The ‘X Factor’ Actor

The Acting Book

John Abbott has enjoyed a varied career in theatre – as an actor, director, educator (namely, Head of Acting at ArtsEd) and author. He has written three books for NHB on theatre, and his latest – The Acting Book – is published this month. John identifies charisma as one of the most important attributes for the modern actor – but what exactly is ‘charisma’? Here, he demystifies the notion…

Lately I’ve found myself shouting at the television more and more often: ‘“ConTROversy” not “ContraVERsy”!’ I yell. Or: “A road map is something that shows you all the roads in an area, you idiot. It gives you thousands of different ways of getting from A to B. What you mean is a route! Something that tells you the best way to get where you want to go!”

But the thing that drives me round the bend is Louis Walsh bouncing up and down behind his desk when he rejects the public’s favourite X Factor contestant and defends his decision by shouting, “But it’s a singing contest, Simon!”

No, Louis. It’s not. The clue is in the title of the show. The contest is to find a performer with the X Factor. That indefinable something that touches an audience’s imagination. Bob Dylan would never have won a singing contest based on the quality of his voice. Neither would Frank Sinatra. Nor Kylie Minogue.

In fact, almost no one on The X Factor has the X Factor. Yes, they can be trained to sing like Rihanna or Adele or Jessie J, but there is always something missing. Very few contestants on reality TV shows have sustainable careers because that special something – that X Factor – is hard to find. It’s elusive. Let’s call it what it is: Charisma.

They say that trying to explain Buddhism is like trying to explain Beauty. Or Love. Or Happiness. Once you begin to analyse it, you’ve already missed the point. You know it when you experience it, but try to explain that experience to someone else and it just comes out wrong. Charisma is like that.

We’ve all seen charismatic actors. We go to see a play or a film just because they are in it. No other reason. We want to see them. You know who the charismatic actors are. And although there are a lot of brilliant actors in the profession and we can teach committed students how to act like them, can we teach the students how to become charismatic actors?

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Ten years ago, Jane Harrison (now the Principal of ArtsEd) and I set about writing a document that would establish the academic credentials of the acting course we were teaching at ArtsEd. Lots of drama schools do it. They get their course validated by a university so their students can get a bachelor’s degree. We were lucky enough to get involved with City University, and I knew we were talking to like-minded people when the Dean of Validation, Steve Stanton, questioned one of the sentences in our proposed document: “You have used the word ‘heart’ when assessing a student’s creative commitment, but surely a heart is just a machine that pumps blood round the body. Wouldn’t it be better to use the word ‘soul’?” (Yes indeedy! Thanks, Steve.) ArtsEd logo

When you write a course document that needs to be validated by an academic institution, you have to come up with assessment criteria in order to give each of the students a mark for their performances. Some aspects of a performance are easy to assess: Have they learnt the lines? Is their character believable? Could you hear them? Did they look confident? And so on. But time and again you come up with the same problem because there are some actors you just want to watch. They draw you in to their performance. They could stumble over their lines and their characterisation could be flimsy, but when they are on stage they… what is it? They nourish you. They excite you. They make your heart flutter. They take you out of yourself. They thrill you. They have charisma.

So we wanted to add ‘charisma’ into the list of assessment criteria for performances and in order to do that we had to define it to some degree. Here’s what we came up with:

‘Charisma –

The students are assessed on their ability to:

  • Use their own personal qualities as a performer to convey plot, character and mood.
  • Display an understanding that personal focus and concentration is engaging for an audience.
  • Demonstrate a positive use of their unique qualities as a performer.’

One of the jokes we often tell ourselves is that if we could teach students to be confident and sexy we wouldn’t have to teach them anything else because that’s what people want to see in an actor. But actually ‘sexy’ isn’t quite the right word, because the quality we are referring to is something that appeals to both sexes. Perhaps ‘appealing’ is a better word. Or ‘charming’. Or ‘engaging’. (I’m using the thesaurus now, but you can see where I’m coming from).

Whichever adjective you choose, there is no doubt that confidence is the driving force behind them all. An agent once said that ArtsEd students were ‘confident without being arrogant’ and that was the biggest compliment we could have got, because confidence without arrogance is sexy, appealing, charming, engaging and, of course – charismatic. I do think it’s possible to teach ‘confidence without arrogance’ (and I’ve touched on an approach to that in The Acting Book when I refer to the ‘Confidence Trick’).John Abbott at ArtsEd

We don’t teach our students to act in any particular style or expect them to become disciples of any special methodology. All we do is introduce them to a collection of styles and methodologies and let them choose what suits them best. It’s what I do in The Acting Book as well, which outlines the course at ArtsEd and the different techniques and approaches that all actors, at every level, should be familiar with. It’s knowledge of these techniques that gives the students confidence. Our aim is to empower them, not enslave them. If drama teachers can help acting students to value their own unique qualities and then show them how to realise their personal artistic vision, then we will be on our way to training students to become truly charismatic actors.

The Acting Book is published by Nick Hern Books. For a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £10.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p (international rates apply) by using the voucher code ‘ActingBookPP’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy. 

‘So tyrannous and rough in proof!’: Shakespeare and typos. By Nick de Somogyi.

William ShakespeareWhy didn’t Shakespeare concern himself with the many inaccuracies in the printed editions of his works? Nick de Somogyi, editor of the Shakespeare Folios Series, hunts for clues and looks at the lasting consequences, as his new book Shakespeare on Theatre, a unique collection of Shakespeare’s every reflection on the theatre, is published.

In the beginning was the Word; closely followed by the typo. Or so last year’s exhibition at Cambridge University Library celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reminded us. Readers who puzzled over the 1631 version of the Seventh Commandment (‘Thou shalt commit adultery’) were later promised that ‘the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God’ (1653). Perhaps richest of all, though, reads the 1701 edition, where the Psalmist laments that ‘Printers have persecuted me without a cause’: a sentiment Shakespeare would surely have applauded – had he displayed any lasting interest in his own published work. Shakespeare’s lifelong relationship with print (or rather his lack of one) endures as a perpetually mysterious frustration to his biographers and editors.

He certainly seems to have supervised the publication of his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, in the early 1590s, both of which were finely printed by his Stratford friend Richard Field – whose catalogue anyway included many books Shakespeare is known to have read. But Field didn’t print plays (too lowly a product, perhaps), and those of Shakespeare’s that appeared in his lifetime did so via a bewildering series of different publishers – with none of whose products he ever seems to have much bothered himself. So while Ben Jonson took care to explain that he had changed the original ending of Every Man Out of His Humour (1600), that Sejanus was ‘not the same with that which was acted on the public stage’ (1605), and that nothing had ‘been changed from the simplicity of the first copy’ of Epicoene (1616), Shakespeare’s editors must glance longingly at such clues to the status and ‘authenticity’ of their texts.

Shakespeare’s own attitude towards print was characteristically ambivalent, reportedly ‘much offended’ in 1612 that a careless publisher had passed off someone else’s poem as his, while celebrating Richard Field as the ‘Richard du Champ’ praised by Imogen in Cymbeline (1610), first printed in the 1623 First Folio – as it happens, by the same sloppy publisher, William Jaggard, who had earlier so offended him. Or should that properly be Innogen? ‘Imogen’ throughout the play’s unique Folio text, scholars have recently agreed that the spelling of her name ‘appears to be a misprint’ for ‘Innogen’, which is how she appears both in Shakespeare’s source and subsequent accounts of his play. So tell that to the millions of girls since named after his heroine’s Folio misspelling – a mass chorus behind the Goon’s famous self-introduction as ‘Spike Milligna, the well known typing error’. It was Spike’s friend Eric’s then current television series that must have caused the howler on the blurb of my seventies paperback of Oliver Twist, which counts ‘Bill Sykes’ [sic] among its major characters. Not that Shakespeare’s name was ever typographically fixed during his lifetime (Shaxberd, Shaxpere, Shackspere . . .), but it did matter to some – notably Ben Jonson (or IONSON, in any case without the h), who insisted on the ‘Roman’ form of his surname, even as he crammed the margins of his proofs with his Latin sources: ‘to which it may be required, since I have quoted the page, to name what editions I followed’.

It is hard to imagine Shakespeare writing such words, though his impatience at proofreading perhaps issues into Lady Capulet’s chilly instructions to Juliet: ‘Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,’ she says, ‘Examine every single lineament . . . And what obscur’d in this fair volume lies | Find written in the margin of his eyes’ – any lingering doubt at his appearance being corrected by the certainty of his eyes’ adoration, in the same way that a marginal gloss – or a proofreader’s marginal correction – will make the proper reading clear. As that oddly cross-eyed description shows, whatever other qualities Paris has to offer as a suitor, love at first sight is not among them. ‘Whate’er befall thee,’ warns a Cambridge academic in a 1601 play, ‘keep thee from the trade of a corrector of the press! . . . Would it not grieve any good spirit to sit a whole month nitting over a lousy pamphlet?’ The advice holds good (it would, and it doth), and Shakespeare seems to have taken it. Of such pamphlets, few were lousier with typos than the Quarto text of Pericles (1609) – one of Shakespeare’s greatest triumphs at the Globe. When Marina describes the commotion aboardship as sailors ‘skip from sterne to sterne’, for example, editors since 1790 have confidently corrected the phrase to read ‘from stem to stern’, the result of the typesetter misreading a handwritten m as rn. But who is to say that the original line did not read ‘from stern to stem’? Certainly not Shakespeare, whose abdication of a modern author’s duties extended that same year to the error-strewn Quarto edition of his Sonnets.

It may be that Shakespeare always intended to supervise his own Collected Works before his death in 1616 – a possibility discernible in the preface Heminge and Condell wrote for their Folio (‘It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings’). Had he done so – well, who knows how many additional treasures might have been bequeathed. The scripts of Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio? A decent chronological account of his plays’ first performances? Or even just the occasional ruling over the hundreds of ‘textual cruxes’ that litter the plays as we have them. (If Dogberry is dim enough to instruct the Watch in Much Ado to be ‘vigitant’ instead of ‘vigilant’, say, why shouldn’t he make a better joke by telling them to observe the city ‘statues’, as he does in the Folio, rather than the Quarto’s correct but blankly unfunny ‘statutes’?) Even if Shakespeare had lived to correct the proofs of his Folio, though, the odd typo would always have got through – as it did when Juliet asks there, ‘What? in a names that which we call a Rose’ – a nonsense arising from a nit-picking proofreader’s correction of punctuation (‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose . . .’) being botched by a confused typesetter. (I remember checking a dust-jacket where the author’s first name had been changed to ‘Rowan’, before seeing that the copy-editor had merely intended to change the font from italic to ‘roman’).

Nor did Shakespeare ever write an example of that minor artform, the ‘errata slip’, such as the following, from 1607: ‘Reader, some faults (by reason of my absence) escaped by the printer I entreat you, if you will, to excuse; if not, correct. The first (if kind) you may; the second (if curious) you must – and easily: if it be in the end of the verse by comparing the metre; if elsewhere, the sense.’ It’s still a useful guide for readers and editors of Shakespeare’s plays – and to the actors who still perform them. Having taken time out from editing the Shakespeare Folios series to compile Shakespeare on Theatre, an anthology of the playwright’s reflections on his craft, I think I can understand his otherwise infuriating indifference to the quality of the texts issued in his name. The balance between the grammatical punctuation required by a reader, and the looser ‘pointing’ of an actor’s script, is endlessly delicate, and the manuscript cue-parts distributed among Shakespeare’s company generally left it to them to sort out the sense – disastrously, in the case of the Prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe. Besides, while the full text of any play only ever supplies a menu (rather than a set meal) from which to select the script of a production, no edition of any of Shakespeare’s has ever been identically punctuated or worded in the four centuries since their first performance. The one quality Dr Johnson (with an h) found to praise in the otherwise abysmal playwright Richard Savage was his ‘superstitious regard to the correction of his sheets . . . lament[ing] an error of a single letter as a heavy calamity’. Shakespeare took a broader view, reserving his concern for the more pressing accidentals of the temporary stage, not the immortal page.

Shakespeare on Theatre (£10.99)

Shakespeare on Theatre (£10.99)

‘Death (as the Psalmist saith) is certain to all, all shall die,’ reflects Shallow in the 1600 Quarto of 2 Henry IV – the same misprinted Psalmist who should have complained about the ‘Princes’ (not the ‘Printers’) who persecuted him. The correct reading has always been more relevant. The publisher responsible for the missing ‘not’ in that 1631 Commandment was heavily fined by the authorities, and died in debtor’s prison. (A case of sabotage, he always claimed.) And when a Soviet newspaper rushed a new speech by Stalin into print in 1944, the harassed typesetter omitted a single letter that transformed the title of ‘Supreme High Commander’ into ‘Shitter-in-Chief’. (The editor was sent to the Front.) By such grim comparison, Shakespeare and his publishers got off lightly – though the 1623 Folio (the King James Version?) omits the bracketed reference to ‘the Psalmist’ in Shallow’s Quarto speech, following legislation against onstage profanity in 1606.

It is in part for the endlessly provisional nature of their scripts that Shakespeare’s plays will always re-enter the stage of the human mind – pending any posthumous directive by the author. It could still happen: when Cambridge University Library were pruning their collection in the 1860s, a scribbled-over edition of Milton’s Lycidas was found on the open shelves. It turned out they were Milton’s own corrections.

Shakespeare on Theatre is published by Nick Hern Books.  Click here to purchase your copy at our standard 20% discount (RRP £10.99) – no voucher code required.

Michael Pennington on his new book, SWEET WILLIAM: Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare

Michael Pennington. Photo Helen Maybanks.

Michael Pennington (photo Helen Maybanks)

Renowned actor and author Michael Pennington introduces his new book on Shakespeare, Sweet William, based on his solo show of the same name. Read on, and you’ll find an exclusive extract from the book, that may whet your appetite for more…

This morning the snow is six inches deep and as I live at the top of a hill there’s not much prospect of going anywhere safely. The light bouncing off it into the house is a brilliant blue, and the sound is travelling differently – voices sound distant even when they are close at hand. The street is of course very still, in a kind of shocked silence.

Well, I try. But I’m not Shakespeare. And what I’m wondering this morning is what he would have made of this wintry scene. You may be able to think of some, but I can’t recall many snow scenes in Shakespeare, much as he liked autumn and seeing its empty branches as ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. Quite a bit of my new book has to do with what Shakespeare would have said about many things that exercise us today – the Arab Spring, the London riots, but also the World Cup (where our disgraced goalie in 2010 had the same name as the jealous playwright who denounced Shakespeare as an upstart crow when he first arrived in London). And as the creator of the immortal dog Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona, think how he’d have liked the dog Uggie in The Artist

This book, which has its origins both in my solo show Sweet William and in my first thrilling encounter with him when I was eleven, when I was blown away by the language of Richard II as spoken by the late lamented John Neville, is my fourth on Shakespeare and I thought that would be enough. But the trouble with Shakespeare is you can’t sign off : after 20,000 hours in his company I’m still getting big surprises. No sooner do I deliver this book than I see Ralph Fiennes’s brilliant film of Coriolanus and want to redo the chapter on that play – not rewrite it altogether, but I’d like to bring it up to date. Any good new production or film advances our understanding and changes our minds a bit. I’m hoping this book, like others I’ve done, will appeal to a wide variety – practitioners, Shakespeare fans, general readers. The pleasure has been that they also seem to appeal to academics, a community that I salute for the huge steps they’ve taken towards us in the trade during my working life. For fun, there are even imaginary conversations using only words and phrases invented by Shakespeare, and a conversation between Pistol from Henry IV and Parolles from All’s Well.

I’m also glad it’s coming out now, slightly beating the rush in a year when Shakespeare is going to be turned on like a tap : politicians will make startling claims, and there will be many misquotes while the nation congratulates itself on having produced such an amazing man. But really it’s he who’s produced us – with Chaucer, he more or less invented the language we use every day and he anticipated just about every political dilemma we’ve found ourselves in. I’d have bones to pick with him if I met him – the endless double meanings, the dreary Act Fours, his tendency to say the same thing three different ways – but that just shows how personal, almost intimate, one’s relationship with him is. He is the poet for your inner ear as well as the amphitheatre, for the middle of the night as much as for high noon. I hope you enjoy my version of him. 

Michael Pennington performing his show 'Sweet William'

Dogs were no strangers to the Elizabethan stage. It’s thought that the jig that followed all performances of Shakespeare’s plays (even King Lear) may sometimes have featured a troupe of dancing dogs. But had anyone made such a feature of one as Shakespeare did with Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona? I doubt it. Shakespeare is starting something here which certainly had consequences: in The Witch of Edmonton (1621, Dekker, Rowley and Ford) the Devil turns up disguised as a dog.

 Crab conforms to an important technique of vaudeville: precondition the audience and they will laugh at anything. I recently saw a very brilliant French mime who ventured to do impersonations of various types of cheese. There, you’re interested already. He gave his Camembert a sort of shamefaced self-loathing, low and squat, as if his pungency embarrassed him; the English cheddar was rather upright and noble. From then on the mime could do no wrong. Yes, we cried, that’s a Bresse Bleu exactly; oh yes of course, a Taleggio, I’ve always thought that. Crab works like that too: to the relief of subsequent casting directors, Launce’s part is written in such a way that whatever Crab does, and is, is funny. Accused of ingratitude, whether he just sits there morosely, scratches and sniffs, bounds about, looks at the audience or blankly at Launce, it is equally good.

SWEET WILLIAM (£20)

Sweet William (£20)

Shakespeare is of course well ahead of his time in this. A couple of centuries later Crab would have flourished in music hall as a speciality act – the Mind-Reading Dog or the Talking Dog; and he is perhaps a less manageable cousin of the ventriloquist’s dummy, that other means of putting words into an uncomprehending mouth. Indeed the comedy of the vent lies in the cussed independence of the dummy, which may relapse into the same stubborn silences as Crab. And of course a real dog on the stage exemplifies the immemorial mournful warning of W.C. Fields never to work with anything on four legs. Though biddable for small tasks, a dog is not much of a dissembler; and a theatre holds as many interesting distractions as a toy shop does for a child. In a recent production at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park, the fact that a barbecue was cooking throughout the evening in the foyer bar led to some interesting chases for Crab – off down the grassy slope at the front of the stage and right up the central aisle to the front of house, pursued by Launce and sometimes members of the audience. The Rose, if that is where the first Two Gentlemen played, can hardly have been less attractive, with its rich mélange of aromatic refreshments – cheese, spice, meat pies and roasted thrushes.

Sweet William is published by Nick Hern Books (January 2012). For a limited period only, copies can be purchased for just £16 (RRP £20) through NHB’s website (standard postal fees apply) here.

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim , 1930–

In the fifth and final part of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim’s shows include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd,Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. I interviewed him in a hotel room in New York. He had a show in workshop—Wise Guys, later renamed Road Show [currently receiving its European premiere in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory]—so he was writing at night and rehearsing by day, but his energy seemed undimmed.

You met Oscar Hammerstein when you were around thirteen?
I was thirteen exactly. When I was fifteen he took me to the first night of Carousel in New Haven. He took me and his son Jimmy, who was a year younger than I, and it was during our spring vacation at school so we were able to do it. I don’t even remember when I saw Oklahoma!: it certainly wasn’t on the first night, and I’m not sure how close I was to the family by the time Oklahoma! opened. I was close but not as close as I was in Carousel, because I remember that one of the high points of my childhood was being asked for advice on Carousel, when he and Rodgers were writing it. They wanted the opening of the second act to be this treasure hunt on the island, and I was into treasure hunts, so I was the treasure hunt consultant.

He’d give you brilliant advice subsequently.
Yes, he—that dreadful word—he critiqued my work. I showed him everything I wrote from the age of fifteen on, and he treated it absolutely on a level with professional work. He never pretended for one second that I was a child: he just treated it seriously, and I learned a great deal very quickly. I’ve said before: as a result of Oscar I think I probably knew more about writing musicals at the age of nineteen than most people do at the age of ninety.

What was he like?
He was exactly the reverse of the image of his lyrics. He was a very sharp city boy, as opposed to somebody who sat on a porch with a stick of hay in his teeth and looked at the cattle. Which he also did. But he was a very good critic and very sharp-tongued. Not mean but sharp. He was in fact a sophisticated man. I once asked him why he didn’t write sophisticated musicals, and he said: you mean musicals that take place in penthouses with people smoking with cigarette holders? I said: well, yes, if you want to put it that way. He said: because it really doesn’t interest me. And in fact it didn’t: what interested him was quite the reverse of what his life was like. Not that he was a partygoer or anything like that, but he was a sophisticate. He was enormously kind and generous, and a true idealist and a true optimist. What he writes about often in his lyrics, that did fit him: he was an optimist. I won’t say he always looked on the lighter side, but he believed in the better part of mankind not in the worse. And he did not die a disillusioned man.

Did the book musical come into being as a result mostly of Oscar Hammerstein’s work?
Prior to Showboat, musicals were essentially collections of jokes and songs, and even after Showboat most of them were. Hammerstein virtually alone pioneered the idea of trying to tell a story through music, trying to meld the European operetta influence and the American freewheeling jazz musical-comedy influence—I shouldn’t say influence, but, he melded those two streams of presentation into one. Which resulted in a kind of American operetta. From Showboat to Music in the Air and through the 1930s, his star rose and fell, and he resuscitated it with Oklahoma! when he teamed up with Richard Rodgers, who brought a different kind of sensibility. Jerome Kern, with whom he did most of the shows, was very much a European composer. Rodgers was much more a kind of American vernacular composer. And the result of that was Oklahoma! And Oklahoma!, though today it seems very naive as a story and rather naive in terms of the depth of the characters, nevertheless, because of its enormous success, influenced musicals ever since. Innovative musicals mean nothing if they aren’t successful, because nobody pays attention to them. If, for example, Threepenny Opera had been a success in this country, musicals might have matured much more quickly. It was only when it was done off-Broadway in the early fifties that the Brechtian musical came into being. But the book musical really can almost solely be attributed to Hammerstein’s efforts.

Is it a question that can be answered with the book musical whether the music or the book comes first?
No, I think the book always comes first in this kind of musical. It has to be the story and the characters that propel both the song aspect and the need for song. Why should they sing? It has to be a group of characters and a story that you’re not just enhancing by adding songs but in which musical expression becomes intrinsic. I think any good musical starts with the book, the libretto, the idea, the story, the characters. I can’t work on anything until I’ve discussed for weeks and sometimes months with my collaborator what the story is, why is music needed, why is music intrinsic as opposed to decorative, and what will music do to the story. When I was writing Sunday in the Park with George, I was really frightened that the music would tear the delicate fabric of what James Lapine was trying to get at in terms of the creation of a painting. You must start with libretto, all the strong musicals have strong stories. One of the reasons that West Side Story attained its popularity—apart from the success of the movie, because it was not all that popular when it was done on the stage on Broadway—is that the story is such a good story. Something happens all the time.

With the exception of you taking the musical in a different direction, why did the book musical die?
Oh, it hasn’t died it’s merely gotten swollen. The so-called sung-through musicals… Les Mis is a book musical. If you’re talking about the musical in which there’s speech and song, speech and song, it didn’t die so much as become subsumed by the success of the sung-through musicals, mainly stemming from Britain. And audiences now are very used to the sung-through musical. But whatever you think of the book, the Disney musicals have books. And Ragtime is a book. It’s not dead: in fact, more likely, the sung-through musical is on the way to either being transformed or being dropped for a while.

It got disconnected from popular culture with the coming of rock ’n’ roll.
The effect of rock ’n’ roll on musicals is the equivalent of the effect of television on theatre or movies on theatre. It’s made both musicals and theatre in general—I don’t say a cottage industry, but you know, it’s no longer the only game in town, it’s not even the major game in town, theatre. It’s a—I want to avoid the word ‘elitist’—but it does appeal to and attract fewer people, at least in this country [USA] than it used to. I mean, what’s deplorable about the American theatre on Broadway is: you look at the list and it’s twenty-four musicals and two plays. And in London the last time I counted it was fourteen musicals and eight plays. That’s not good. Now the off-Broadway theatre and the fringe theatre is very much alive, and people are writing plays, but not an awful lot of people can fit into a two-hundred-and-fifty-seat house—two hundred and fifty people can fit in—for six weeks, which is what you have in London in the fringe theatres. So how many people are gonna get to see that play? Unless it transfers to the West End, which few of them do. And the same thing is true here. So I fear it’s not so much the death of the book musical as the gradual fade of theatre and musical theatre. I don’t think that we’ll ever fade entirely, because I think there’s always a hunger for live storytelling. But it’s never going to be kind of the central entertainment again, it just isn’t.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is the final instalment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre’ special, featuring edited extracts from Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People. The full interview with Stephen Sondheim is published in the new paperback edition of the book. To order your copy at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Alan Bennett

In Part Four of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews playwright and actor Alan Bennett. 

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett, 1934–

He has become part of the (quintessentially English) family, a familiar face, a national institution, adjectival: ‘Very Alan Bennett,’ people say. I interviewed him in the basement kitchen of my house. He wasn’t at his happiest when talking about his own work. He’s revealed a ‘self’ in his plays and his diaries, but when he was sitting in my kitchen uneasily facing the prospect of an interrogation, the ‘self’ couldn’t be disguised as a fictional persona. But he rallied generously and answered my questions with a practised ease.

What were your earliest experiences of theatre? When I was a boy in Leeds I used to go every Saturday matinée and see whatever it was that was on offer. Nowadays that would mean very little, because I think it’s mostly opera now and plays don’t tour in the way they did. But in those days you would get West End plays with their original cast coming round after their West End production. I saw a very peculiar collection of plays there. Of course, in my mind they weren’t distinguished one from the other; they were just things that turned up at the Grand every Saturday afternoon. They were all mixed together in my mind. I didn’t see them as school of this or school of that. They were just plays. I saw some Shakespeare, plays like Black Chiffon with Flora Robson, Daphne Laureola with Edith Evans, a play about a Labour colonial Governor with Eric Portman, His Excellency. And then I began to see plays like Waiting for Godot.

What impression did that make?
I didn’t find it at all mystifying, and I didn’t find it so plotless. I may have found it a bit dull, but then I often found plays dull. I found it quite funny as well.

But did you have any sense that it was a play about post-war Europe?
I was too young probably to think in those terms then. I just thought it was a play about very peculiar people, but then so was Black Chiffon in my view. They weren’t like people I knew.

In the fifties were you at all conscious of the Holocaust and the Bomb?
I remember in August 1945, when we were living in Guildford very briefly, coming back with the Evening News and reading about the first atomic bomb. And also in Guildford I saw the terrible newsreels not of Auschwitz, of Dachau, because I can remember it went up on the screen that children should be taken out of the cinema. And the trouble was in those days you had to queue for the cinema so long that nobody left—they didn’t want to lose their seats. So I saw that. But in a way the consciousness both of the Bomb and of the Holocaust occurred in a way ten, fifteen years after they happened. CND and so on. I once or twice went on CND marches.

When writing your plays, do you simply follow your nose with subject matter?
It seems to me what happens is that you’ve got something that niggles you, you’ve got something that you can’t resolve. In Forty Years On I think it was knowing that I was very conservative with a small ‘c’ and radical in other ways—knowing that these two feelings and concerns existed and not being able to reconcile them. And the play is an attempt to reconcile them. It’s also an attempt to write a funny play about a school. The plays about spies, I suppose, are an attempt to settle my ambiguous feelings about England. Of affection and identification, but at the same time feeling alienated from it. Every play I’ve written seems to me slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write. Maybe if you ever wrote a play that you actually intended to write then you won’t write any more plays. I always think that about The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s an absolutely perfect play, and I know it was Wilde’s last play because of the circumstances, but I think it probably would have been his last play anyway. Most plays are nearly completed circles and the production completes the circle, makes it a whole. The Importance of Being Earnest is completed there on the page; there’s nothing much you can do with it. It’s a wonderful play and absolutely perfect, but for that reason I think it marks the end of his artistic endeavour.

The thing that all your plays have in common is a view about class as the sort of engine of English society. Have you always felt that you’re imprisoned in it?
It’s never bothered me, I don’t long for a classless society. Since my strength is in dialogue, in the sense of hearing the cadences of people’s speech and so on, which is ineluctably bound up with class, you can’t separate the two. Of course, it would be disastrous if everything were flattened out. It used to bother me when I was younger; I’m still very awkward for some reason in the presence of the aristocracy—they reduce me to being seventeen again—but it’s not out of any undue respect for them. [laughs] I don’t know, but there’s something goes wrong there. But class doesn’t really bother me. I’m not a crusader anyway, but it’s not something that I’d want to see the end of. I can’t see how somebody of my generation writes as if one were outside it.

What did the 1945 election mean to you in the fifties? Did you have a sense that life was going to get better?
I was a terrible Tory when I was young. I was awful: conformist and censorious and full of religiosity. I was an awful youth, looking back. But I look back to the period 1945–51 as a kind of golden age. It’s absurd to say that, because it was the most drab and austere period. There was no colour in the world really, and there was no choice in the shops. Life seemed to be very simple then, and people very innocent. Again and again I find that period crops up. The pictures I like are often pictures from the late forties. And then, of course, at the end of the decade there’s this wonderful explosion of the Festival of Britain, when suddenly there was colour and design, and you thought that this was a vision of what the world was going to be like, when it wasn’t quite, of course. But it occurs in Getting On, my second play, where there’s a long speech about what life was like then and about the making of the Health Service. It’s deeply nostalgic, but it is something that I do feel strongly about.

What is it about theatre that attracts you?
I suppose I go to the theatre thinking anything may happen. I mean, quite apart from the play, somebody might collapse on the stage. I know that seems frivolous, but I think that’s an element in what an audience is there for—the possibility of disaster. And the possibility of triumph as well, but it’s the uncertainty. Having performed, I know the sheer terror of it: it is quite a perilous proceeding. If you’re in an audience and something goes wrong on the stage—you know, somebody dries, say, or whatever—the audience is like a cat suddenly seeing a bird: it’s on to it. There’s a huge tension in the auditorium. Quite frightening. I do think of an audience as slightly like a wild beast.

What is it that draws you to writing for the theatre?
I suppose it’s writing dialogue—I mean, plots are far harder to write for me than dialogue. And if you’re writing dialogue then obviously—unless you want to write like Henry Green, say, and write novels entirely in dialogue—you’re drawn to the theatre or to television. It’s as simple as that, really.

Is it also that whatever you do in the theatre it can’t be abstracted? There’s always going to be a human being.
There has to be a human being from my point of view, because they talk, and talk is what I’m interested in, and talk is what I deal in. It seems to me, when you talk about the future of the theatre and so on, it has a future so long as somebody’s going into a room and sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to write lines that somebody else is going to say.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Alan Bennett. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW for the final installment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre special’. Tomorrow’s post will feature celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim pondering ‘the death of the book musical’…

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw, 1958–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews actor Fiona Shaw.

Born in Cork, Fiona Shaw is celebrated for playing many classical roles—Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, even Richard II. Most good actors are highly intelligent; few are highly articulate. Fiona Shaw’s fluency never leads her into waffle, but as an actor she has often struggled to conceal her intellectual brilliance, like a great beauty concealing her glamour. With a film crew squeezed round the sofa where I was used to sitting watching TV with my family, I felt as if we were playing an ambitious children’s game. Of the future of theatre she said: ‘The theatre is a fantastic whore and could be anything. If a thousand atom bombs drop, somebody will stand up in the ashes and tell a story.’

Why do all the great Irish writers emigrate?
I suppose until this very decade [the 1990s] the whole nation emigrated, I don’t think it’s just writers that emigrated. Engineers emigrated, doctors emigrated. It’s partially the tragedy of the famine that the country just bred its nation for export. But Joyce of course said that it is the sow that eats its own farrow.

Is all Irish culture underscored by British colonial rule?
I think that temperament is history, and so in that way the Irish temperament has been fundamentally affected by being the baby sister or brother to this big island. The effect of London on Dublin has been enormous. It’s the jumping-off ground, isn’t it? It’s the Ellis Island of Irish culture. Beyond Dublin what made Ireland separate from England is that the Irish had no bourgeoisie. You had an aristocracy and a remarkably kept-down peasantry—in that way, very like Russia: the parallels between Russia and Ireland are enormous. We didn’t produce a Chekhov, but we produced an O’Casey. The other big effect of England on Ireland were the penal laws which forbade Irish people to speak Irish and which caused a sort of surrealism in the country, where people couldn’t own a horse worth more than five pounds, couldn’t own land or hand land over. So the average age of marrying for men in Ireland was fifty. And people attended mass on rocks and in caves and were taught in hedge schools. So the fusion of landscape with the metaphysical, or the fusion of landscape with learning, was not like any other country in the world. Irish English is, on one level, a language forced onto a country that was trying not to speak it, and it then became a sort of tool of revenge: the Irish have attacked the English with their own language. And on the other side you had this rural lost language of people speaking a sort of archaic English forced on them by early settlers, and people struggling with translations from the Gaelic and of course being laughed at by the English for speaking a peculiar English. In Gaelic you say: ‘Toin traich megonair,’ which is ‘I am after my dinner.’ That’s still used as the construction for that kind of sentence.

With the exception of Joyce, Irish writers—Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Beckett and so on—choose to write for the theatre. Why?
The theatre is immediate: it needs people. It’s not like a French literary tradition, which would be about intellectual thought. England is a very odd hybrid because I’d say the centre of the English theatre since the seventeenth century, maybe from Shakespeare, is antithesis, isn’t it? The notion that you can declare an argument: ‘To be or not to be’, and at the end of that you could’ve concluded something about the world. The Irish theatre is based on hyperbole and contradiction.

If it’s possible to talk about any national character with Ireland without resorting to stereotype, is there something about the Irish—I mean the Irish-Irish—that is more given to storytelling and to wearing your heart on your sleeve than the English?
Caesar wrote about going to Hibernia, and he said that they just talked and drank all the time, so I suppose it isn’t connected to recent modern history. Perhaps the relationship to alcohol is connected to the climate. There’s also great desolation in Ireland, people who don’t speak from September to springtime because there’s nobody to talk to. Religion is another big part of it.

But is storytelling something to do with having a verbal culture not a written culture?
The culture in cottages that was finally caught by Synge is interesting. Yeats provoked Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Synge went and observed this strange translation of a Gaelic into English and made a sort of heightened self-conscious poetry out of it. But there was a sort of truth in it as well. People were speaking in a language that was self-referential, because they had so little stimulus. I’m not sure that they’re using the language for reality. They couldn’t use it to negotiate, because there was nothing to negotiate, so they had to use it for the imagination.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Fiona Shaw. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW and FRIDAY for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature ‘national institution’, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, explaining what it means to ‘follow your nose’ when writing…

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Peter Brook

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, 1925–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews experimental theatre and film director Peter Brook.

Peter Brook has stimulated British theatre for fifty years—first, in his twenties, in the West End, then with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and for the last twenty-five years from outside the country. He disclaims any desire to escape from the insularity of British theatre, but his self-exile appears to have inoculated him against the infection of self-doubt, the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, and the mid-life crisis that affects most theatre directors (not always in midlife), which comes from repetition, from constant barter and compromise. But, he always stresses, nothing is achieved in the theatre that doesn’t come from the practical rather than the theoretical. I interviewed him in January 2000 in Paris at his own theatre, the Bouffes du Nord. He was wearing a tangerine sweater with an indigo shirt, and, sitting in the circle of his theatre against the terracotta walls, he glowed with well-being and undiminished enthusiasm. All his sentences had a shape; he spoke with no hesitations—no ‘ums’, ‘ers’, or ‘wells’—by turns grave, impish and passionate.

Is it our marvellous luck in the English theatre to have had Shakespeare?

Oh, I’m sure. Absolutely sure. Although one sees that the plays are still powerful in other languages and are done all over the world, they can never be as powerful as they are in the English language. And because of this it’s become part of the English nature and the English temperament. All theatres all over the world, all good theatres have their hero figures, their pivotal figures, and we’re lucky in having the best.

What’s his particular genius?

The genius is that everything comes together. He’s not a product of Elizabethan times, but he was totally influenced by all that was around him. It was a time of enormous social change, intellectual change, artistic experiment—a period of such dynamic force that he was open to all the different levels of life. He was open to all that was going on in the streets, he was open to all the conflicting religious and political wars of the time, and spiritually he was deeply involved in the vast questions that were there for all mankind at a time when the dogmas, the Church dogmas, were exploding. When there was a spirit of inquiry. And all his plays, which is what makes them so remarkable, correspond to the ancient Indian definition of good theatre, which is that plays appeal simultaneously to the people who want entertainment, people who want excitement, people who want to understand psychology and social reality better, and people who really wish to open themselves to the metaphysical secrets of the universe. Now, that he can do that, not only within one play and within one scene but within one line, is what makes Shakespeare remarkable and corresponds to something hidden in the English character. Of course, foreign views of England are always stereotyped, but from the inside one knows that the cold English are the most emotional people. The English who scoff at anything that’s in any way supernatural are in fact deeply inquiring poetically and philosophically, and are extraordinarily concerned about true ethics, about the truth, reality, and practicality of social structures. And the fact that Shakespeare contains all those questions makes him very English.

What you’ve said suggests that the English should be particularly drawn to theatre as a medium.

All the richness of the English inner life is something that so embarrasses the English that they can’t give light of day in everyday social behaviour to either philosophy, poetry or metaphysical inquiry. So the theatre is the only area where the hidden Englishness can reveal itself respectably.

Yet for three hundred years the Irish dominated the English theatre.

You could almost say the English as a whole daren’t let their inner richness appear in public, and do everything to hide this behind all sorts of facades, which have been heavily implemented by the whole class structure of England over hundreds of years. The Irish are the opposite. The Irish allow their deep natural poetry and imagination to come out, all the time. If you go into an English pub you may meet some enjoyable companions, but you’re not going to hear any sudden bursts of lyricism in the conversation. It’s hard to avoid them in Ireland. Anyone you meet there has at his disposal and on the tip of his tongue all the richness of his natural imagination. And that goes very naturally into Irish writing. Synge famously says that, to capture the extraordinary colourful dialogue that the theatre needs, you’ve only to lie on the floor in an attic and listen to what’s being said in the room below. That is the reason that what is rather condescendingly called the ‘gift of the gab’ is part of the natural healthy exuberance and ebullience of their essentially tragic experience. I’d compare it to what I’ve seen in South Africa. Within a deeply tragic human experience, a people have maintained their capacity to survive joyfully in tragedy, and to turn even the worst experience into something that can be shared with humour, with joy and with vividness. Those are essential theatrical qualities.

What about the ‘revolution’ of 1956 at the Royal Court?

Oh, that was a real revolution. And the revolution can be called social in the sense that there was a very stratified class system in place. Something was emerging in the name of a lower class that was freeing itself from an intermediate class and refused to have anything to do with the establishment. And also freeing itself from what was rigid in the working-class ideology of the time. So this free-moving class, rising up in the social scale, wished to be heard, and in wishing to be heard it naturally wanted to be heard with a different language, with a different dynamic, in a different way from the established theatre. And as the established theatre hadn’t much going for it, there was every good reason to break all the conventions. When I did Romeo and Juliet, which was before that time, I had a very young actor playing Romeo very well. I wanted somebody very young, and during rehearsal he told me about his life, he talked about his origins: poor, working-class boy, who spoke with a regional or cockney accent. He talked about how hard he had struggled at drama school to learn to speak correctly so that he could go one day to Stratford and play a part like Romeo. And this seemed normal and natural because it was quite clear that he would be thrown out of the first audition if he came in and read Romeo with a regional or cockney accent. The big revolution starting with Albert Finney—an actor affirming his right to play the prince without sacrificing his own individuality, his own colour, his own personality, and saying: ‘The hell with it—if I’ve been born talking like this, I’m going to bloody well go on talking like this.’ And this was a big revolution in England.

So with Look Back in Anger what was shocking was the tone of voice and the accent rather than the form?

I think everything. It’s bewildering today to watch the gradual movement from the day when it was daring to say ‘bloody’, to the fact that today, if you don’t say ‘fuck’ every third line, your play most likely won’t be accepted. It was just about that time that ‘fuck’ was said for the first time on an English stage.

But you were constantly at war with the Lord Chamberlain?

Oh yes. I think that I was part of those who managed to get rid of him. And we got rid of him—after a long series of head-on attacks which got us nowhere—by ridicule. In the end we found different ways of making him not only a complete anachronism but a ridiculous anachronism. One day when I visited the Lord Chamberlain, he received me—because he was going on to a reception at the Palace—in full Palace uniform: we were sitting there discussing a play of Genet’s and whether or not these words would be suitable, and the anachronism was complete. But everything was interconnected: when there’s a gradual change it has its influence everywhere. And then there’re the landmarks: Look Back in Anger just was that shock landmark which dramatised the whole process of change that was going on all through the artistic life of the country and of the theatre.

In Britain, I don’t know if it’s true in France, there’s a gulf between people who feel that the theatre is for them and people who feel excluded from it. Do you have any idea of how we can dissolve that division?

I think that these are local issues. They can’t be solved nationally or by decree; they can only be solved event by event if the people are concerned by that. Here it’s been a question that we feel very strongly about, to which the answers are very simple. From the start we tried as best we could within our budget to keep our prices extremely low. And from the start we had the lowest prices in all Paris. When we did Carmen, you could see Carmen for thirty francs. That’s 3p—an incredibly small sum. And every production we do here, we do one or two free performances for the whole of the quartier, who are invited. We put up little notices: people from around are welcome to come. We’ve worked a lot with African and the North African people, around the theatre there’s an enormous African and North African population. We have done a great deal in the past. We’ve gone and played improvisations in hostels round here, and at the end of these things we’ve said: ‘This is theatre, you’re welcome, come to the theatre.’ And hardly ever have we succeeded in this way, although we’ve made very good relationships on the spot. None of the people we’ve invited come; that’s why it’s very good to raise the problem and one always comes back to it. The theatre worldwide has established this reputation that if you go through these doors you’re expected to behave in a certain way. That’s totally untrue. I think that in Covent Garden they’re now trying to make it appear that you don’t have to put on a black tie. Whether this will help to make it more accessible or not, I’ve no idea. I think the best answer is low seat prices, and recognising that the theatre has to pay for its sins. It’s no use saying: ‘Ah, but the same young people who you’re giving seats to at this very low price will go and buy a pair of shoes for three times the price.’ Because shoes haven’t let anyone down over the centuries and the theatre has.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Peter Brook in 2000. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature actress Fiona Shaw on why all the great Irish writers such as Yeats and Shaw flee the homeland…


Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with John Gielgud

John Gielgud

John Gielgud, 1904—2000

Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.

Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.

What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?

Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.

What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?

I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.

What was the social mix in the audience?

It was very much divided.

Upper-middle-class?

Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.

Did you see Chu Chin Chow?

Yes, I never stopped seeing it.

The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.

Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.

You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.

I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.

Well, he probably was as well.

Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.

I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.

Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.

Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?

Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.

When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.

Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]

It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.

It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.

You did the film of  Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?

I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.

Did you help Brando with his performance?

One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.

What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.

You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.

Richard Eyre on TALKING THEATRE: Interviews with Theatre People

Richard EyreTo celebrate the new paperback edition of Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre – his superlative account of how theatre is made, in the words of the very people who make it – we will be posting exclusive extracts from the book here on the NHB blog. Come back on Monday to find out what John Gielgud thought about working with Brando on Mankiewicz’s celebrated film of Julius Caesar. Then on Tuesday we’ll hear from Peter Brook about why theatre is so important to the English. Later in the week there will be posts from Fiona Shaw, Alan Bennett and Stephen Sondheim – all talking candidly about some of the most important productions and performances in the theatre of recent times. Here, as a prologue to next week’s special feature, Richard Eyre introduces the book, and explains why he thinks theatre remains essential and distinct from other forms of performance.

I started going to the theatre when I was eighteen, in the early sixties. The start of my theatregoing coincided with a period of extraordinary theatrical energy and invention. I saw the work of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, the Royal Court in its most fertile years, the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall in Stratford, and the newly formed National Theatre under Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic; Oh! What a Lovely War and The Wars of the Roses; Scofield’s Lear and Olivier’s Othello; the young Maggie Smith, the young Albert Finney, the young Vanessa Redgrave, the young Judi Dench, the young Ian Holm, the young Ian McKellen, the even younger Michael Gambon; the older Richardson, Gielgud, Guinness, Ashcroft, even Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike; the plays of Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, David Storey, Peter Nichols, Charles Wood and Tom Stoppard—with Kenneth Tynan presiding over it all as a mercurial judge and godfather.

What I liked about the theatre then and what I like about it now is its ‘theatreness’, the properties that make it distinct from any other medium—its use of time, of space, of light, of speech, of music, of movement, of storytelling. Theatre is intrinsically poetic, it thrives on metaphor—a room becomes a world and a group of characters becomes a whole society. It conscripts the imagination of the audience to transform the obvious unreality of costumed actors standing on a stage saying things they’ve said to each other many times into something that is both real and truthful. Theatre insists on the present tense—there’s a sense of occasion and of being part of a community in any theatre performance. We go into a theatre as individuals and we emerge as an audience. Above all, theatre can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure and the sound of the human voice.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

In 1997, shortly before I left the directorship of the National Theatre, I was asked by Andrea Miller (the producer) and Mark Thompson (then Controller of BBC 2) to write and present a six-part television series for the BBC and PBS on the history of twentieth-century British theatre. The series was christened Changing Stages and was broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Millennium Project’ in 2000. The programmes were composed of archive footage, pieces to camera, documentary film and, most importantly, interviews with people who had played a significant part in making and influencing the theatre of the previous half-century in Britain, with occasional glimpses across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic beyond. If there were omissions it wasn’t because there was a host of people who refused to be interviewed: almost all the people we asked agreed to talk to me on camera. The most notable refusal was from Marlon Brando, who sang down the phone from Los Angeles to the Glaswegian producer, Andrea Miller:

Just a wee deoch an doris, just a wee drop, that’s all.
Just a wee deoch an doris afore ye gang awa.
There’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but an ben.
If you can say, ‘It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht’,
Then yer a’richt, ye ken.

While he was enthusiastic to sing and discuss the work of Harry Lauder and the plight of the American Indian, he told her that he would rather do anything in the world than talk about acting.

A friend of mine once rashly invited Paul Scofield to give a lecture on acting. He wrote this in response:

I have found that an actor’s work has life and interest only in its execution. It seems to wither away in discussion, and become emptily theoretical and insubstantial. It has no rules (except perhaps audibility). With every play and every playwright the actor starts from scratch, as if he or she knows nothing and proceeds to learn afresh every time—growing with the relationships of the characters and the insights of the writer. When the play has finished its run he’s empty until the next time. And it’s the emptiness which is, I find, apparent in any discussion of theatre work.

I hope Talking Theatre proves him wrong.

Don’t miss reading exclusive extracts from five of the interviews published in the book, publishing everyday next week!

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Ken Campbell: The True Spirit of a Prankster

Michael Coveney

Michael Coveney, biographer of Ken Campbell

Published today – April Fools’ Day – is Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of the one-man comic whirlwind who tore through the British theatre establishment using well-rehearsed anarchy and a genius for surreal comedy. Here, Coveney recalls Campbell’s fondness for a good wheeze – including his notorious Royal Dickens Company hoax…

If there’s one side of Ken Campbell that illustrates his insistence that theatre should be lived ‘in the moment’, it’s his penchant for the prank, his love of the hoax. The maverick director, who died two years ago aged just 66, was a sucker for stunts and wheezes of all kinds in his work, from the physical clowning in his early Ken Campbell Road Show, right through to the impossible feats and adventures in his great epics – Illuminatus! and The Warp – and his unstoppable flow of unlikely tall stories in his magnificent solo performances. He mixed vaudeville with science fiction, pratfalls with philosophy and physical fun with furious linguistics.  This is what made him so unusual: he emerged from the world of weekly rep and the first stirrings of the fringe as a provocative instigator of the unexpected, the outrageous and the downright disrespectful.  He really did believe that the only things worth doing were impossible, and that going to the theatre should entail taking your life in your hands.

He also felt that creating mayhem was all part of the serious artistic process. Thus the idea that the Royal Shakespeare Company should be put on hold in favour of a similarly dedicated Royal Dickens Company may sound ridiculous, or even far-fetched, but the whole madcap adventure had a serious undertone.

Many theatre directors, even RSC ones, have occasionally called for a moratorium on the Bard. One of them was Matthew Warchus, who directed the Alex Jennings Hamlet for the RSC and is currently responsible for their biggest non-Shakespearian hit since Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, the Roald Dahl musical, Matilda.

Campbell’s RDC hoax, brilliantly conceived and inspirationally executed, was a response to the great success of David Edgar’s two-part version of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, exactly one year after Ken had launched his ten-play, 22-hour epic The Warp on an unsuspecting public at the ICA Theatre in the Mall.

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

But it was also a dig at the RSC’s increasingly commercial ambitions in the rush for sponsorship and world domination, and a reminder that some people were capable of ambitious, glorious work without any subsidy to speak of and outside the citadel of the establishment.

He despatched a series of letters on authentically reproduced notepaper, apparently signed by Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s artistic director, inviting leading directors and playwrights to embark on a series of Dickensian adaptations: Bill Bryden was asked to consider The Pickwick Papers; Peter Hall required to ‘have a look at’ Martin Chuzzlewit; and Trevor Griffiths urged to re-visit A Tale of Two Cities with Jonathan Pryce in mind as Sydney Carton.

Mike Leigh was offered twenty-three actors and a 17-week rehearsal period ‘to take on the challenge of Bleak House: looking forward to your reactions. Love, Trev.’ Mrs Thatcher’s arts minister, Norman St John-Stevas, was also kept in the loop: ‘Dickens will prove as big a draw as Shakespeare, if we can keep up this terrific standard…Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured. Love, Trev. PS: Perhaps we could get together for lunch some time soon to discuss this. The Pickwick Club would seem appropriate!’

Stories appeared in the newspapers and Trevor Nunn had to confirm, rather wearily, that no more Dickens adaptations were planned. He even told The Times that a lot of people had written back to him refusing his offers or, more embarrassingly, accepting them. Eventually, Campbell’s cover was blown by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and he emerged from a silhouette to make a confession, claiming that he’d been inspired to perpetrate the hoax in order to focus even more public attention on the excellence of the RSC’s work.

There are two things theatre is particularly good at: telling stories and making mischief. And Ken was an arch exponent of both. The Ken Campbell Road Show was planned to be an advertisement for the lively new work at the Bolton Octagon, but Ken made his own offshoot enterprise in pubs and clubs far more interesting and enjoyable than the stuff they were actually putting on the Octagon stage itself. This subversive campaign was rooted in a philosophy, deeply and joyously antagonistic towards all manifestations of official culture or indeed political correctness, and it burns through his work from start to finish.

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow (Bolton, 1969)

The Great Caper of my book’s title is also the title of a play at the Royal Court which recounted the Search for the Perfect Woman across continents as far as the Lapland tundra. This was an orgy of tall storytelling that mystified most critics but delighted a few, notably Ronald Bryden, who described the play as an alternative version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with Warren Mitchell as its Phileas Fogg and Ken himself, appearing on the stage where he had once been rejected as a ‘career’ director, as his Passepartout.

Pranks and wheezes were pursued not only for the sheer hell of it, but as a means of challenging the status quo and subverting the laws of propriety. It’s amazing how little theatre does this nowadays in any serious way, and Campbell was the past master. In Walking Like Geoffrey, the inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham pretend to be mad in order to avoid paying their taxes, while a member of the aristocracy tries to ‘pang’ himself into another universe. He approached the task literally, just as Bob Hoskins in the Road Show used to invite his partner to stretch a huge length of very strong knicker elastic across the heads of the audience before unwittingly releasing it full on into the innocent mush of his cooperating partner. Sylvester McCoy used not only to put ferrets down his trousers, but also bang nails up his nose and explode small bombs on his chest.

And throughout his career, Ken was daring his friends and colleagues to go further than is strictly allowable, in both art and life. His solo shows were a perfect amalgamation of heightened, creative reminiscence and speculative narrative propulsion, brilliant compilations of words and images that leave you breathless with excitement and helpless with laughter. And he liked nothing more than watching a daring improviser compose a sonnet forwards on the spot while counting backwards in sevens from five hundred.

It simply can’t be done: which is the only point in doing it.

Michael Coveney is chief critic and blogger for Whatsonstage.com. To purchase your copy of his new book – Ken Campbell: The Great Caper – hot off the press at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p (usual price £14.99, UK customers only), click here and quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also send a direct message on Twitter to @nickhernbooks quoting ‘THE GREAT CAPER’ and we’ll get back to you speedily to process your order!

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney

Also, to coincide with the book’s publication, Michael Coveney will be joined by special guests Richard Eyre, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Nina Conti and Daisy Campbell (Ken’s daughter), to talk about the maverick comic and his legacy, on Friday 8 April 2011 (5pm). Tickets cost £5 and can be purchased via the Royal Court’s website.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week for the week beginning 4 April 2011. For more information visit the BBC iPlayer website here.