Saturday, 6 February 2010

When they’re good, they’re brilliant

I’ve been in love with the British theatre for so long that I’ve almost forgotten how good French actors can be.

Earlier today, I found these two small gems featuring one of my favourite French actors – Robert Hirsch. Between 1948 and 1974, he was the star of the Comédie-Française. He played all the great classical parts, as well as modern roles. He was superb in absolutely everything. He had oodles of charm. His timing was matchless. He could be scary and moving, and hilariously funny.

I saw him in numerous films, but only a few times on stage, unfortunately. I so wish I’d seen his Nero in Britannicus. Still, I got to see him in Richard III, directed by Terry Hands, and that was amazing.

Anyway, if you don’t speak French, here's a bit of background info about these clips.

The first one is a short parody of Victor Hugo’s romantic drama Ruy Blas. Watch Robert Hirsch becoming more and more childishly petulant as a ‘sociétaire de la Comédie-Française’ (i.e. an associate member of the illustrious theatrical company, which, of course, he was at the time) who feels he cannot give his all because of two other actors who are not up to it and a set that refuses to cooperate. By his side, trying to calm him down, is Jacques Charon, who was his partner on stage and in real life.

Every year, the Union des Artistes du Spectacle used to organise a charity event (on behalf of old artistes who didn’t have a pension), in which famous actors, singers, etc. used to perform something unusual – for them; most of the time a circus act. Here are Robert Hirsch and Jacques Charon in Swan Lake. They are introduced by Jacques Chancel – a very famous talk show host – and the wonderful choreographer Maurice Béjart.

Monday, 28 December 2009

To be or not to be…in Shakespeare

After you’ve watched the wonderful documentary mentioned below, you can stay with 4oD and watch this one about acting in Shakespeare It’s funny, illuminating and touching, and you can catch an amazing glimpse of Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras. But hurry: you only have 14 days left to see this little gem.

A few random thoughts:
1) I was reminded of how monotonous Ian McKellen’s voice is and of how much I dislike him – most of the time. (Sorry, Sir Ian, but, yes, you are right, for the first 30 years of your career, you were rubbish. And later too, actually…)

2) When an actor says he learned his craft by watching Tim Pigott-Smith, Greg Hicks and Sam West instead of Ian Richardson, David Warner, Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi, Alan Howard et al, you know he doesn’t have such a good ear for language and you are old (see below for confirmation).

3) Although once described by someone who knew as the most boring actor in the world, Patrick Stewart is also one of the most endearing (and I’ve long forgiven him for nearly killing me – see my Slap of the Day post
here for the story).

4) I did see Eileen Atkins as Rosalind at Stratford, in 1973: it didn’t make me want to become an actress, nor – as in the case of Gregory Doran (don’t you just love his hair!) – a theatre director: it was one of the worst productions of the play I was going to see in my long theatregoing career. I loved the late lamented Buzz Goodbody, but she was misguided there: it seemed obvious to me (and to others) that having Rosalind wear trousers from the start wouldn’t work when the plot required for her to put on male attire.

5) I want to know what Imogen Stubbs uses on her face to remain looking so youthful: she’s hardly changed since I first saw her at the RSC over 20 years ago. I can testify she does look young: I saw her the other day in my local TK Maxx. Spooky.

Friday, 25 December 2009

In the nick of time

Forget about Keira Knightley in a bad modern adaptation of a French masterpiece, the theatrical star of the West End is a horse. Not even a real, flesh-and-blood horse – a life-size puppet. Actually, several puppet horses.

Watch this and you’ll understand. There is also a wonderful video diary (in six parts) by one of the puppeteers on YouTube.

Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights of War Horse, but, whatever he does with it – and no doubt it will be brilliant, it won’t be as heartrending and spectacular as the stage production.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go go go… what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Henry V at the Odéon

I haven’t got time just now to write a blah blah for these pictures (I will, a bit later), but I don’t want to deprive you of them one moment longer.

They were taken backstage (actually ‘under’ the stage) during a performance of Henry V at the Odéon Theatre in Paris, in May 1976. And at the First Night party. I was working as a dresser cum interpreter.

There are some distinguished actors in these pics, but one of them is very famous. Can you see who it is?

Friday, 17 October 2008

As long as he loves his mother…

Since I can’t possibly be objective about the production, I have asked Lulu (who said she was going to the Press Night) to be my first Guest Reviewer.

Oedipus is a play that we always find is somehow about us. And I’d always thought, the more stylised the presentation – masks, formal movement, ululation – the easier it is to latch on to the universality. I like my Greek tragedy really, really Greek.

So it is disconcerting at first as, on to a beaten copper domed stage, through a huge bronze door, appears a shirt-clad Ralph Fiennes looking anything but kingly, followed by a down-to-earth chorus of short, middle-aged businessmen in black suits, seating themselves on wooden benches at a refectory table that looks like something from a Maida Vale canalside pub. And what of Clare Higgins’ matronly but undeniably seaside-landlady-like Jocasta, in a too-tight black dress and clippy heels?

But then Fiennes launches, with typical vocal power, into his opening speech…and then one by one the chorus start to speak, then to sing…and the spell begins to be woven, blending the ancient and modern elements so that the eruption on to the stage of Alan Howard’s Teirisias as an Irish dunk, in a crumpled cream linen safari suit, seems to strike just the right note, lending unexpected credibility to his seemingly rambling riddles and even more to the irritable impatience of the questioning king and his anxious listeners.

Ralph Fiennes is a cool, cerebral actor, and I wasn’t expecting to be moved by him, but in his interpretation the intellectual ability and emotional restraint of Oedipus the man is foregrounded, throwing the escalating flashes of anger and despair into relief, and controlling the mounting horror as effectively as any Hollywood thriller. Even Jocasta’s uptight hairdo responds to the unstoppable downward tumult, disintegrating into hanks of fallen curls just ready for Oedipus to clutch in disgust and drag her to her knees as understanding dawns and he sees her in the harsh light of truth.

It’s an uneven production. The low points: being distracted by Jocasta’s shoes coming dangerously close to wide gaps in the flooring. An audience that took 20 minutes to settle down. A misguided attempt by the National Theatre to do a ‘Greek-themed’ evening by playing 1930s rembetika in the foyer beforehand, the bouzouki creating the wrong mood entirely. And a pacey, fluent new translation by Frank McGuinness that had just a few too many colloquialisms not to grate (‘I rule the roost here!’)

And the high spots? A chorus worthy of any Eisteddfod, with a lead singer you could listen to all night. Teirisias gloriously reimagined but still the outsider always, cursed by understanding. A heart-wrenching final scene with the ruined king and his children, little Antigone already fierce and loyal against her own interests, daddy’s little girl no matter what wrongs he’s committed, no matter how terrible he appears with the blood weeping from his pierced and sightless eyes. A perfect stage that looks like the roof of a church and at the same time an antique map of the world, revolving so slowly you hardly notice, in the 90-minute span bringing itself, and the audience, full circle, beginning and ending with itself, with ourselves.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Oedipus Techs

If you were to ask me where I feel most at peace, I would answer, ‘in an empty theatre, watching a technical rehearsal’. Technicals mean endless repetitions, long waiting periods when nothing seems to be happening, and a disjointed view of the production, but I love them. I know, I’m mad. That’s what Ian, the DSM (Deputy Stage Manager – hey, you’re going to have to find out for yourselves what these abbreviations stand for; I can’t keep telling you every time) on Oedipus, said to me the other day as he was leading me through the labyrinthine corridors of the National Theatre.

Oh, didn’t I say: I spent practically the whole of Monday and Tuesday sitting quietly in one of the side aisles of the Olivier Theatre (a replica of the amphitheatre at Epidaurus, so the ideal setting for a Greek tragedy), watching the technical rehearsals of Jonathan Kent’s production of Sophocles’ play, in a new adaptation by Frank McGuinness.

How did I manage that? Simple, I asked. Well, it probably helped that I knew Jonathan Kent at Stratford-upon-Avon, 34 years ago: he was a young actor with the RSC and I was a young French girl trying to get an interesting job with the company by mooching around the place, talking to everybody and attending every single performance of every show that was on – either sitting in the front row (when the house wasn’t very full) or standing at the back of the stalls. Jonathan and I chatted quite often in the Dirty Duck (the pub where all the actors used to gather before and after the performance). The ‘interesting’ job never really materialized (I’ve touched on the subject on my main blog), but I did work as an usherette (for only two nights because we weren’t allowed to see the p lays); in the catering department because they were allocated two comps every day and no one else ever wanted them; and also as a dresser at the Aldwych for a while. Jonathan played Aumerle in John Barton’s production of Richard II (with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating in the title role); I was dressing Northumberland (played by Clem McCallin – the tallest person in the company, of course, since I’m short) and they both shared a dressing room.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, as part of a kind of arts festival called Open Rehearsal, the NT advertised that the public would be able to watch the evening ‘reset’ of War Horse at the Olivier. As the name indicates, during the reset, everything – the set, props, lighting, sound, etc. – is put back the way it needs to be before the next performance of a show. There had already been a matinee of War Horse that day and the reset is more ‘eventful’ if the evening play is different from the matinee’s, but it’s still fascinating if you’ve never seen it before. To cut a very long story short, my partner and I ended up watching it on our own, with just the Scheduling Manager, whom, as it turned out, I had been on tour with in Paris, in 1986 (he was a young electrician then). But I digress. On my way to the auditorium, I had dropped a letter for Jonathan at the Stage Door, asking to be allowed to attend a technical of Oedipus ‘en souvenir du bon vieux temps’, as it were. He said yes, and that is how, on Monday afternoon, I found myself sitting in a very familiar seat (I’ve sat in it so many times), watching the production slowly – very slowly – take shape.

A typical technical rehearsal goes like this: the electricians go through the lighting plot and fiddle with the lamps so the lighting changes constantly in a seemingly erratic way; the stagehands adjust parts of the set and crawl on the stage in an attempt, say, to find out what on earth is making the revolve squeak; the actors chat or take their bearings on the stage while they wait for their cue (most of them say their lines without emotion, saving it all for ‘the real thing’); the women (it’s mostly women) from the wardrobe department come to see whether anything needs to be done to the costumes; the director stops and starts the play and watches it from different parts of the auditorium, checking sightlines; he/she is in constant dialogue with the Stage Manager, who writes down every move, every lighting and sound cue in ‘The Book’. People talk in small groups and attend quietly and efficiently to the tasks that have been assigned to them. There is activity everywhere, yet the atmosphere is that of quiet concentration. No raised voices; no ‘tempers’; just endless patience and attention to detail. Anything that goes wrong can – and will – be put right. All is well with the world.
And as far as I was concerned, I was unreachable – it was an escape from the world, hence the sense of peace I experienced.

This is what the auditorium looked like on Tuesday evening, after the dress rehearsal.

This is not the first Oedipus I’ve been very close to: the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, brought their production of that harrowing play to the Edinburgh Festival in 1974. It was directed by the legendary Michael Cacoyannis (yes, the guy who did Zorba the Greek). He was intending to supervise the transfer to the Royal Lyceum stage, but he had fly back to Greece in a hurry the day before the first performance: he was a Greek Cypriot, and Turkey had just invaded a part of the island. He still had family there.

I was dressing the boys from the Chorus and the lead actor Des Cave, in just one scene, which took place backstage. Oedipus was blinding himself (you do know the story, don’t you?) so his next entrance would have to be different – to say the least. It was a very quick change: I had to put Des into his ‘bloody’ costume (and press all the poppers on his back), while the make-up girl did his face and he howled. He was very good at howling, but there was a limit to how long that cry of anguish could be, so we only had about 60 seconds. It was nerve-racking, but rather hilarious too.

I never saw the whole production since I was busy, but this is what the staging looked like then.

And here are three of my ‘boys’ in their dressing room. They were lovely guys: the one looking at himself in the mirror was called David Turner. He was an actor and dancer. We became great friends: on the last day, he borrowed a pound from me and bought me a small spray of Je Reviens with it (he’d previously asked what perfume I wore). Wasn’t that nice of him? I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the contortionist.

The first preview of Jonathan’s production was on Wednesday night; there haven’t been any reviews yet since the Press Night is next week, so I cannot reveal anything about the staging – not one thing – nor can I tell you what Ralph Fiennes, who plays Oedipus, is like in it. All I can say is that, after seeing it twice from beginning to end – a run-through and the dress rehearsal – and seeing lots of scenes several times, I was enthralled. But then I’ve always got very attached to any production I’ve worked on or got to know very well. One of my oldest and best friends (David Shaw-Parker) is in it; I toured in Paris and Brussels with two of the other actors (Alan Howard and Malcolm Storry); I’ve even chatted to the lead once at a Christmas party, so you won’t get an objective opinion from me. I am going to the Press Night and to the party afterwards. What do you bet someone – who didn’t notice me in the course of those two days – will ask in what capacity I’m there?

Update (11/10/08): There is now a lovely trailer for the production on the NT’s website, here

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Théâtre à l’anglaise

Planification subtile ou coïncidence curieuse, la saison 1979/80 de la Royal Shakespeare Company s’est ouverte le soir de la Première de Coriolan de l’Odéon représenté par cette même RSC dans une mise en scène de Terry Hands. Tandis qu’Alan Howard, vedette incontestée de la troupe depuis plusieurs années, incarnait le héros antique sur la scène parisienne, la vaste salle du Royal Shakespeare Theatre de Stratford-upon-Avon retentissait des rires du public aux malheurs de Falstaff dans Les Joyeuses Commères de Windsor, mis en scène par Trevor Nunn (le directeur artistique de la compagnie) dans des décors de John Napier. Suivra le 17 avril Cymbeline, conte de fées-mélodrame dont le héros est un « villain » dans la grande tradition des Richard III et des Iago.

Le ténébreux Ben Kingsley sera le traître maléfique et Judi Dench sa victime, petit chaperon rouge perdu dans les bois de la vie. La Nuit des Rois dans une mise en scène de Terry Hands aura sa Première le 12 juin, avec dans l’un des rôles principaux John McEnery (le superbe Mercutio du Roméo et Juliette de Zeffirelli). La saison se poursuivra avec en août Othello incarné par Donald Sinden et mis en scène par Ronald Eyre, dont le dernier travail à Stratford date de 191. Jules César clôturera la saison au mois de septembre. Monté par Barry Kyle dans des décors de Christopher Morley, ce spectacle verra les débuts shakespeariens d’un tout jeune acteur, David Threlfall – lauréat d’un prix de la critique cet hiver – dans le rôle de Marc Antoine.

Revenu entre-temps de la tournée européenne de Coriolan, Alan Howard jouera ce même personnage vieilli et au terme de sa vie dans l’Antoine et Cléopâtre de Peter Brook, à l’Aldwych Theatre de Londres, aux côtés de Glenda Jackson.

Article publié dans Les Nouvelles Littéraires, le 5 avril 1979.