Tag Archives: oresteia

The History Boys and Girls

Your humble author and Philippa Waller in Stephen Jeffrey's 'Hard Times' at the Watermill Theatre, 2000. Dir. Guy Retallack

Your humble author and Philippa Waller in Stephen Jeffrey’s ‘Hard Times’ at the Watermill Theatre, 2000. Dir. Guy Retallack

Ah, ‘Hard Times’! What a show that was. Watermill Theatre, year 2000, Guy Retallack directing, wonderful cast. If only I could go back and do it again. But that’s one of the tragedies of a stage actor’s life. Theatre is a transient, fleeting thing. No matter how wonderful your performance might have been, no matter how successful the production, as soon as the curtain falls on the last night, it is nothing but a memory. There is no way to recapture the feelings you had, or the magic spell the show cast over its audience. John Gielgud used to bemoan the fact that he couldn’t revisit his old performances, or, as he put it, (to be read in the great man’s voice) ‘Awake in the night and admire it as it sat on the mantelpiece’.

These days, of course, many theatre performances are professionally filmed, and these screenings are a great way for people to see shows they might otherwise miss. But they never really capture the thrill of being in the same room as the actors – that intangible frisson that happens when the lights go down. Theatre is a true shared experience – the audience has as much influence on how the show goes as the director does; it is implicated.

There is no real way of bottling this particular genie, but I think some of the magic of a stage performance is best presented in a still image. It’s a far more subtle way of spying on a show, sneaking a peek at the actors at work. A great theatre photograph can convey so much about a production.

And there is a noble and fascinating history to the art. Lord Snowdon’s wonderful theatre images, for example, are an essential addition to the shelves of anyone interested in British theatre.

I recently stumbled across a wonderful book called ‘Theatre Year’, one of a series of books published in the late 70s and early 80s, which featured the work of a master of the art of theatre photography, Donald Cooper.

Theatre Year 1983

Along with fascinating overviews of the year’s work by the supremely knowledgeable critic Michael Coveney, they documented the notable productions of a particular year, in this case, 1981-82, and are hugely evocative of their time. There are some wonderful images here, which make me nostalgic for a time before I was regularly attending the theatre. There is a slightly cautionary aspect – many of the photographs come from shows I have never even heard about, and are filled with actors whose names I don’t recognise. In another 30 years’ time, if my photograph appears in such a compendium, will anyone know who I was?

Here is a brief selection of some of the most interesting shots from ‘Theatre Year’ – all are copyright of the photographer Donald Cooper, and I include them purely for reference. A far more extensive selection of his extraordinary images can be found at www.photostage.co.uk.

A wonderful cast for the first production of Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ at the Royal Court:

Lindsay Duncan, Gwen Taylor and Selina Cadell in Caryl Churchill's 'Top Girls' at the Royal Court. Dir. Max Stafford-Clark. © Donald Cooper

Lindsay Duncan, Gwen Taylor and Selina Cadell in Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ at the Royal Court. Dir. Max Stafford-Clark. © Donald Cooper

‘Oi For England’ at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, by Trevor Griffiths – part of the Young People’s Play Scheme. The play was also filmed. A young Paul McGann can be seen at the left:

Paul McGann, Dorian Healy, Robin Hayter and Peter Lovstrom in 'Oi For England' by Trevor Griffiths, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Dir. Antonia Bird. © Donald Cooper

Paul McGann, Dorian Healy, Robin Hayter and Peter Lovstrom in ‘Oi For England’ by Trevor Griffiths, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Dir. Antonia Bird. © Donald Cooper

A future James Bond as Hotspur, in Trevor Nunn’s production of ‘Henry IV part 1’ for the RSC at the Barbican. Hal is played by the amazing (and sadly missed) Gerard Murphy:

Gerard Murphy and Timothy Dalton in 'Henry IV part 1' at the Barbican/RSC. Dir. Trevor Nunn. © Donald Cooper

Gerard Murphy and Timothy Dalton in ‘Henry IV part 1’ at the Barbican/RSC. Dir. Trevor Nunn. © Donald Cooper

The first production of Julian Mitchell’s ‘Another Country’ at the Queen’s Theatre brought us the West End debuts of two remarkable actors:

Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh in 'Another Country' by Julian Mitchell at the Queen's Theatre. Dir. Stuart Burge. © Donald Cooper

Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh in ‘Another Country’ by Julian Mitchell at the Queen’s Theatre. Dir. Stuart Burge. © Donald Cooper

– and here’s a wonderful bit of archive footage from Newsnight, with Joan Bakewell interviewing  Mitchell and his two leads:

Peter Hall’s epic ‘Oresteia’ at the National:

Peter Hall's production of 'The Oresteia' by Aeschylus at the Olivier, National Theatre. © Donald Cooper

Peter Hall’s production of ‘The Oresteia’ by Aeschylus at the Olivier, National Theatre. © Donald Cooper

‘Boogie!’, or to give it its full title, ‘Boogie Woogie Bubble ‘N’ Squeak!’ – a pastiche musical about girl vocal trios – starred Sarah McNair, who later became one of London’s top literary agents:

'Boogie Woogie Bubble 'N' Squeak' devised and performed by Sarah McNair, Michele Maxwell and Leonie Hofmeyr at the Mayfair Theatre. Dir. Stuart Hopps. © Donald Cooper

‘Boogie Woogie Bubble ‘N’ Squeak’ devised and performed by Sarah McNair, Michele Maxwell and Leonie Hofmeyr at the Mayfair Theatre. Dir. Stuart Hopps. © Donald Cooper

This must have been extraordinary – Paul Scofield as Don Quixote, with the wonderful Tony Haygarth as his Sancho Panza:

Paul Scofield and Tony Haygarth in 'Don Quixote de la Mancha' at the Oliver, National Theatre. Dir. Bill Bryden. © Donald Cooper

Paul Scofield and Tony Haygarth in ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’ at the Oliver, National Theatre. Dir. Bill Bryden. © Donald Cooper

Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon together in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ for the RSC – can you imagine! I saw Ms Mirren return to the part at the National Theatre 15 years later, with Alan Rickman as her Antony. An extraordinary actress:

Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren in 'Antony and Cleopatra' at The Other Place/RSC. Dir. Adrian Noble. © Donald Cooper

Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at The Other Place/RSC. Dir. Adrian Noble. © Donald Cooper

Finally, Robert David Macdonald’s play ‘Summit Conference’ imagines Hitler and Mussolini’s respective lovers, Eva Braun and Clara Petacci, meeting and clashing in Berlin. What an impressive line-up here – and a reminder of the magnetism of Glenda Jackson:

Gary Oldman, Georgina Hale and Glenda Jackson in 'Summit Conference' at the Lyric Theatre. Dir. Philip Prowse. © Donald Cooper

Gary Oldman, Georgina Hale and Glenda Jackson in ‘Summit Conference’ at the Lyric Theatre. Dir. Philip Prowse. © Donald Cooper

These wonderful books can still be found out there, and I’d encourage you to seek them out – they are surprisingly inspiring. Wouldn’t it be good if we could revive the concept?

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Dressing up as Dracula

 

Dracula-christopher-lee

Dracula has died? Impossible.

Christopher Lee is immortal! His incarnation of Bram Stoker’s vampire will stay with us for as long as cinema exists. As Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph put it, ‘He was the shadow at the top of the stairs, the smiling predator beckoning you in, the flash of silver in the dark.’

The image of Lee as Count Dracula had a deep effect on me as a boy, and played a big part in teaching me how important dressing up could be to the fledgling actor.

Self as Dracula c 1982

Hallowe’en was always a great excuse for me to get the cape and teeth out (please note the high quality top hat). But generally speaking I didn’t need a reason. To start with, Saturday nights were the best dressing-up time, and specifically at about 6.10pm – or in other words, just after Doctor Who had ended. Out would come my long scarf (brown, tasselled) and into the wardrobe (or TARDIS) I would clamber, ready to emerge, transformed into a toothy Time Lord. Here you see me as a Dalek, for our 1977 Silver Jubilee street party. Yes, I am that old…

Self as Dalek c 1977

The King of the Vampires came later, and I arrived at my Christopher Lee obsession after first dabbling in a bit of Bela Lugosi. By the time I was 12, I had become determined to see all the Hammer Draculas, a complicated task in the early 80s. In those far-off days, video tapes were mostly available to rent and weren’t yet widely available to buy in the shops, certainly not Sixties and Seventies vampire films anyway, so I had to scour the TV listings and set my video recorder. Gradually my imagination (and my walls) filled up with a gallery of gruesome pictures from films such as ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’ and ‘Dracula, AD 1972’.

dracula has risen from the gravedraculaad1972

There was a definite connection between my absorption of all those wonderful, evocative images of Christopher Lee striding about in Gothic surroundings, and my growing interest in acting. I would seek out the most realistic fangs, the most convincing fake blood, the most suitably Draculine cloak, determined to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to feel what it was like to be Dracula. To feel my cloak flowing around me, to know what it was like to reveal my fangs. I wanted to inhabit a different personality.

And this, of course, is one of the great thrills of being an actor – dressing up as someone else. It is often sneered at as being too superficial a route into a character, as though it is somehow not as legitimate as a ‘Method’-based exploration, and while there’s a lot more to acting than simply putting on the right hat, I think ‘dressing up’ is a far more direct way to achieve a transformation.

I’m sure we have all felt that frisson of delight when standing in front of the mirror the first time we try on a new costume – seeing ourselves looking utterly different. If there’s a wig or a moustache involved, it can be even more startling. If you see yourself looking like someone else, it is easier to think yourself into a different mind-set. The old cliché of ‘starting with the shoes first’ carries a lot of truth, to me at least; it’s one of the reasons why I love technical rehearsals – you walk onto the set in your costume for the first time. I find that I stand and walk differently; I stop feeling like myself.

oresteia nt programmechristian darley

This sort of surface-in transformation is as old as theatre itself, of course – just think of the masks of classical Greek theatre. Any of us who have worked with masks will know what an immediate change they can bring about, and what that can teach us about developing a character. I remember a class at LAMDA with our much-missed Movement Theatre tutor Christian Darley (the finest teacher I have ever had) where we had made our own very simple masks from pictures cut out of magazines. Christian encouraged us to study and contemplate our masks alone to start with, then, once we had put them on, to look at our new faces in the mirror, and allow our physicality to be gradually influenced by what we saw. I can recall one member of our group, an otherwise mild and non-confrontational fellow, seeming to change entirely into a red-faced, furiously angry and scary character – very unexpected and shocking for us, and quite a breakthrough for him to discover that he could affect an audience in that way.

It is very easy to feel limited by the way we look as actors; sometimes it takes a physical change to show us what sort of a transformation we are capable of. I think a costume can be like armour – it can give us courage.

ruby as bayonetta by Mikael Buck REX Shutterstockblitz kids

And we see this all over the place in other areas of life, not just on stage. How differently we feel about ourselves with some new clothes or a radical new haircut. Look at the sci-fi and comic book aficionados at Comic Con in their astonishingly detailed, often home-made costumes; their absolute otherness giving them the fearlessness to march across the London Underground. It makes me think of the drag world and of those club kids of the 80s, who used androgynous clothes and make-up to play around with identity and gender roles; even of the bizarre world of English folk customs, such as the various Green Men and ‘Obby Osses that cut a caper across the countryside, and which are usually played by members of the local community who otherwise lead relatively ‘normal’ lives. Look at the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival, for example:

Straw Bear, Whittlesea Straw Bear festival

– played here by a student called Christian. But when he is being led through the town in that odd, other-worldly costume, a transformation has taken place: no one sees Christian the local student, they see the Straw Bear. The Bear dances for food and drink, and the next day is burned, to make way for another Bear the following year. Very odd, very English – a Christian, wrapped in straw and set on fire… Rather like ‘The Wicker Man’, really – which brings us back to…

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 604703d ) 'The Wicker Man' - Christopher Lee 'The Wicker Man' film - 1973

 

Requiescat in pace ultima…