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21 May 2015

How to be a great actor

From Kean to Dench, the best performers radiate an electricity that transcends the stage.

By Benedict Nightingale Benedict Nightingale

Edmund Kean as Richard III (1814). To see him act was to “read Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. Picture: Victoria & Albert Museum/Bridgeman Images

Great Shakespeare Actors
Stanley Wells
Oxford University Press, 314pp, £16.99

Why Acting Matters
David Thomson
Yale University Press, 192pp, £16.99

Years ago the BBC aired a programme that tried to destroy Laurence Olivier’s posthumous reputation, primarily by showing the 1965 film of his Othello to London sixth-formers, who chortled contemptuously at his supposed excesses. And yes, Olivier’s wailings and railings did seem hammy in close-up. But that was to miss the point. The original performance took place at the Old Vic, a largeish theatre with dodgy acoustics, and yet it had a mesmeric power that kept audiences captive, admiring, even overwhelmed. It was great acting from the actor who had restored the testosterone to that sometimes too sweet prince, Hamlet, and later played a Shylock whose departing howl of anguish reverberated from the theatre’s wings and still echoes round my head.

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One mark of the skilled performer is the ability to grab, hold and virtually hypnotise audiences. But what is great acting? For the late Kenneth Tynan, the vital ingredients included “powerful magnetism” but also “complete physical relaxation, commanding eyes visible at the back of a gallery, superb timing which includes the capacity to make verse swing, chutzpah . . . and the ability to communicate a sense of danger”. Stanley Wells wouldn’t quarrel with that recipe, but he has additions to make in Great Shakespeare Actors: notably the imagination to transcend and even defy technique, reaching below the surface of language to “encompass and weld together the diverse elements of a role”.

In the end Wells has to fall back, as we all do, on “genius”, the X factor that “we may more easily recognise than define”. Olivier had it. In my view Paul Scofield had it. And my own reading tells me that the early-19th-century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean had it in abundance. The biographer of the American actor Edwin Forrest, who had played Iago to Kean’s Othello, raved about a truth and intensity that “suggested something portentous, praeternatural, supernal, that blinded and stunned the beholders, appalled the imagination and chilled the blood”. Byron admitted to shrinking when the actor’s “frown of hatred darkly fell”. The elder Dumas called Kean “a wild beast, half man, half tiger”. And you wouldn’t analyse a tiger if you were sharing its space. You’d watch, tingle and wonder if you’d leave in one piece.

Yet as Wells suggests in his fascinating book, there are quieter examples of greatness among the 39 actors he celebrates: the graceful, tender if occasionally over-soft Ellen Terry, of whose sleepwalking Lady Macbeth her own son said “she is so sorry for the Thane of Fife’s wife and is wondering where she can possibly be now, poor, poor dear – what a nice woman!”; John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who brought dreamy magic to Oberon and Falstaff; Simon Russell Beale, who was better as the redeemed than as the tyrannical Lear and who declared that Hamlet, whom he played in 2000, was more sympathetic than he’d originally thought.

Beale earns his place among Wells’s great performers partly because of that Hamlet. If he missed the prince’s cruelty and spasmodic recklessness, he combined moral disgust with wry humour, vulnerability, deep melancholy, a capacity for affection and much else. He brings to an upbeat close a book that starts with the Elizabethan tragedian who first played Lear, Othello, Richard III and, presumably, other leading roles: Richard Burbage. Almost everything we know about Burbage’s work comes from the anonymous obituarist who lamented that a “whole world” had died with him, including “young Hamlet” and “the grieved Moor”. It was Burbage who had to deliver Hamlet’s acting manifesto to the players, telling them to avoid mannered gestures and overblown emotion and never, ever to “o’erstep the modesty of nature”. I don’t think he’d have been sawing the air or bloating his lines as he roamed Elsinore.

Nature: now, there’s an important concept. It is almost a truism that the history of great acting has been a series of attempts to ­reclaim nature, meaning recognisable reality, from established performers who have come to seem stylised. As the film historian David Thomson notes in Why Acting Matters, “truth, human accuracy and restraint steadily invade acting and disabuse the grand gestures we might call overacting”. There are examples of this from the Restoration onwards: Thomas Betterton, whose Othello (Wells concludes) was passionate yet complex, “acting between as well as on the lines”; David Garrick, whose Hamlet greeted the ghost with such authentic terror that men reportedly cried out and women fainted; Sarah Siddons, whose Lady Macbeth was so frighteningly real in the sleepwalking scene that the dramatist Sheridan Knowles declared: “I smelt blood, I swear I smelt blood.” Yet nowadays we’d probably find them all as artificial as Hazlitt found the stately John Kemble – “like a man in armour” – after experiencing the freshness of his successor, Edmund Kean.

And here is another near-truism. The history of great acting might almost be one of physical disadvantage, peopled by performers who would have trouble getting anything but “character” roles in most soaps. Betterton was said to be “clumsily made”, with a huge head, a thick neck and short, fat arms; Kean was short and squat and had a voice described as “thick and hoarse, somewhat between an apoplexy and a cold”; Henry Irving moved so clumsily that it was jokingly claimed he had not one, but two wooden legs; Judi Dench asked Peter Hall why he was casting “a menopausal dwarf” as Cleopatra and placed a notice outside one theatre saying she didn’t have a cold but was using her natural voice; and Beale’s Hamlet inspired the headline, “Tubby or not tubby, fat is the question”. Yet they all defied their supposed limitations.

That was especially the case with William Macready, who dominated the early Victorian theatre. Leigh Hunt described him as “one of the plainest and most awkwardly made men that ever trod the stage”, with a voice “even coarser than his person”. Yet the same critic ended up calling that voice “the finest and most heroical on the stage”. As Wells writes, surely this was ­testimony to qualities sentimentalists would not associate with great actors: dogged determination and sheer hard work. Knowing he had a tendency to gesticulate and shout, Macready would practise by bandaging his arms, lying down and delivering Lear’s or Macbeth’s most violent speeches in a ­whisper. He would look in a mirror, curb the muscles in his face and suggest passion with his eyes alone.

Certainly, there can be urgency in res­traint, power in stillness. As Thomson writes, effective acting may be to feel plenty but “do nothing”. And there the eyes matter. Wells writes that all great actors make striking use of them. He cites the example of Kemble’s contemporary George Frederick Cooke, who sometimes performed while dizzy with the drink that eventually killed him, but impressed everyone with eyes that were “fiery, dark and at times terribly expressive”. Then again, Irving’s eyes, though small, were said “at a moment to become immense and hang like a bowl with dark liquid shining through”. Olivier once said that his eyes were more important than his arms or legs. And we have Hazlitt’s word that Kean’s eyes were “never silent”, as well as Keats’s suggestive summing-up of his death scenes: “the very eyelid dies”.

Coleridge said that to see Kean act was “to read Shakespeare by flashes of ­lightning” – an equivocal compliment, Wells points out, as Kean could be excessively sudden and disconcertingly startling – and I left Great Shakespeare Actors still convinced that the angry, jealous and dissipated actor (whom Walter Scott described as a “tuppenny tearmouth, rendered mad by conceit and success”) was the greatest of the great. I suspect Wells wouldn’t disagree. But he’s as discriminating as he is authoritative, and makes a good case for each of his choices: from Ira Aldridge, the 19th-century African American who drew on his personal experience to create a painfully downtrodden yet agonisingly powerless Shylock, through Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft, to Janet Suzman, Antony Sher and Ian McKellen, whose introspective Macbeth and stealthy Iago haven’t been bettered.

Might Wells have elevated John Barrymore and Anthony Hopkins, Albert Finney and Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and that brilliant newcomer, Rory Kinnear, to his pantheon? Perhaps. Should he rely less on us critics and more on his own observation when he’s evoking modern performances? Conceivably. But he successfully resuscitates some surpassing performances by actors who didn’t always receive their due. I, too, remember Richard Pasco’s self-hating Jaques, Donald Sinden’s hilariously grouchy Benedick and Ian Richardson’s witty Berowne. And Wells left me wanting to time-warp back to see the lithe, snake-like yet superficially merry Iago that Edwin Booth played after his brother’s murder of Abraham Lincoln, or watch the Italian actor Tommaso Salvini as his Othello wept, raged and flung fellow actors round the stage.

That many theatregoers will leave this entertaining and informative book wishing much the same is, I suppose, one indication of Why Acting Matters. But is that enough for Thomson, author of the acting component of Yale’s series of short books asking why everything from poetry to architecture to the Dreyfus affair “matters”? I’ve read his elegant but over-discursive essay twice and am still unsure. At first he seems to see acting as an escape from reality, whereas I am surely not alone in regarding it as an often discomforting illumination of reality. After all, actors are as likely to plunge us in the mud as lift us to the clouds.

Thomson discusses Olivier and Brando, casting, the Method and many other things, even actors’ love affairs and divorces. He is always interesting and frequently provocative, though I sometimes wondered if he distinguished sufficiently between the very different demands made on stage actors, who must be able to reach across chasms to the gods, and film actors, who can afford to glint and whisper. And by the end he has moved on to a darkly philosophical plane. There he appears to argue that actors are doing what we’re all doing: projecting fictitious versions of ourselves in order to keep “desolation” at bay. But did that convince me that acting matters? Not really.

Maybe acting matters because the theatre matters. It exercises the imagination and galvanises the intelligence. It increases our understanding of the world and, sometimes, our own character. It embodies our hopes, dreams, fears and much else.

Let’s end with a picture of the declining Kean not in Wells’s book. As the critic G H Lewes remembered it, his Othello scuttled with a gouty hobble towards Macready’s Iago, who was much taller than he, grabbed his throat with a rasp of “Villain, be sure you prove my love a whore” and then seemed so to swell that he made Macready look small. Such was the performance’s pathos that “old men leaned their heads upon their arms and fairly sobbed. I would again,” Lewes went on, “risk broken ribs for the chance of a good place in the pit to see anything like it.” Did those old men think acting mattered? Absolutely.

Benedict Nightingale is a former theatre critic for the NS and the Times and the author of “Great Moments in the Theatre” (Oberon)