Tag Archives: noel coward

What’s My Line?

gambon

I suppose this is what it feels like when an era ends. Michael Gambon has announced that he will not be taking any more stage roles as, at the age of 74, he now struggles to remember his lines:
“It’s a horrible thing to admit but I can’t do it. It breaks my heart. It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Times. After trying to work with an earpiece, the Great Gambon has decided to restrict himself to screen acting. Of course, he is a magnificent actor in any medium, but it’s a sad thing to realise that we will no longer be able to witness his extraordinary talent in the flesh.

Michael Gambon in 'Volpone'Actor Michael Gambon in The Caretaker

I feel very lucky to have seen Michael Gambon live on a couple of occasions – firstly as a magnificently devilish and operatic ‘Volpone’ at the National Theatre – the mountebank scene in particular sticks in my memory, as his accent took a hilarious, rambling tour around the British Isles – and later as a truly loathsome Davies in ‘The Caretaker’. I’ll always remember his grotesque way of eating, his long, spidery fingers wandering over his food.

One of our favourite clichés as a profession is that, at a post-show discussion with the audience, someone will always ask, ‘How do you learn all those lines?’ Actually, I’ve never been asked that – usually the questions are far more intelligent and probing. But I’ve certainly asked it of myself. How do we do it? And why doesn’t it always work?

sample-workingscript001

An actor’s memory must be the most important tool in the kit, and losing it is certainly the biggest fear. ‘What if I forget it all?’ must be the main constituent of any actor’s first-night dread, and it is a wobble that can resurface throughout a run. I always breathe a hefty sigh of relief and pat myself heartily on the back when I make it through a whole run of performances without buggering anything significant up.

There are a couple of occasions that shine out from my career like beacons, as a permanent reminder – a memini oblivionem, if you will (‘remember that you must forget’). The first came in an otherwise entirely wonderful production of Stephen Jeffreys’s adaptation of ‘Hard Times’ at the Watermill Theatre in 2001. I had survived the entire run unscathed, practically word-perfect, and then we arrived at the final performance (if memory serves) and I had one of my best friends in the audience. In one of my favourite scenes – a duologue – I inadvertently answered a question with my response to my fellow actor’s subsequent line. The other actor continued and gave me the cue which would have led me back to that line. I remember thinking ‘Well, I can’t say it again,’ and then every thought flew out of my head. My comrade on stage experienced a similar failure of the imagination, and time came to a dead halt. I briefly thought, ‘This is really funny!’, then I remembered that no, it wasn’t, it was actually very serious and I needed to pull myself together. The seconds/minutes/hours flew past and I floundered around, rambling appallingly and toying bizarrely with my glass of fake whisky, before I somehow managed to clamber back into the script, having cut a page and a half of useful plot. Afterwards I staggered off stage into the arms of a kindly fellow cast member, who was no doubt happy it hadn’t happened to him.

10171_maeve_larkin_sibyl_james_simmons_elyot_christopher_naylor_victor_and_jackie_morrison_amanda

The second time was in ‘Private Lives’ in Oldham, my first job after nearly a year in ‘The Woman In Black’. The Coward play seemed like a breeze in comparison – a smaller part (Victor Prynne, the straight-backed husband), easy dialogue etc. I was dangerously relaxed on the first night – so much so, that in my very first scene with my new bride Amanda, my mind wandered off-piste and I lost my way. I leapt ahead by about 20 lines and, for some reason, decided to call Amanda ‘Sybil’, the name of a character who had yet to appear and who neither of us had even heard of at that point. My Amanda, the very wonderful Jackie Morrison, took the scene in hand and I wobbled squeakily to the end.

These little episodes have come in very useful as admonishments if I ever feel my concentration wavering, but, in a way, I feel slightly more forgiving towards myself as I get older. Performing a play is a numbers game: there will usually be casualties from one quarter or another.

But losing your way for a few lines in the occasional show is a different thing entirely to realising that your memory is failing you permanently. I have worked with many actors who have told me that, somewhere around the age of 60, it starts getting harder to learn a script. Add to this the strange phenomenon that acting seems to get scarier the older you get, rather than less so, and the profession can look like an unfriendly environment to the older actor.

When you are young and self-confident, full of box-fresh invincibility, it’s easier to take the stresses of performance in your stride. But as the years go by, I think you become more aware of the potential pitfalls of stepping on stage – after all, you’ve either fallen into the holes yourself, or observed a poor fellow actor take a tumble. This inevitably erodes your armour to some extent.

pen

But the truth is that it’s quite unreasonable to expect ourselves to keep going at the same level of intensity for ever. Sadly, a decline in our ability to learn a long script is as inevitable as the decline in a sports player’s ability to run the length of a football pitch. As the sports man is forced to hang up his boots, so the actor must eventually put away his highlighter pen – for those larger parts, at least.

angela

However, this doesn’t have to signal the end of an actor’s career. Although Mr Gambon obviously doesn’t like using an earpiece, these days plenty of other older leading actors don’t seem to mind so much – indeed I recently discovered that Angela Lansbury employed one to play Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’ in the West End. It was a vibrant and very funny performance, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover that her lines were being fed to her. But actually it doesn’t diminish her achievement in any way; an earpiece couldn’t have helped her to play in such a physical and inventive way. And of course most people know that Marlon Brando used an earpiece or even cue cards in many of his later film roles – see this extract from ‘Hearts of Darkness’ about the making of ‘Apocalypse Now’:

I think we should really take Mr Gambon’s stage exit as an opportunity to celebrate this extraordinary actor; to say thank you for those remarkable stage performances, and to look forward to many years of work on screen.

Advertisements

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.

felicity_jones_shine_in_the_theory_of_everything_2014-t3Alec+Baldwin+Julianne+Moore+Film+Still+Alice+MFafVUuZ-fZleddie redmayneBenedict_Cumberbatch_and_Keira_Knightley_in_first_trailer_for_The_Imitation_Game545d2acfc2dcfcdc402d3869_selma-oyelowo

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’?

marchlaughton

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’?

laurence_olivier_gallery_new_8Richard Burton

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.

the-shining-jack_nicholson

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.”

maggie s

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.

gielgud-between-charge

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.

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 1

joe h

Joe Harmston is a British theatre director, whose career spans nearly twenty years.
Highlights of his career have been the world premiere of ‘King James’ Ear’, ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Collection’, which he directed at The Donmar Warehouse starring their writer, Harold Pinter.

With Bill Kenwright he created the hugely successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company, while at the other end of the spectrum he continues to champion new writing projects on the fringe.
In spring 2012 he commissioned and directed a landmark re-interpretation of Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ at the Belgrade in Coventry, where he is Associate Creative Director, and for which he was nominated for Best Director in the 2012 TMA Awards.


hay fever

I first worked with Joe on a tour of Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ for Bill Kenwright, starring Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Timothy.

Chris Naylor: The acting business has changed a lot since I started 16 years ago – in those days when I got an audition, my agent would tell me about who was directing it and what they’d done, but it wasn’t as easy to research people – I’m not sure Google existed in 1998. But when you meet an actor for an audition now, what do you expect of them?

Joe Harmston: Well, not a lot, actually. I think the most I expect of them is that they have read the play, understood it and have some sense of who I am – not in a terribly grand way, but occasionally you have a meeting and an actor will say to you, ‘sorry, who are you, what have you done?’ and that’s not really the best way to make friends and influence people. But personally I’m not interested in a great deal of preparation on the part of the actor, because what I want to do is see if I like them as a person.

CN: So you see it as a microcosm of the rehearsal room?

JH: Yeah, I’m trying to find a group of people who I think are going to get on well in rehearsal, and therefore be creative together. So I guess what I’m looking for is people who are going to ask themselves the right sort of questions about the play and are going to be engaged and interested. For example, I don’t want people to come into an audition having decided on a performance.

CN: So, off-book, for example – you’d never want that?

JH: I’m impressed by it but it doesn’t make any difference to me. Sometimes people come in off-book, but actually they’re not really off-book –

CN: – and then they throw themselves.

JH: I mean, I’m working on the basis that actors can learn lines – that’s not always right, of course – but essentially that’s not a skill I expect an actor to feel they need to prove to me. What I do want them to prove is that they can have ideas about the play and the part, and that they can also respond to my ideas. So even if somebody comes and does something beautifully, I will always say, ‘Well that’s lovely – let’s try that again, but perhaps we could do this’, even if the things I’m suggesting are not things I actually would suggest. Sometimes you ask them to do something slightly different, and they do exactly the same and you think, ‘Oh, I see, that’s all I’m ever going to get from them.’

CN: Are you surprised by that lack of flexibility?

JH: Yes, endlessly. I’m also endlessly surprised – especially with young actors – with how voluble they can be about the play and the performance, and then be unspeakably awful. So sometimes you spend five minutes having a chat beforehand and you think, ‘Wow! You’re going to be stunning!’ and then they do it and you think, ‘Did you just get up and leave the room and somebody else came and took your place?’

CN: So they can talk the talk?

JH: Yeah.

Guy-sitting-solo1-grey-350

CN: I can remember meeting Guy Retallack for my first ever theatre job. It was ‘Dangerous Corner’ at the Watermill, and I had a brilliant time – and I was talking to the actor who had sat in at the audition who told me that one of the reasons I got it was that Guy had asked me to make a particular choice about the character, and I said, ‘No, I think that’s the sort of thing I would leave for the rehearsal room’! For some reason that made him think, ‘This person is interesting’! Would you have cast me?

JH: I would have done as well, yeah, I would be interested in somebody who’s showing that they had ideas. I don’t want an actor who’s just going to do what I tell them to do. I think good directing is knowing what are the right questions to ask, and you‘re stupid if you think you’ve got all the answers.

rehearsals_5

CN: I imagine one of the key things about directing is that you need to be able to adjust your method to each particular actor?

JH: I always think that at the beginning in the rehearsal room, you’ve got 12 people who all speak different languages, and your job is to speak to them in their own language. The process of rehearsal is about creating a shared language so that at the end you’ve got everybody speaking the same language. The first part is always very difficult because you’re speaking Russian and German and Flemish, and sometimes you forget which language you need to speak to someone in.
I remember doing a play where one of the actors I’d worked with a lot – we’d known each other for a decade – and I gave him a really brutal note, it was something like, ‘Don’t do it like that, Simon – your character’s supposed to be dull and ineffectual, not dead, you stupid c***’. And Simon just went, ‘Oh yeah, sorry, sorry’, but everybody else looked at me in absolute horror. That was absolutely the language that I needed to speak to Simon in at that moment because of all of our shared history, but it was sort of inappropriate that I allowed other people to hear it. Actually by the end of it, I could speak to everybody like that, but at that stage there were many other people where I needed to be saying, ‘Darling, I love what you’re doing, that’s a terrific idea – I tell you what, let’s just try something completely different,’ which actually means, ‘Please don’t ever do that again.’

 

actortarget

CN: I can remember when we worked together there was an actress who was cleaving very closely to a method at the time…

 

JH: Yes, it was that book by Declan Donellan. It was so fascinating because when she began, instinctively she was just perfect for the part, but then it started getting odder and odder and odder and more disjointed, and we all realised she had this notebook. The method that she was slavishly adhering to was more and more of a block, because it became not about instinctively responding to the actors in the room with her, but about doing this thing – I mean, it was very odd…

CN: Particularly for a very light text like ‘Hay Fever’.

JH: Yes. I seem to recall we actually got her to burn her notebook – we had a sacrificial burning of it. It wasn’t that actually the work wasn’t useful, but it was all just about that, rather than what else was happening. She couldn’t be in the moment.

mamet

CN: I can remember when I was at LAMDA, David Mamet’s ‘True and False’ came out and we all just loved it and devoured it; it became the new Bible for us, for a while anyway.

JH: I think the good thing about ‘True and False’ though was that it was less prescriptive.

CN: It was anti-prescriptive.

JH: Yes, and it was very much an overview and an approach, where as so many of the books like Declan’s are about, you know, on page 26 there is the exercise you do, and you know, any text you can treat like this – and you think, ‘Ooh, no no no.’ But you’re right, the Mamet – suddenly there was a real vogue for it. I remember Bill Nighy giving it to me and saying, ‘Have you read this? You’ve got to read it’. Everybody was on about it.

CN: Do you find that sort of things crops up mostly with young actors?

JH: Yes, but sometimes it’s older actors who have that panic of the mid-career, suddenly thinking ‘I’ve found this book which is the great thing I must do – this is why things haven’t been happening, because I haven’t been doing this!’

Coming in part two: Joe talks Pinter, Doran and Jacobi