Tag Archives: royal shakespeare company

The Comeback Kids – # 2: David Whitworth

David Whitworth

David Whitworth and I acted together in ‘Mary Goes First’ at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2008. After 20 years as an actor, David and his wife, the director Jane Glassey, took over the running of the Richmond Drama School from 1987 to 2007. He then returned to acting and has worked extensively since, in productions such as ‘London Assurance’ at the National Theatre, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Regent’s Park and ‘The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Chris Naylor How did you end up moving from acting to running a drama school?

David Whitworth There was a sort of gradual process, I guess. I was just a jobbing actor for 20 years, but I’d always done a lot of teaching to exist as an actor.

CN Where did you train?

DW I didn’t train, I just went to university and did plays, and then got a job as an acting ASM at Leicester. So I went through the repertory system and spent about 3 years working in different towns – Leicester, Bolton, Harrogate. When I got back to London, we’d got our first mortgage and so suddenly there was this responsibility of actually paying 30 quid a month.

CN You’d got married…

DW I was married when I was a student.

CN So you went into the career knowing that you were part of team.

DW Yes. Jane did the proper thing and trained as an actress, and I did the improper thing and went to university, and I became the actor and she became a director. We went to Leicester, and Jane got pregnant, and then I got Pitlochry

pitlochry festival theatre

– our first child was born – I was going to say on a croft, but we were living in a croft. He was born in Perth hospital.

CN Did you feel any pressure – now you suddenly have a very important person in your life to support, in what was even then a very precarious profession?

DW When you’re that age, I think you just cope with whatever comes at you. Once we’d got a mortgage I sometimes used to wake up thinking, ‘How am I going to pay this every month?’, but I’m very glad I took the advice of my tutor at university, Dr Worth. I remember she said, ‘You must stay and get your degree, because that will help you to be an actor’. In those days, if you’d got a proper honours degree you could be a teacher. So I did years of supply teaching.

CN In regular schools?

DW Anywhere really, but I was lucky enough to make a very good relationship with a school, and any time I was out of work, they always took me back as a floating teacher. So I would cover for anybody who was away, teaching everything. In fact, at one point they offered me Head of English, which would have absolutely changed my life, because I had just been doing bits of teaching when necessary and acting whenever I could. And I did agonise for about 10 hours.

CN It’s an interesting dilemma. It does happen doesn’t it, when they say, ‘Stay on’, and you think, ‘Well, I could get benefits, I could get security – ‘

DW A pension…

CN But you said no to that.

DW Well, that was in the early 70s. I’d only been acting for about 5 or 6 years, and I just didn’t feel I’d done enough, I was still burning up with ambition. I did about 20 years of anything else I could to earn money. I used to mark ‘O’ Level papers – these kids whose parents had paid a fortune for their education, and there was I, sitting in the dressing room at Bath Theatre Royal marking their ‘O’ Levels. But we needed the money – it think it was something like 10 shillings a script, so you’d make a few hundred quid at Christmas, which was…

CN Not to be sniffed at.

DW It wasn’t to be sniffed at. Supply teaching was so much better paid than acting – I mean, you’re hard pressed to find anything as badly paid as acting – but it did enable me to be an actor.

CN So you got to the point where your mortgage was pressing on you?

DW It was the children – we had 3 you see, and by the time our youngest was about 9 or 10, the others were coming up to university age. Children going to university, they’re going to cost you money.

macbeth new shakespeare company
I’d been working from London and doing tours occasionally. My main employer was the New Shakespeare Company, Regent’s Park, I did an awful lot of work with them.

There was a period of my life when I was very involved – because when I was working for them once, David Conville, who used to run it, came into the dressing room and said, ‘I don’t know what to make of this, there’s a man at Lloyds Bank and he wants to give us some money, but he wants education work. You know about that sort of thing – go away and draw up some plans.’ So I started writing workshops for a group of actors within the company – interactive workshops with students, but entertainments in themselves. I wrote a script which included great chunks of the Shakespeare which we were doing, illustrating themes, and this was the idea I sold to Lloyds Bank.

david conville new shakespeare company

I spent years doing this all over the place when the company was on tour. The very first one was ‘Julius Caesar’, and we did it in different theatres, packed with students: I got half of them supporting Brutus and half supporting Anthony. They were a huge success, and Lloyds Bank started just throwing money at us, because they thought, ‘We could develop this, you could do educational videos’. The Inner London Education Authority had their own television studio in a converted school in Battersea, and so they linked us up with them, and I spent the next 2 or 3 years writing and directing videos – distilled theatre workshops, on the Roman plays, the Tragedies, the Comedies. As we went on, they started entering these for festivals, and we won some gold gong at the Chicago Film Festival, so Lloyds Bank thought, ‘That’s even better, we’ll give you some more money – you can try and get other actors in’.

Renee Ashersonjohn nettles

I got Renee Asherson playing Volumnia, and John Nettles playing Coriolanus. So this was wonderful – it would take up a great chunk of my year, writing and planning and usually working in the summer for the Shakespeare company.
Then the new guy came in and said, ‘No, we don’t want to spend money on theatre, we want to spend it on music’. And suddenly, this regular second career which kept the acting going and was very good to do, it all stopped.

richmond drama school
CN How did you end up running Richmond Drama School?

DW I had been working for Sam [Walters] at the Orange Tree Theatre, and he was trying to run this drama school across the road, the De Leon drama school, to see if he could make it work. But he didn’t really have time, so he got Jane and I involved – Jane as the acting teacher and me directing plays, and I gradually got more involved. We loved doing it.

CN Was your attitude that you were preparing people for the profession?

DW We ran it as a professional training course, because we thought some of the really good ones could make a go at of it.

Tom-Hardy
Tom Hardy went on to huge fame and success – he was great for me and Jane, we got on really well.

CN Could you tell he had a target in mind?

DW I don’t know whether he had a target, but he had a huge talent. I remember him standing up in the first week and doing the first exercise, and he was shaking with apprehension… He has got a kind of magnetism, charisma, especially on film.

CN What sort of ages would you take?

DW All ages. I had an actor who was very good, worked in business – a very cultivated, interesting man, but he’d always wanted to be an actor. He was the oldest I ever had, he was 60-something, and he went on and had a bit of a career. I saw him in some good plays on the fringe; he was doing what he wanted to do all his life.

CN When you weren’t acting yourself, were you able to get satisfaction from bringing it out of other people?

DW I found I loved teaching, I loved working on texts with students and introducing them to Shakespeare. One South London boy – who is now a film actor and writer, doing really well – I remember him shaking my hand and saying, ‘I never did any of this at school – what an eye-opener to have this world of Shakespeare opened up, thank you’. When we look back and think, ‘What were we doing all that time?’ you think, ‘Well, it if we hadn’t, those people wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now’.

CN When you went into it, were you thinking, ‘At some point I’m going to go back?’

DW Well, I thought I’d just do it for 2 or 3 years. I naively thought I could combine acting and this job. But that’s very difficult; I mean, teaching is a huge commitment.

CN I imagine you started to think, ‘Well, I’m here now, there’s another term coming up…’

DW Yes, it creeps up on you, but I always thought, ‘There’ll come a time when I’ll be able to go back,’ because acting is like that.

CW It’s very seductive, isn’t it?

DN There isn’t a career path, is there? People do come in and out of the business.

CN At what point did you think, ‘Right, I’ve had enough, I want to act again’?

DW There was a combination of circumstances – they were gradually getting rid of things that were not going to bring the college money, all the creative stuff was disappearing. Music, art and drama were being squeezed because there was always pressure on us to take more and more students and charge higher and higher fees.

CN So you were becoming more frustrated?

DW Yeah, I became more and more disenchanted – not with the job I was doing, but with the place. Every few years in these institutions, they restructure and you have to apply for your job again, and Jane was forced out, her job disappeared, so my ally had gone. Jane had been the heart of the drama school really, so I knew the students weren’t getting the same good basic acting training. I staggered on for another two or three years; in the end, I sort of forced them to make me redundant, so that gave me the statutory redundancy payment, which was enough money for me to have breathing space. I immediately had some photographs taken, wrote to everybody I could think of and tried to get an agent.

CN So, in a way, you were starting from scratch. Was that daunting?

Timothy Sheader by  David Jensen

DW Yeah it was, but my attitude was, everything’s a bonus, even if it’s just a little bit in a TV series. What I really wanted to do was plays, but I wasn’t sure how. I wrote to people I knew, like Tim Sheader and Sam, and both of them came up with jobs. And once I got going, it was easier to get an agent. I thought I would just get the odd days’ work here and there – I was absolutely amazed that I earned more money than in the previous year teaching. That was just my first year back.

CN A wonderful year, to welcome you back.

DW It was, and that’s because of calling in favours.

CN It must have been very strange – returning after such a long time. Did you notice a difference in yourself?

DW A big difference. I’m much more confident now than when I was young, because I haven’t got so much riding on it, and although it’s hurtful not to get work, as it always was, it doesn’t bother me in the same way.

CN How do you think the business has changed?

DW Well, the most marked thing is all this unpaid or very low–paid work. When I started as an actor, you weren’t paid a lot, but you were paid. And you didn’t work if you weren’t paid. Now there’s been this explosion in fringe theatre work; I think, should we be doing any of this? But these young people trying to start acting, they won’t get any experience if they don’t do that, unless they’re lucky enough to get into the RSC or something. There aren’t any theatres where you can go for 6 months, doing play after play.

CN Do you think your priorities in life have changed?

DW Oh yeah, I’m sure they have. I’m still very keen to do it, I mean it’s so exciting to get a job isn’t it? When they phone up and say yes, they want you.

CN I find there are enough wonderful points of delight and joy amongst the terror or the grind to pull you through.

DW Especially in theatre. My experience of going back has been mostly theatre. I’ve done one advert in Romania, and those are ridiculous jobs, aren’t they? They fly you out, put you in an expensive hotel, you go to some studio and you do a day’s work, and then you come home again and it’s several thousand pounds. Those are silly jobs.

CN That’s one of the many wonderful things about this profession, that it will take you somewhere you never expected to go.

DW It’s a treat really, a little holiday.

CN Would you say that’s how you viewed your return? Because I suppose you didn’t have to come back to acting, did you?

DW No, I had a pension, and then very soon I had my old age pension.

CN Which must help in terms of taking jobs.

DW Yeah, it really does. I couldn’t have done most of the work that I’ve done without that. If I was still having to pay a mortgage, it wouldn’t be enough money.

CN Do you think it benefits an actor to take some time out?

DW Well, it might make you a better actor, but I don’t think it helps you get more work, because I’m up against people who are my age but didn’t take that break, and are much better known. So I’m very much an unknown quantity.

CN There’s this big debate flying around about middle-class acting – I think it’s a fairly middle class profession anyway, and probably hasn’t ever really been open to everybody.

DW I was working-class, I didn’t have any sort of connections to theatre at all, hardly ever been to the theatre.

CN Did you have a teacher that inspired you?

cosy nook theatre ian grundy

DW When I was at Newquay grammar school, a teacher got me involved in the school play in the first year or second year, ‘The Miser’ by Moliere. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ But as a child I’d been in ‘Peter Pan’ at the Cosy Nook Theatre in Newquay, so I trod the boards very young. I did know quite early on that that’s what I wanted to do.

CN It’s terribly exciting isn’t it? It’s like a little secret, thinking, ‘Wow, I could do this’.

DW I remember my Uncle John – we were talking about what I might do with my life; I said, ‘I might be a barrister or something like that’. He said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, you wouldn’t be any good. But you might be an actor’. I can remember where we were walking when he said that – and I thought, ‘Yes of course, that is what I want to do’. And I just seized every opportunity I could – my three years at university were spent doing plays, and doing a bit of Beowulf on the side.

CN It’s a very good use of three years, isn’t it?

DW I think those years are important for any young person to find out what you want to do. Most people in life don’t find what they really want, and end up compromising and being generally unhappy. You can be unhappy as an actor, for different reasons, but when you’re working it can be fantastic. I mean that job I’ve just done in Sweden, it was the best thing.

The Woman in Black  David Whitworth Gary Whitaker

CN ‘The Woman in Black’! What a job, what a play.

DW I just absolutely loved it. To play that part, or those parts, it’s wonderful. I felt quite bereft when it all came to an end. I loved being in Stockholm, but what I carry with me will be doing the play, and the effect it had on the audience. It’s just a fantastic piece of theatre.

CN I always felt like it was pure theatre in many ways; it was almost like a lesson in acting, and a lesson in how to be an audience.

DW How to use your imagination. Because there’s nothing there, a few props.

CN When I’d got the part, I went to see the play – I’d started to read it, I’d started to learn it – I knew what was coming, and it still terrified me completely.

DW I’d much rather be in it than watch it, because it’s too frightening.

CN Absolutely. There was a point when I was covering my ears thinking, ‘Please let this stop, because I don’t think I can cope’.

DW When the door opens…

CN Oh God! So wonderful, I loved doing that show.

DW it’s almost spoilt me for anything else, I enjoyed it so much.

CN Thank you David.

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EXODUS! Movement of the thespians… (or Why Actors Should Leave London)

exodus!

London. Wonderful place, greatest city on Earth. When you’re tired of it, etcetera etcetera.

I grew up a half-hour train journey outside London, and spent all of my youth dreaming of the day I could finally leave the provinces behind and arrive in the Big Smoke to make my fortune. My school made frequent trips to the National Theatre and to see the RSC at the Barbican, and my dreams were filled with thoughts of moving to London to study at drama school.

LAMDA at tower house

Happily enough, this came to pass – the Three-Year Acting course at LAMDA, from 1995 to 1998. A wonderful, inspiring time, surrounded by amazing actors who became amazing friends, spending our days immersed in the one thing we all wanted desperately to do. We used to rehearse in Chiswick, so naturally I rented a flat there – or, to be specific, a knackered bedsit. In fact, most of us ended up renting flats or rooms in West London as we trained. It seemed sensible enough – in those days, LAMDA was based in Earls Court and there was no sense in straying too far. Gradually though, as we left training and money started to be more of an issue, people started to flee to the less-expensive parts, or leave London altogether – although this often seemed to coincide with them also leaving the profession.

And there’s the rub. It has always been an accepted fact of the industry that if you want to be a working actor, you have to live in London. After all, that’s where the work is, isn’t it? All the top drama schools are there, all the best agents; it’s where all the important auditions are held, and where you’ll find the headshot photographers, the show reel and voice reel studios, Equity, Spotlight, the Actor’s Centre – Theatreland itself. How can you even contemplate being an actor if you don’t live in London?

But let’s look at some rather scary figures. According to an Equity survey from 2013 quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 56% of its members earned less than £10,000 in 2012/13. Anything less than £13,000 a year is deemed to be below the poverty line. To rent a flat in London (let’s not even bother talking about buying a house in the capital) you will be paying an average of £1,160 per month (September 2014 figures).

For many of us, something has to give, and that something is usually acting. After a few years of trying to establish yourself, the financial burden becomes too great, so you pack up and leave London, knowing that probably means leaving the profession too. It’s hard to justify persevering with such a precarious career when you see your bank balance emptying, especially as the years go by, and you become conscious that this might be your last chance to make a career change. Hard too if you have a family, or want one.

Priyanga Burford 2 by Michael Shelford

I spoke to actress Priyanga Burford recently about this: ‘I think it’s a ridiculous demand to make of people to be living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on the off-chance that they might get some work,’ she told me. Pri and her husband Tom have two children, and made the decision to leave the capital: ‘We couldn’t afford anywhere in London that was big enough or nice enough to have the family life that we really wanted. You just have to make tough choices.’

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, told me: ‘I think there is a lot of burn off. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London.’

The Stage recently quoted Justine Simons, head of culture for the Greater London Authority on this issue: “London is now the biggest it’s been… and that has put a real pressure on housing. We all know how expensive it is. It means we are facing a crisis… which is compounded by low wages.”
She added: “We don’t want a city where there are no artists or creative people, but left to its own devices, London has a habit of extinguishing creativity.”

london is changing

We thesps are not alone, of course. Across the professions, there is an exodus from London as people battle the curse of gentrification, and the rising rents and cost of living that follow it – see the London Is Changing project, set up by Rebecca Ross, MA communication design course leader at Central St Martins art school.

But if leaving London means stopping acting, who is left behind?

The media has recently become preoccupied with the apparent rise in middle- and upper- class actors, something I have written about before, and the suggestion seems to be that there are simply too many posh people being accepted to drama schools. These stories, and the subsequent eagerness of various drama school principals to parade their working class students, seem to me to be missing the point. Getting through drama school is one thing – there are student loans, part-time jobs and willing parents to help.

The real problem comes after graduation, when all those students are propelled into a harsh profession. It’s fine if you immediately get work – provided it’s well-paid, and provided it’s followed by more. Even better, of course, if you already have money behind you – and this is where the ‘class’ issue comes in. Who can afford to live from day-to-day in London, waiting for the phone to ring, unless they either have one of those elusive super-flexible day-jobs, or they are somehow liberated from the pressing worries of finding the rent and the council tax? It seems that increasingly it is only those with parents willing to subsidise them who can afford to sustain a career based in the capital.

So are we really seeing a trend emerging in which the business comes to be dominated by people from wealthy families? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy and diverse artistic community to me. What about a vibrant industry, made up of people from different backgrounds, with different influences?

Some will no doubt argue that this is natural selection at work, and that those who can’t afford to be actors deserve to drop out. I mean, you chose the job, didn’t you? You know the score – if you were any good, you would be getting the work, wouldn’t you?

Let’s say you’re one of those drama school graduates who works a fair amount, but can’t stomach the cost of living in London any more. Like so many before you, you decide to pack up and leave.
But what if you don’t want to stop acting? What is it like to live outside the capital and still pursue an acting career?

sushil chudasama

I studied at LAMDA alongside Sushil Chudasama, who moved to Manchester to work (near his home town of Blackburn) shortly after we graduated. His experience is very informative, both in his frustration with the pressures of living and working in the capital, but also as a great lesson that it is possible to break away from London and still have a thriving career.

Chris Naylor How long after LAMDA did you decide to leave London?

Sushil Chudasama It was the first year after drama school, 1999. I got three jobs in a row all in Manchester, and all near to where I am originally from in Lancashire. I was not planning to leave so quickly, but as I was paying rent for a room where I hardly was, I thought it made financial sense to leave. I was planning to come back at some point but the opportunity never arose.

CN Did you have any doubts yourself about moving?

SC At that time I was excited about working as an actor – if I needed to move back to London then I would, and probably easily could. Other friends however did express that it could be detrimental to my career if I moved back ‘Up North’, but I was just thinking short term at that time.

CN Do you find the majority of your meetings are still in London?

SC With the BBC now in Manchester, I find I audition equally up North and in London. I am probably in London once or twice a month and have 2/3 auditions a month outside of London the rest of the month.

CN What effect do you think it has had on your career – for example, have you turned down auditions in London because of travel? Or have you missed out on work because you’re not London-based?

Four_Lions_poster

SC The only time it has really been an issue was when I was auditioning for ‘Four Lions’ by Chris Morris. I’d already had 5 auditions for the film and I’d had to travel to London for each one of them. I even met Chris Morris for the last of these, and filmed a couple of improvisations with him. I was equally delighted as annoyed that they wanted to see me yet again; I had already paid out about £300 in travel fees for this one job, so I asked my agent if she could ask the production company to reimburse my travel, which I thought was a reasonable request – normally if you get a recall you get your travel covered, but I’d had none of my travel reimbursed at this point. To my disgust they decided they didn’t want to see me either way – not just a no to the money, but they didn’t want to see me at all now – probably because I’d asked for my costs to be covered! That was the one time I felt discriminated against as a non-London-based actor.

CN Is there a good actors’ network in Manchester?

SC There is an amazingly supportive network in Manchester. Everyone is always posting about jobs and events on social media, and I even started a network on Facebook called mAnCTORS, which started out just for Manchester actors, but now anyone in the industry can join. The scene is very different to London. When I was in London, I found people were very cagey about what they were being seen for and what they were doing next, which I didn’t really warm to or agree with. There seemed to be a very individualistic attitude from people in London and in their attitude towards others. I find people have less time for each other, and that really turns me off. Up in Manchester, everyone is always trying to get their mates involved and putting each other up for jobs, and genuinely wants everyone else to be working. I think we have more of a social attitude towards work, and I definitely prefer that model than the London one I know. We really do believe we’re all in it together and we try and keep each other struggling together too.

CN Have you ever considered moving back?

sushil as scooter

SC With average rent hitting £1500pcm now, that option has been taken away. Even when I was on Corrie that rent would have been a stretch, so now I don’t think I will be back. When I am in London I look around and think to myself, “How are you all living here, and what have you had to give up to live in these conditions?” I absolutely love visiting London but it drains me of my humanity for others, and my money seems to fly out of my pockets quicker than I can earn it. It’s a shame, as I would consider moving back one day, but what would I have to give up in order to live that lifestyle? At the moment there is nothing that would drag me back to that. The arts scene is unrivalled there, I know, and I love that something is always going on, but I don’t think I need to be there to work, and most importantly, be content.

CN Thanks Sushil.

Let us try and develop some real respect for acting and actors. We need to tell our agents, casting directors, directors and the rest of the profession that if we choose to leave London, and thereby actually achieve a decent quality of life (a garden perhaps, a room for our child to sleep in, some fresh air) we don’t expect this to signal a change in their attitudes towards us.

Most importantly, the industry should be prepared to support us – it profits from actors, and relies on having a steady supply of talent, so it ought to do something concrete to prevent a large proportion of that talent disappearing. On a practical level, this might include things such as arranging auditions for later in the day when it is cheaper to travel into London, or expanding the practice of auditions via Skype – then everyone can stay at home and nobody has to pay for train tickets or room hire.

And for those occasions when we must travel long distances to audition, how about paying expenses? Sushil’s experience of travelling to audition for ‘Four Lions’ is a glaring example of the financial burden this can place on actors. I’ve made journeys up to York and Liverpool for meetings – I even once endured two hellish National Express trips in one day from London to Manchester to audition for a rehearsed reading – my journey home was accompanied by the sound of the man behind me vomiting into a plastic bag. Not a penny of my expenses from those trips was reimbursed.

How about more auditions outside London? In particular, let’s encourage those companies that receive a lot of public funding to be truly National, and hold auditions at different regional centres around the UK – casting days in Manchester, Glasgow or Plymouth, for example.

Perhaps this is all a fantasy. But why should acting be just a London profession for rich kids? Why should we just accept that London’s dominance as the centre of the acting industry can never be challenged, and that if you really want to be an actor, you have to live here and take the financial hit?

Actors should leave London, if they want. We shouldn’t have to put up with living beyond our means, probably in less-than-desirable accommodation, or if we do leave London, be forced to shell out to travel back in for auditions all the time. We should be able to find a better quality of life, and still pursue the job we love.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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.