Thursday, December 09, 2010
Julian Curry spends much of his introduction to Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles justifying the need to record the thoughts of actors in the first place. An actor himself (long career, cv long enough to fill the RSC’s theatre programme), he understands correctly that though critics have their place in putting a play within its historical context and examining its themes, its only by talking to those employed to stand in front of an audience and make that rabble of coughers and coat wearers believe a character has a soul, that the emotional truth of the words can be understood.
Shakespeare On Stage gathers interviews with thirteen prominent actors, in which they’re asked if they’ll, as Curry says, “be willing to reveal if not how they acted, at least what they did.” This is not a book to dip into looking for theatrical anecdotes though a few do creep out. It is instead a record of a range of productions and how a given character fitted into the ensemble, how the decisions taken by the actor in conjunction with the director impacts on both the audience’s understanding of the plot and sometimes how that production fits within the historical legacy of the play.
Oh the riches! Judi Dench reminiscing about her Juliet for Zeffirelli at the Old Vic in 1960(surely the performance The Guardian’s Michael Billington recently revealed to be his favourite of the past fifty years). Ian McKellen on his classic Macbeth opposite Dench for the RSC and Ralph Fiennes returning to the mind of Coriolanus, and the Almeida show which has inspired his new film version. Some are shorter than others; sometimes Curry’s time with his subject was limit, but sometimes he’s simply fulfilling his prophecy from the introduction that “it’s a mugs game to get actors to talk about their craft”.
Shakespeare’s problems, romances and comedies are given equal weight however, which makes a change from similar exercises that tend to concentrate on the tragedies under the assumption that they’re more psychologically complex. I’d not realised Rebecca Hall played Rosalind for her father, Peter, in Bath in 2003 and Derek Jacobi, in expounding on his Malvolvio, relishes the chance to talk about something other than his several hundred appearances as Hamlet. Most valuable perhaps is Penelope Wilton on Measure for Measure morally ambiguous nun Isabella. Her material might be very site specific, but her comments on why the character stops speaking towards the end (she’s dumfounded) only increase my appreciation of this most overlooked play.
Hamlet is represented by Jude Law. Unlike most of the interviews which are looking back retrospectively on a production, Curry was able to grab Law right in the middle of the show’s run at the Donmar Warehouse last Summer (2009) and so he’s capturing an actor in the thick of his thought processes about the character before he’s consolidated his feelings as to whether he achieved what he set out to. As many actors do, Law says that he wants to find something new every night, bring spontaneity to his text, mostly because he doesn’t want the bigness of the nightly endeavour to overwhelm him. In places, he clearly sees aspects of himself in the character, just as the best actors should.
Though Curry has chosen to arrange the interviews in alphabetical order, I wonder if chronological order by production date wouldn’t be just as useful so that the reader can have an idea of how the Shakespearean acting has developed over the past fifty years from Dench to Law. For the most part, theatre is ephemeral and fleeting and this book goes some way to recapturing what we’ve missed – even those productions that have been filmed for the studio aren’t absolute recreations of what the theatre audience enjoyed. Despite his modest claims, Curry has produced a document which should be of use to acting students searching for inspiration, as a research tool for theatre students and for the general audience seeking a different set of insights and perspectives on the canon.
'Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles' by Julian Curry is published by Nick Hern Books. £14.99. ISBN: 9781848420779. Review copy supplied.