Tag Archives: west end

Close Encounters with the Third Age

pigeon fancier

Who has a job for life these days? That fondly-remembered (probably mythical) era when you’d start work in the factory at 17 – the same place your father worked, and his father before him – safe in the knowledge that you’d be clocking on until you were 65 and it was time to retire and give your days over to your racing pigeons or the rhubarb in your allotment… Those days have now gone. Nobody can really expect to stay in a job for very long. But at the same time, the ‘default retirement age’ as it is known, which had been set at 65 for decades, has been phased out, and UK workers are under pressure to work for longer.

They’re all getting a bit more like the humble actor. We theatricals must be more familiar than most with this sort of work landscape. Let’s face it, much of the time in our profession, as soon as we get a job we’re preparing for it to be over, eyes always on the horizon. Along with a flexible attitude to work comes a very loose approach to retirement. If you stay the course and battle through those difficult early years, chances are you’re in it for the long haul. Most of us are not waiting for the day we can throw in the towel – it’s far more likely that we are travelling hopefully, always waiting for the Big One and fully expecting to keep going until we finally peg out live on stage. Tommy Cooper, Sid James, Eric Morecambe; the profession is full of romanticised tales of seasoned pros breathing their last in front of a paying audience.

But as we know, the profession itself often has other ideas. Despite our ageing population, the acting world doesn’t seem all that interested in old people. In an industry that is passionately infatuated with Youth, is there a place for an actor over 50, 60 or 70?

sam and auriol

I spoke recently to directors Sam Walters and Auriol Smith, who founded the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and ran it for 43 years. Sam retired as Artistic Director of the theatre in 2014, and although both he and Auriol are still active in the profession, he was sounding rather ground down. ‘My desire to be involved in the theatre at all has diminished enormously recently,’ he said. Describing himself as ‘considerably less enthusiastic’ about the profession, he decried the theatre world’s obsession with youth: ’The New is concerned with the Young. And the tendency is always to denigrate the past.’

Auriol Smith has always acted as well as directing, and says she is ‘just as enthusiastic, but more cynical about the way theatre is heading.’ The contribution Auriol and Sam have made to the profession over the past four decades can’t really be overstated, and yet they clearly feel side-lined.

There is much talk these days of the ‘Third Age’, which is defined as the period of ‘active retirement’, post middle-age. I imagine most actors in their late 60s and 70s would take issue with the suggestion that they are in any sort of retirement at all, rather that they are trying to engage with work in the same way as ever – we all know the stories of John Gielgud changing agents at 96 in his determination to keep working. But if the work isn’t there, how can actors stay engaged?

A number of recently-established companies are trying to grapple with this issue. The Visible Theatre Ensemble, under artistic directors Sonja Linden and Sue Lefton, is one such endeavour. Their intention is to create ‘exciting contemporary theatre that both represents and transcends issues of older age. Our vision is a future where the contribution of older actors is honoured by British theatre.’

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE

Visible recently worked with playwright Sonja Linden and a cast of older actors to devise their very successful production, ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, which was presented at Southwark Playhouse in 2014, and they are currently running a season of workshops under the heading ‘Gravitas’, for professional actors over the age of 60, led by seasoned practitioners such as Mike Alfreds and Max Stafford-Clark.

Visible contend that ‘there is a lot of negativity about being older in our society, and this is heightened for actors, continuously in the public gaze. What is missing is the recognition of what is their most powerful resource – life experience.’

james roose evans

Another company set up specifically to create work for older actors is Frontier Theatre Productions, led by veteran director James Roose-Evans. James’s extraordinary career spans 60 years; among many other achievements, he was founder of Hampstead Theatre, and adapted and directed the original production of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ in the West End and on Broadway.

James told me that, while running a workshop in London with actors over 70, he’d had been struck by how open to exploration they were. ‘This set me thinking about what a huge bank of talented actors in their sixties upwards we have in this country, which is largely untapped.’

jake murray

James’s experience led to the establishment of Frontier with director Jake Murray, who was Associate Artistic Director at Manchester Royal Exchange from 2001 to 2007. ‘The Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives,’ says Jake. ‘In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and new insights. Now we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence a vast amount of people have been made invisible. We must give them a voice.’

mercy

James and Jake hope to achieve this both by reviving plays, but also finding new writing. Their latest production is ‘Mercy’ by Clare Whitehead, part of the So And So Arts Club’s EverHopefull Repertory season. ‘Since Frontier was launched, we have been getting scripts from New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, as well as from the UK,’ says James. ‘Clearly we have touched a nerve.’

James is also keen to involve younger actors in Frontier’s work, to give them the chance to learn alongside older actors. ‘Clearly older actors, if they have talent, have a greater experience of the craft of acting, which they can impart to younger actors.’

There are plenty of young actors out there, of course, but one of the industry’s main preoccupations has always been the need to attract young audiences. This in turn has fed a negative attitude towards older theatre-goers – the cliché of the ‘blue-rinse brigade’. During their time at the Orange Tree, Sam Walters and Auriol Smith built up a fiercely loyal – and very theatre-literate – audience. ‘Theatre-going is a habit,’ Ariol points out. Sam agrees: ‘It is something they have known and grown up with. For the older members of the Orange Tree audience, their theatre-going was an important and meaningful part of their lives. That is why I always reacted strongly to any disparagement of them.’

I asked James Roose-Evans if he thought theatre was generally more appealing to older audiences. ‘I don’t agree with this. When I directed Christopher Fry‘s ‘Venus Observed’ at Chichester, Patrick Garland included it in the season but not expecting it to do well at the box office. The production was sold out, and what amazed Patrick and myself was how many young people responded, discovering Fry for the first time‘.
Jake Murray believes it is a complex issue. ‘It’s partly generational, as theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape, educational standards were higher back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook, etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there who are excited by what they see on the stage.’

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Discrimination against older performers is also being raised more and more – actress Maggie Gyllenhall recently spoke out against ageism in Hollywood, and revealed she had been told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year old male actor. She is 37. It is certainly still true that women have a far tougher time of it as they get older. As James Roose-Evans observes, ‘After sixty, women tend to become invisible.’ His work with Frontier hopes to improve this state of things by producing new work specifically designed for older actresses. ‘One example which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tested in the theatre,’ says James, ‘is the rich relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters who are in their late teens, early twenties.’

For his part, Jake Murray is optimistic. ‘There are more writers writing great parts for older women,’ he says, ‘and not just female writers, but men too. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men.’

In cinema, as Murray points out, the ‘grey pound’ is being served targeted more than ever:
‘There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The ‘Marigold Hotel’ films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image.’

Diana-Rigg game of thrones

Television, most of all, seems willing to embrace its older audience. Shows like ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and even ‘Game Of Thrones’ clearly recognise the value of casting older actors –performers like Diana Rigg and Julian Glover bring decades of experience, but also carry with them the weight of earlier roles.

The entertainment industry deals in dreams, ideals and fantasy, which often means avoiding the harsher realities of life. But we have an ageing population – a community which can’t be ignored and which has an abundance of life experience, time to consume entertainment and in many cases, more money than the young. And perhaps the tide is turning after all. Companies like Visible and Frontier are showing that the older actor still has an important place in the theatre, and one of the hottest tickets in recent years has been Theatre Royal Bath and Tricycle Theatre’s production ‘The Father’, starring Kenneth Cranham, which explores the devastating effects of dementia on an 80-year old man – although, there is a danger that the theatre treats older characters only in terms of declining faculties: as James Roose-Evans warns, ‘It is not all about Alzheimer’s.’

It’s time we embrace fully just how important stories about older people can be to our culture – and this means we need to support older storytellers, both actors and writers. Theatre should be a window onto the whole of life, not just the first part.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.

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To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Mobiles

cumberbatch hamlet

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

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

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

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

Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ at the National

history boys richard griffiths

Kevin Spacey in ‘Clarence Darrow’ at the Old Vic

clarence darrow kevin spacey

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

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

me and julian in the woman in black

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

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

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

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

cameras at a gig

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

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

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

Kate Bush

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

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

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

Me and Lisa at Kate

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

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

cumberbatch hamlet 2

Fox Hunting

a theatrical fox

The poor fox has always been a beleaguered beast, chased from pillar to post and constantly living under threat of being torn to shreds. And without wishing to add to the misery of this handsome creature, there are a pair of foxes that I, too, feel tempted to hound.

The foxes in question come from a familiar theatrical skulk (collective noun, don’t you know) – namely father and son actors, James and Jack Fox. These two have lately been roaming the English countryside in a play called ‘Dear Lupin’. The imminent opening of the show in the West End has occasioned an interview with the Daily Telegraph, during the course of which the rather weary topic of ‘posh’ v. ‘common’ actors was raised. Now, this is something I have written about before, but at the risk of going over old ground, I think it’s worth another look.

james and jack fox in dear lupin photo by Manuel Harlan

When it was put to them that there are too many ‘posh’ actors about these days, the Foxes barked, almost in unison:

‘‘Complete balls!’ James exclaims. ‘Balls!’ his son echoes.’

Is the resurgence of ‘posh’ actors really, as James Fox suggests, just the pendulum inevitably swinging back the other way – from working class types like ‘Albie’ Finney (and dear Mickey Caine) back towards young toffs such as Eddie Redmayne and Jack Fox himself? I rather think it’s less a question of shifting tastes and fashions, and more about the ‘posh’ kids being the ones who can afford the lifestyle of an actor. It’s all very well to quote Lillian Gish, as Jack does, and suggest that all you really need is ‘taste, talent and tenacity’; these days, having an enduring acting career is more about being able to afford to support yourself while you try to find work – and once you do find it, to supplement the usually pitiful actor’s salary.

lillian gish by edward steichen

I have no desire to cast aspersions on Jack Fox’s acting ability – indeed, I haven’t seen him act. But he doesn’t seem to have been too busy thus far – certainly not as busy as his father

James Fox, actor. By David Levene 28/2/2008

or his brother Laurence

Laurence-Fox

or cousins Emilia

emilia fox

and Freddie

freddie fox

and definitely not as busy as uncle Edward

Daily Mail - FEATURES

He has had some work on TV and short films, although his only stage acting work to date has been ‘Dorian Gray’ at the Riverside Studios, not a high-paying venue. Often by this point, an actor might be staring at his dwindling bank balance and asking himself if the writing was on the wall. But I wonder if money worries are such an issue in the Fox household. Perhaps sensibly, Jack Fox lives with his parents – mother Mary and father-and-fellow-cast-member James – at their home in Wimbledon.

But regardless of all this, I think Foxes Senior and Junior are barking up the wrong tree anyway. The ‘posh’ issue is quite a separate thing from the ‘Fox’ issue…

The Foxes live in an alternative reality to that experienced by all other actors, with the possible exception of a Redgrave or two. On the cruise liner of the acting world, they have a standing invitation to the Captain’s cocktail party, while the rest of us queue up at the buffet. In Jack Fox’s case, it really isn’t a question of being ‘posh’, it’s about being a member of a showbiz club far more exclusive than the Groucho or Soho House. When asked about getting the part in ‘Dear Lupin’ alongside his father, Jack employs the traditional cry of the cornered Second-Generation actor: “I had to read for the part like everyone else,” forgetting that for ‘everyone else’, just landing the audition in the first place is as hard as getting the job.

Of course, the Foxes have an inevitably skewed take on the acting profession. In order to have a true insight into what it’s really like out there, perhaps young Jack should have changed his name, refused all financial help from his parents, moved out of the family home and gone it alone. Then his career really might be about taste, talent and tenacity. All right: luck, talent and tenacity. But even then, tenacity is only any good if you can afford to feed, clothe and house yourself while you hang on, waiting to be lucky enough for someone to recognise your talent. So if you really want to succeed in the acting world, perhaps the best answer is a simple one – change your last name to ‘Fox’.

fox escapes

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.