delights me most is that he actually got out the Basildon Bond and his trusty Rollerball and put pen to paper. He didn’t WhatsApp Gregory Doran, he didn’t PM him, he didn’t even send him a text, he wrote an actual letter, put a stamp on it and walked to the post box.

It would be nice to believe there was something to be learnt from Christopher. How lovely it would be if we could suddenly hurl our clogs into the machines and go all analogue again; perhaps this news will revive the fortunes of the fountain pen industry and the Post Office in one fell swoop, as scores of millennials put aside their ‘devices’, take up their quills and start firing off inky missives to the great and the good of the theatre world. After all, it’s a lot easier to find out where to post a letter to Gregory Doran and his ilk than it might be to find their personal email addresses, so it certainly feels like you’re breaking through the defences.

brick

The truth, of course, is that Christopher Eccleston could probably have scratched his request on a brick and lobbed it through the window of the RSC canteen and it would have had the same effect. Basically, with that one letter he was offering the RSC the centrepiece of its 2018 season, all wrapped up with a ribbon. But if you’re not of the same calibre as Christopher, I wonder if even the most beautifully handwritten note would have had quite the same degree of success. I have my doubts, even if you’re not aiming for the title role.

postcards

For years I would spend ages in the art galleries of the provinces, selecting the most appropriate postcards to send off to casting directors, inviting them to first nights and trying my best to seem eminently employable. So hard to choose – would Kay Magson prefer a nice Degas or a bit of Klimt? A Hockney or a Pollock for John Hubbard? So much effort, so much hope – until one day I heard a casting director at a seminar being asked what irritated her most from actors, and her reply was, ‘Getting all those bloody postcards!’ So that put an end to that.

And did any of those letters and postcards ever actually work anyway? Can a message from one humble, non-famous, non-former-Doctor-Who-type actor amongst tens of thousands of others really make a difference? Does any email actually penetrate the filters, any one tweet really ping out above the tidal wave of others?

There’s just so much communication these days, I don’t know how anyone gets noticed without having to resort to the outrageous or illegal. There’s always the Terry Gilliam approach, of course – famously, when Universal Pictures tried to sit on his masterpiece, ‘Brazil’ in the U.S., Gilliam took out a whole page of the trade newspaper Variety to write a letter to the studio head, Sid Sheinberg:

terry gilliam sheinberg

I have often fantasised about talking out my own full-page ad in The Stage, although I’m not quite sure what I’d say. Something assertive and confident would be good, perhaps:

the stage hamlet

But that sounds vaguely threatening… I wouldn’t want to upset anyone…. Maybe this would be safer:

the stage to whom

But really, letter-writing is just a waste of ink, isn’t it? We actors all know that it makes no difference, nobody really reads them, they just go straight in the recycling. The problem is, however, we also tell ourselves that ‘you never know, my letter might just land on their desk on the right day’ – and there it is again, a shot of that most addictive of all drugs – hope. Well, it worked for Christopher Eccleston, didn’t it?

Dear Michelle Terry…

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In Praise Of… Jeremy Brett

Jeremy Brett

Everywhere you look these days, there’s another Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Rupert Everett, Robert Downey Jnr; Hugh Laurie’s House was merely Holmes by a slightly-different name – even Ian McKellen is jumping aboard later this year as a superannuated Sherlock.

But to me, and many others of my vintage, there can only be one true Holmes – Jeremy Brett. This magnificent actor played the great detective from 1984 to 1994 for Granada television, and in the 41 wonderful episodes he made (those production values – oh to be in the 80s again…), Brett’s performance remains a high water mark of British television acting.

Across those episodes, Jeremy Brett took a character who, by that time, had become almost a comic cliché, and transformed him into a vulnerable, flawed and utterly compelling human being. In doing so, he set the template for Sherlocks to come.

Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes with violin

Brett, a very experienced classical stage actor, incorporated an entirely appropriate theatricality into his performance, which, blended with a skilful understanding of screen acting, enabled him to create an eccentric, even frightening Holmes.

With a beautiful, acrobatic voice and a bird-like, almost mechanical physicality, it was a bold characterisation that seemed to capture the otherness of Holmes – constantly moving, throwing himself to the ground to examine a clue; mercurial and unpredictable. Brett seemed to be out of his own time – not a product of the late 20th century, but a living, breathing Victorian.

His casting is a prime example of the perfect actor for a role, someone who so embodies a part as to become, in a way, indistinguishable from it. This caused some problems for Brett – he felt trapped in the part and referred to Holmes as ‘You Know Who’. But for the viewer it was thrilling to watch.

When I think of Holmes, as I often do, it is Brett who comes to mind, in the same way that Tom Baker will always be Dr Who to me. I tip my deerstalker to Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone, but Jeremy Brett will always take the crown.

Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 3

lark%20rise%204

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 –

brianJack%20Shepherd

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’.

mckellen

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.