Talking Movies

September 5, 2014

The Actor’s Lament

Actor Steven Berkoff returns to writing verse drama for the first time in decades with this entertaining if slight production.

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Berkoff is an actor recovering from hostile reviews of his first outing as a playwright. Licking his wounds, he is comforted by the kind words of his playwright friend played by Jay Benedict, who insists he is a fantastic actor and the critics could not forgive his presumption. And the mutual flattery escalates even further when their actress friend played by Andree Bernard arrives, to be told what a great artiste she is; even if she is understudying a soap star on the West End. And then things kick off into not so much a lament as a tirade, at the state of the West End, the cult of theatre directors, the arrogance of playwrights, and, above all, the agony of the actor’s life and the importance of what they do night after night; for themselves and for the audience.

That might sound a bit off-putting, but this splenetic hour is filled with humour and self-awareness. Berkoff knows that an actor turned playwright moaning about revivals in the West End, and how directors like them because they get a cut of the proceeds, will seem dangerously like personal carping by Berkoff himself. And so he turns it up to 11: we get Berkoff moving himself to tears over the West End being a morgue; “Poor Chekhov dragged out again, leave the poor bloody sod alone”; full of clueless screen actors; “If you don’t remember your lines you do it fifty more bloody times. But in theatre there is only one take, and it goes on all night, every night, until you get it right!”; while dedicated actors like Berkoff and Bernard are left on the scrapheap, abandoned even by Benedict.

Berkoff’s use of verse is not like Joss Whedon’s use of rhyme in his musicals. You’re rarely waiting for a pay-off from a Berkoff line, instead it sounds like normal speech with the occasional unexpected rhyme. And, performed on a bare stage, with only an ornate chair for decoration, the focus is on the physical theatre Berkoff perfected after studying at the Lecoq school in Paris; so well displayed in Ballyturk some weeks back by a younger veteran of that school, Mikel Murfi. Imaginary cigarettes are lit with hands where the thumb waggles for the flame of a lighter. Othello, Macbeth, and Lear come to life for a few lines by dint of a change in posture and tone of voice. Berkoff ages himself by stooping and playing deaf. Indeed by the end Berkoff, age 77, was drenched in sweat…

The Actor’s Lament is a late and almost disappointingly short work from a master, but, while his age precludes the full powerhouse style of his youth, his physical theatre is still to be revered.

3/5

The Actor’s Lament continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until September 6th.

May 26, 2014

Fast Intent presents Zelda

Before she was Zelda Fitzgerald, she was Zelda Sayre. Before she was a Riviera socialite, she was a Southern belle. Before she was F Scott’s crazy tormentor, she was his beloved muse. And both personae are explored in Eddie Naughton’s new play, Zelda, based on Zelda’s life and own writings.

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I’ve been poring over Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty) again recently, and was struck by the notion that Yates had modelled himself so much on the doomed F Scott as a writer that his entire life started to slide into equal drink-fuelled catastrophe. Yates, of course, was compounding his own mental illness with drinking that erased his medication’s benefit; and Zelda’s own slide into madness was not dissimilar. But there’s another striking note in Bailey’s book; the idea that every writer has some essential tale to tell, that can be disguised in any number of interesting ways – but will always be at the core of their best work. For F Scott, that was his love for the unattainable Zelda; and The Great Gatsby was F Scott spinning out that epic romance into a piercing continent-encompassing metaphor.

Naughton’s play strips away the Daisy Buchanan facade to examine the real woman in a script which puts Zelda in a hospital room telling her story. Zelda Sayre was a Southern belle who became internationally famous alongside her husband F Scott Fitzgerald whose stunning debut This Side of Paradise mythologised their romance; casting Zelda as the archetypal flapper. Their life together was a never-ending parade of alcohol-fuelled jazz-scored parties, with F Scott’s talent keeping them in a luxurious lifestyle; in New York, Paris and the Riviera; previously reserved for the self-indulgent robber barons. Friends with Cole Porter, Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, a writer and painter, dancer and mother, it should never have ended in a fiery death at a psychiatric hospital; but such was the price of alcoholism and escalating mental illness. Naughton resurrects the biting wit before that curtain.

Zelda seems a perfect fit for Fast Intent. Fast Intent was set up in 2011 by director Sarah Finlay and actors Ger Adlum and Nessa Matthews. Their previous productions include Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (The Complex), Family Voices and One for the Road (New Theatre), Jean Anouilh’s The Lark and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (both Smock Alley), and an adaptation of Dracula for the Bram Stoker Festival at Dublin Castle; part of a residency there which included Shakespeare by Candlelight in December and a series of monologues for Culture Night in September. Zelda joins Joan of Arc as another radical heroine for Fast Intent to explore in their pared down style that focuses on ideas and emotions. Zelda is performed by Sharon Coade, directed by Sarah Finlay, and produced by Gerard Adlum and Keith Thompson, with Lights, Sound, and Set design by Eoghan Carrick, Nessa Matthews, and Aoife Fealy respectively.

Zelda runs at Theatre Upstairs from Tuesday the 3rd of June to Saturday 14th. Performances are at 1pm, Tuesday to Saturday, when the ticket price of €10 includes a light lunch. There are 7pm performances from Thursday to Saturday. Bookings can be made at http://www.theatreupstairs.ie.

January 20, 2014

Macbeth

Being one of the Fundit sponsors of this production of the Scottish play at Smock Alley, this is an earnest attempt at a semi-unbiased review of Keith Thompson directing Macbeth.

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As I did stand my watch upon the hill I looked toward Birnam and anon methought the wood began to move

Thompson has directed and acted in several Shakespeare productions at UCD’s Astra Hall, and his hallmark brevity is at work here as Macbeth comes in at just under 100 minutes without an interval. The play opens with King Duncan (Finbarr Doyle) receiving news from a wounded soldier (Patrick Doyle) of Macbeth (Gerard Adlum) successfully suppressing a rebellion. His generous decision to reward Macbeth with the rebel’s title Thane of Cawdor backfires spectacularly, however, as Macbeth and Banquo (Conor Marren) have just been visited by three witches who prophesied receiving that title would be the first step towards Macbeth becoming King of Scotland. But it is not until Macbeth returns home, with the unexpected news that Duncan intends to stay with them, that the mischief really starts as ambitious Lady Macbeth (Jennifer Laverty) pushes him to murder Duncan and seize power…

There are no lulls until Malcolm and Macduff’s filler scene in this breathless production. Macbeth’s castle on the fateful night is a frenetically busy place, and Cait Corkery’s design cleverly utilises the Romanesque windows of the Boys School space by running stairs up to them to create a balcony, which Macbeth hides under at one point gripped by fear and guilt. The witches are druidic figures, appearing in hooded cloaks on three sides of the audience in the gangway above. And returning soldiers run down these gangways to gain entrance to the stage, injecting tremendous bursts of energy into Shakespeare’s tale of dark plotting. Eoghan Carrick’s lighting design emphasises the nocturnal aspect of the play, while his use of greens and blues in his night-time tints also subtly hints at the supernatural powers at work forcing Macbeth ever bloodily forward.

But a Thompsonian Shakespeare will always have naturalistic comedy, and here Katie McCann as an excitable Ross offers much background joviality, and also an unexpected personal note in her plea to Malcolm (Jamie Hallahan) that in his cause even the women of Scotland would fight against the tyrant. Meanwhile Patrick Doyle in a terrific performance in a portmanteau role at Chez Macbeth transforms the Porter’s speech into a series of ‘knock knock’ jokes told to various members of the audience, casually slits Banquo’s throat ending his indignation, serves drinks afterwards as Macbeth hastily dabs off Banquo’s blood from his cheek, smiles devilishly as he appears on the balcony to check the escape of Lady Macduff (Claire Jenkins) with the faux-innocent question ‘Where is your husband?’ and, as Seyton, stays by his murderous master till the bitter end of Birnam Wood.

Playing Shakespeare with a cast of nine, regardless of the cutting done, requires this sort of doubling; and everything works except for an unfortunately Lynchian moment when Macduff arrives to check on Duncan. Eschewing any crown for instead a chair and a ring,(which Macbeth continually twists on his finger because of his guilty conscience) it’s all too easy to forget that Finbarr Doyle is Duncan/Macduff, so for a second it appears Duncan has arrived to where he is to check if he’s sleeping… Doyle though is a notably gracious Duncan, and his Macduff has pleasing notes of integrity. He also engages Macbeth in a sword-fight which thrills because it is perilously close to the audience in this small venue, and, because of some tweaking of the text, looks rather like Macbeth is going to get the upper hand on Macduff.

Thompson’s cutting of the text puts us inside Macbeth’s head to a degree that makes him approach Richard III, except that instead of gleefully informing us what he’s going to do before he takes action, like Richard, this Macbeth is almost asking our advice on whether he should take action at all by outlining his qualms. Adlum has Macbeth simultaneously tempted and horrified by the witches. He has a painful awareness of what Jan Kott called ‘the grand staircase of history’ in Shakespeare’s plays. He knows that to kill Duncan will put him one level higher on the staircase, and will also create on the step he did occupy an equally lethal challenger to his new status. Laverty’s Lady M tempts him by pricking his vanity; she supplies the pragmatism for murder and immediate advancement, but not for reigning hereafter.

This lean production keeps our sympathy with a hero, first doing wrong out of fear of being usurped, who eventually collapses into amoral madness.

4/5

Macbeth continues its run at Smock Alley until January 25th.

December 9, 2013

Macbeth Needs Your Money!

Do you want to fund an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a production of Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Globe in Smock Alley? Then click on this link,http://fundit.ie/project/macbeth-1, and take your own tiny step towards being Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love – “Who are you?” “Ah, well, I’m the money”…

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For two weeks in January theatre troupe Fast Intent will convert the atmospheric Smock Alley Boys School space into a traditional Elizabethan Playhouse, a theatre of the type that Shakespeare himself would have recognised. In this heaving indoor cauldron; complete with Shakespeare’s favourite trouble-makers, rowdy groundlings who stand rather than sit because their tickets cost so little; they will present one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most thrilling plays – the brilliantly bloody Macbeth. Taking inspiration from research into Elizabethan and Jacobean staging practices they promise an engaging, thrilling experience, full of blood and guts, swords and shields, raucous crowds and high drama. Playing the power couple to avoid like the plague in medieval Scotland are Gerard Adlum (as Macbeth) and Jennifer Laverty (as Lady M), who both greatly impressed in previous Fast Intent production The Lark. Finbarr Doyle is the vengeful MacDuff, and the ensemble includes Patrick Doyle (fresh from his brilliant Harker in Fast Intent’s recent Dracula), Katie McCann, Conor Marren, Kyle Hixon,Claire Jenkins, and Jamie Hallahan. The set design is by Cait Corkery, and other crew members include Carol Conway and Caoimhe Murphy.

So why fund Macbeth? Star Gerard Adlum explains the appeal of the Thane thus: “He may not have Hamlet’s education, or Richard II’s eloquence, but Macbeth has a dextrous grasp of language and expresses himself with the ease of a poet, though his thoughts are never easy. Left to his own devices he deals in metaphors and similes, as if he desperately needs the audience to know that he is not a thug, not a brute. The challenge for the actor is not to prove his strength but to reveal his innate vulnerability.” For Adlum Macbeth’s key line of self-justification is ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill’ – “This is the unfortunate logic that drives him on; two wrongs will eventually make a right.” Director Keith Thompson, a sometime co-writer and co-director hereabouts, has previously helmed productions of Richard III and Hamlet; the former starring Adlum as Buckingham. “I have wanted to direct Macbeth for years. It is both incredibly simple and complex. Complex in that it seems to cram into two hours the entire gamut of human emotions: love, hope, fear, desire, greed, guilt, loss. At the same time its speed and simplicity means there is no time to stop and think. Everything is truly experienced in the moment. It lends itself to constant re-interpretation, having something to say for each and every generation. It is human, raw and very, very messy.” Thompson finds Lady MacDuff’s line ‘but I remember I am in this earthly world where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly’ “incredibly relevant to the world we are currently living in, where apathy is our common discourse and greed often not just considered lawful, but admirable. It shows that though this may have always been the case, there are always people who will identify it and struggle against it.”

So, that’s what they have to say. So why do I say to you fund Macbeth? Well, I’ve already thrown money at it because this is Fast Intent doing Macbeth. Fast Intent consistently pare back plays to their bare bones, and focus the audience’s energy onto the performances and the text. When it worked with Dracula it brought Stoker’s best prose to vivid, sensuous life. In The Lark it aided Anouilh’s theological ideas to sparkle across the stage, with real emotions grounding them in reality. And this is a cast that has proven itself at Shakespeare at a young age. While still in college Finbarr Doyle played Richard III with gleeful malevolence, Patrick Doyle played Macbeth with striking originality as distracted by visions, and Gerard Adlum played Lear with a startling maturity for such a young actor. But having a great cast is only one competent here. The key to successfully staging Shakespeare is not being afraid to cut his words. Reverence before his text too often is simply fear and trembling before the Bard rather than awe; and the result is a slow untheatrical death. But you need to have a confidence bordering on chutzpah to do the needful sometimes and meddle with the sacred scriptures. Keith Thompson, directing Hamlet in 2012, cut Polonius’ advice to Laertes, in its entirety, because he wanted a more serious Polonius. So, yeah, he has the confidence to pull this off bustling take…

Fast Intent’s goal is to raise €3,500, which will cover about half of the production costs; including costumes and hiring the venue – Smock Alley’s Boys School. The other half of the budget will consist of sponsorship from local businesses and by hosting various fundraising events. The contribution of Fundit donors is thus vital to the successful realisation of Macbeth. Fast Intent was established in 2011 by Sarah Finlay, Ger Adlum, Nessa Matthews and Keith Thompson. Their theatrical work to date has included acclaimed productions of Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (The Complex), Family Voices and One for the Road (both New Theatre) and The Lark by Jean Anouilh (Smock Alley). 2013 has seen them producing an entire body of work for Dublin Castle’s cultural programme, including historical monologue pieces for Culture Night, an adaptation of Dracula for the Bram Stoker Festival and the just gone Christmas show, Shakespeare by Candlelight. Rewards for funding at various levels are set out on the website, where the company also expresses its desire to have you asone of their “dearest partners of greatness”.

Go on, dream of sound and fury, and click http://fundit.ie/project/macbeth-1

February 15, 2012

Hamlet

Regular readers will remember previous worries about the possibility of an unbiased review if you know actors in a play. The problem is magnified with a play directed by Keith Thompson; my sometime co-writer, co-director, and leading man. This is a semi-unbiased review of his production of Hamlet in UCD’s Astra Hall last month with Sam McGovern playing the Dane.

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio, a man of infinite jest

Thompson has form with Shakespeare at the Astra Hall as UCD’s Leaving Cert production. In 2007 his swaggering turn as Banquo alongside Ciara Gough’s charismatically domineering Lady Macbeth upended the text completely by reducing a slightly nervous Macbeth to interloper status in his own play. Thompson also upended expectations in Sarah Finlay’s King Lear with a lecherous and camp interpretation of Gloucester that superbly heightened the pain of that character’s grisly fate at the hands of Cornwall. Here, Thompson cut the text drastically to showcase naturalistic comedy and an arrestingly physical central performance from Sam McGovern. Patrick Doyle’s Macbeth in 2009 was an incredibly original performance that saw Macbeth as a distrait hero who, touched by magic, sees things others can’t before descending into psychosis. McGovern’s Hamlet was less determinedly uncanny but displayed an equally confident mastery of the verse.

Doyle threw away his most quotable quotes as mumbles to wrong-foot the audience expecting a scholastic reading, and Thompson simply chopped many of the most famous lines. Polonius becomes a very serious character because of his ‘advice’ to Laertes disappearing completely. This approach worked eventually but made the first act hard going. A minimalist set of clinical white drapes, and sparse props being wheeled in, made Sam McGovern’s first black-clad appearance very arresting; but his emo-Hamlet, grieving furiously in this anti-septic arena, led to overwrought scenes with the ghost which suggested that five acts played at a level of such painfully overdone earnestness, without any comic relief, would become unbearable. Far from it. The second act began with Hamlet in a red football shirt wheeling in a child’s sled of picture books and soft toys which he threw at Polonius…

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lingered in the memory because, from the moment Russ Gaynor as a drunkenly buffonish Guildenstern and Jackie Murphy as the sober sister Rosencrantz arrived, they were saucy, hilarious, and conveyed that they really were old friends of Hamlet, and that they had old shared comic routines and in-jokes. That feel of naturalistic comedy is what made this production sparkle. Murphy’s stunt casting as a female Rosencrantz paid off by making her plea to Hamlet to yield up Polonius’ body, ‘My lord, you once did love me’, unexpectedly affecting. The jokiness developing naturally from the text consistently allowed incredible depth to suddenly emerge as a counterpoint; most notably during the arrival of the players when a tableau was formed and a spot-lit, visibly stunned Hamlet turned to haltingly deliver the ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy.

Joking aside, the tragedy was streamlined by textual cuts; foregrounding Hamlet as a stalking avenger rather than chronic ditherer. This Prince was truly menacing in his madness, his murder of Polonius seemed to have been long in the making from his violent threats against Ophelia, Gertrude, and even Guildenstern, with his ever present and very nasty pocket knife. Colm Kenny-Vaughan’s antagonist Claudius deserves special mention. Gill Lambert and Niamh O’Nolan’s costumes were inexplicably New Romantic but Kenny-Vaughan worked their wizened make-up job to suggest a character decaying from the inside as guilt eats away his soul. He imported a huge amount of complexity into Claudius’s guilt, his delivery of the devastating couplet ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/Words without thoughts never to heaven go’ deeply regretful, and his assenting to drink the poisoned chalice becoming an atoning gesture.

Less showy supporting turns from Molly O’Mahony as a subdued but concerned Gertrude, and John Kelly as a nicely simmering Laertes, fleshed out a convincingly naturalistic Court. McGovern’s impressive madness was able to fly between high comedy, touching pathos, and startling violence in large part because of the grounding effect of Ben Waddell’s stalwart turn as Horatio. But, while there was much to praise in the interpretation of the text and the performances coaxed from the youthful cast, the default minimalist staging adopted by Thompson and producer Niall Lane never fully utilised the full playing space of the Astra Hall, and in its white-out effect was too reminiscent of Finlay’s 2010 staging of King Lear which offered late Kurosawa style colour coded royal houses against an icily austere backdrop. The climactic fencing duel, however, was thrillingly realised within this space.

Thompson and McGovern are unlikely to do another Astra Hall Shakespeare production but any future collaboration between them should be eagerly anticipated.

4/5

June 29, 2011

Michael Caine cock(ney)s up shakespeare

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY
MICHAEL CAINE is sharing a brandy in the sedate library of this fabled haven of civility in an oftentimes torrid city with his agent, the celebrated MONTGOMERY MONCRIEFF MICAWBER-MYCROFT. Micawber-Mycroft though is wary. He knows only too well the fixed eye of the man with a grievance…

CAINE: You’ve been there ’aven’t you?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: What, the rebuilt Globe? Yes, of course I’ve been there. I saw Macbeth there a few years ago, they had posters everywhere proclaiming ‘This is a bloody production of an extremely brutal play’; I had to stop myself from cackling with delight. That should draw in the crowds in Sarf London I thought to myself.
CAINE: And you’ve been around the exhibition part of it as well, yeah?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, of course I have.
CAINE: So you know the booths where you can listen to all the old geezers speaking Shakespeare?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Um, yes I tried out the sound booths where you can listen to choice speeches, scenes and sonnets being performed by RADA’s finest graduates.
CAINE: And?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: And what?
CAINE: Wha’ did you notice?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Well, I was rather surprised that the earliest recordings, of Edwardian era actors doing Henry V’s big speeches, made Larry Olivier sound like he was being restrained by contrast when he popped up later. In fact he sounded positively subdued, and, whisper it, naturalistic, when we both know he was an enormous ham.
CAINE: No, Mycroft, you’re missing my point. Wha’ did you notice, did you ’ear a lot of regional accents in them booths?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Eh, no.
CAINE: Yeah, Eh, No. And why is tha’, eh? Do all the people in England sound like Laurence bloody Olivier when they open their mouth? Not bloody likely. So why can’t someone who sounds like me be featured in the recordings in them booths?
(Mycroft quickly puzzles out in his head what this meeting is really all about…)
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Do you want me to try and get your voice into those booths?!
CAINE: Yeah!
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: But, you’ve never really done Shakespeare…
CAINE: How bloody ’ard it can be? I’m not going to record a whole bloody play, I’ll just replace the one track they’ve go’ with Olivier doing Othello. Daft bastard shouldn’t be there doing that anyway, it’s an insult. Putting on blackface at age 58, in 1965 for Christ’s sake, what was he thinking? Until Chiwetel Eijofor remembers to record his bloody vocals for that fantastic exit scene he did with Ewan McGregor a few years ago I’ll ’ave a go.
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Oh! That speech? The final soliloquy?
CAINE: Yeah, tha’ one.
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I’m not sure that’s a very good idea, Michael.
CAINE: Why? Wha’? Do you think I can’t measure up to Larry?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: No, we both know you can, it’s just I have grave fears that that particular speech might sort of, well, send you looping off in another direction, almost against your will, as it were.
CAINE: Nonsense, it’s easy. (not really listening to Micawber-Mycroft anymore….)
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: (shuddering) And then I might have to deal with an angry Nolan again. And I don’t like dealing with Nolan when he’s angry, especially not now when he’s already simmering at mildly furious with me for telling Delaney I fed him a pivotal line of dialogue for Batman Begins.
CAINE: I’ll go in, knock it ou’, and be back in time to film a cameo in a remake of Jaws IV.

INT.ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS, LONDON-DAY
MICHAEL CAINE and BORIS, a sound engineer, stand on either side of the glass in a recording studio. Boris gives Caine the thumbs up thru the glass, and Caine picks up a battered old Penguin Popular Classic copy of Othello from the studio floor, bent open at the right page with a huge amount of annotation of the speech in question. He then proceeds to deliver a performance and a half; he invests the text with sub-text, pathos, nobility, nuance, and even that thing where his voice breaks when he gets very emotional – very emotional, indeed…

CAINE: Soft you; a word or two before you go:
I have done the Sta’e some service, and they know’t:
No more of tha’. I pray you in your le’’ers,
When you shall these unlucky deeds rela’e,
Speak of me, as Oi am. Nuffin’ extenua’e,
Nor se’ down augh’ in malice.
Then you must speak,
Of one that lov’d no’ wisely, but too well:
Of one, no’ easily jealous, but being wrough’,
Perplex’d in the extreme: Of one, ’ose ’and,
Like the base Judean threw a pearl away
(Twitches; self-restraining, then forlornly) The size, of a tangerine…
BORIS: CUT!
(Boris shakes his head, walks to the door, and opens it. Looks pityingly at Michael Caine and quietly says–)
BORIS: Get out.
CAINE: Yeah, alrigh’.

June 10, 2011

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

It may seem obvious, as it’s an endlessly cited term, but I’d like to examine it because I’ve been musing for a few years now about a brace of BBC documentaries which seemed to imply there were two styles of acting filed under the one term…

 

Method Acting was invented by Constantin Stanislavsky who directed the first productions of Chekhov’s four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) from 1898 to 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre. So far, so good – you couldn’t hope for a better provenance, and sure enough Stanislavsky wrote numerous books on the more realistic style of acting and staging that he had developed, which focused on emotional authenticity and hyper-detailed/intrusive sound design to suggest the surrounding world offstage respectively. Best to gloss over the fact that Chekhov thought him incredibly ponderous in his staging, and given to destroying comedic scripts by weighing them down with psychological realism. The Method made the leap from Russian into English and from Russia to America and, as taught by Lee Strasberg in the Group Theatre in New York, became a vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s. But what exactly is the Method? The late great Dennis Hopper, in a detailed BBC interview a few years ago spoke extensively of the Method as a way of imbuing acting with felt emotions thru the use of a magic box of memories. In short the actor playing a role mined his own experiences for emotional equivalents and thought of them to achieve the desired emotion rather than trying to imagine out of nowhere an authentic emotional response to a fictitious event.

So if Hopper was told onscreen that his father had died, Hopper the actor wouldn’t start crying because he had intellectually thought about the troubled father-son relationship of his character and conjured an appropriate level of sorrow, he would start crying because he would have thought of the death of a beloved relative and hammered into that memory until real tears started to flow – and the audience would never know that these real tears were being shed for a real person and had nothing to do with the character’s father. Hopper then clarified this point, saying that it was crucial for Method Actors to continually renew their magic box of memories with new emotional triggers because otherwise memories would cease to be vivid and fresh and the resultant acting wouldn’t be authentic but would simply be ‘just acting’.

 

Fine, that’s good Method Acting, and Brando, James Dean and Hopper all gave great performances in the 1950s, and seemed to redefine the lexicon of screen acting. Except…Marlon Brando wasn’t really a Method actor. Sure he mumbled onscreen like Dean, but not to somehow be in the moment in character, but because of a hilarious inability/refusal to learn his lines. In theatre other actors on Broadway spoke in awe of how he could use tiny details of stage-craft to convey sucker-punches of emotion, how Brando hunched over a counter with his legs wrapping around a bar-stool could convey a helplessness and a weak despair that could reduce an audience to tears. In other words he wasn’t Method acting, he was merely ‘just acting’ exceptionally well. Indeed Brando only spoke of using the Method for one film, Last Tango in Paris, and felt violated as a result of how much of his own life Bertolucci had tricked him (as he saw it) into revealing to millions of people by talking about his own parents when his character spoke about his troubled relationships with his parents. Brando vowed never to make himself that emotionally vulnerable again, and to never dig deep into his own soul for roles in that fashion ever again, before triumphantly boasting that in future he’d ‘just act’, and no one would be able to see that he wasn’t engaging on the Method level – purely because he knew he was that good at regular acting.

Where then does that leave Brando’s performances in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather? Physically changing his appearance to more closely resemble the role as written shows great commitment but it’s not strictly speaking Method acting in the Dennis Hopper magic box of memories sense. Brando’s dismay at his one use of the Method technique of using real emotional traumas mirrors Stanislavsky’s alarm at the hysterical reactions this technique was producing in some of his actors. Ironically Brando’s vow to merely ‘just act’ really well seems, in its emphasis on improvisation and physicality, to actually replicate Stanislavsky’s later emphasis on physical actions and improvisation rather than the magic box of memories to achieve subconscious authenticity. So, as Brendan Behan said of every Irish Republican endeavour thru history, the first agenda on the item was the split – another type of Method.

 

A type of Method exemplified by those 1970s show-offs Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and their more recent confreres, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. The fact that Al Pacino is the one member of the 1970s generation of Method actors who does the most theatre work, associated with Lee Strasberg, and can still be found at the Actors’ Studio even now, should give the answer to the question of where the dividing line between the two Methods lies. What Hoffman, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and Bale do is not Method acting as Stanislavsky originally understood it; certainly it’s hard to think of Chekhov doing anything but throwing his hands up in even more than usual horror/despair at their antics. Hoffman’s continual improvisations would destroy any Chekhov play, or indeed any play, hence his great difficulty in performing Macbeth on Broadway until another actor menaced him into just finding truth in the words Shakespeare had written for him… Indeed if you watch the extras on Marathon Man you can see Hoffman’s insistence on endless improvisation damn near destroying that film as it leads to endless deleted scenes where the other actors get so rattled by his in-character ramblings that their minds go visibly blank, because they can’t improvise, and they start nervously babbling but all they have to babble as dialogue are the screenplay’s plot points; whose premature disclosure is not advisable in a suspense thriller, and is the reason those scenes were unusable.

Pacino never worked the same way that De Niro and Hoffman did in their hey-day, and that Day-Lewis and Bale still do. What this quartet does can only work for film, it is utterly unsuited to theatre, and given that Stanislavsky was a theatre director perhaps we need a new term for this quasi-hysterical evolution of his later conception of the Method. I’d like to propose ‘Immersive Acting’ as a more accurate term, because that is what they do. They don’t bring their own experiences to the role as Dennis Hopper propounded with his magic box of memories, instead they take the role and bend their own life for a certain period of time to make it the same as the role; think of De Niro driving a taxi, Hoffman long-distance running, Day-Lewis learning the craft of butchery, and Bale losing a terrifying amount of weight; and then they play that, interpreting Stanislavsky’s emphasis on physicality as meaning the actor gaining subconscious authenticity in the role almost thru sheer muscle memory.

Immersive acting produces terrific performances, but I think it needs its own term to emphasise its peculiarity, its curiously self-promoting showiness, as if acting somehow consisted of weight-loss and skills-training. Colin Firth’s reaction to a phone call in A Single Man has nothing to do with physically immersing himself in his role, but it will break your heart. Not bad for ‘just acting’.

October 6, 2010

Phaedra

Rough Magic presents a version of Phaedra that incorporates live music into the unfolding tragedy but the results are sadly uneven…

Phaedra charts the downfall of one of those psychotically dysfunctional families that seemed to proliferate in ancient Greece. Phaedra (Catherine Walker) is a trophy wife married to the older and brutally abusive Theseus (Stephen Brennan) but she is mad with desire for his adult son Hippolytus (Allen Leech), ironically her emotional distance only increases Theseus’ infatuation with her. When news comes that Theseus has been killed champagne is spilled and secret desires are revealed, not only by Phaedra who provocatively poses in her underwear while asking Hippolytus to help her pick out a dress for the funeral, but by Aricia (Gemma Reeves) whose father traded the house to Theseus for his debts. Much like the Abbey’s recent production of Macbeth that attempted to situate the play in Cromwellian Ireland before giving up Phaedra is littered with the remains of a half-abandoned high-concept. Theseus is apparently a property developer and there are references to the entire country circling the drain on its way out. But there’s no sustained attempt to substantively re-imagine Phaedra for the Celtic Tiger so these moments feel like cheap zeitgeist-surfing beside the more pointed resonances to be found elsewhere in the festival with Enron and John Gabriel Borkman.

John Comiskey’s stainless steel set with tunnels leading underground and huge narrow windows and video screens worked by remote control nicely de-domesticises proceedings as the gods stalk this family. Euripides’ tragedy had previously been reworked by Seneca and Racine and this version reinstates the gods Racine discarded, as well as placing five musicians led by Ellen Cranitch and Cormac de Barra on-stage scoring the action. This conceit can be utterly stunning. Aphrodite (Cathy White), Artemis (Anuna co-founder Fionnuala Gill), and Poseidon (Rory Musgrave) sing while the characters move in a stylised fashion and the first act climax is amazing, as is a later sequence where Phaedra rehearsing a speech by repeating certain lines becomes live sampling scored by repetitive music which re-creates the ritualistic origins of Greek theatre. Composer Ellen Cranitch and director Lynne Parker were deeply involved in the extended development of this version so while they should be praised for such heights they must also accept blame for Hilary Fannin’s script which is deeply uneven and too eager to ‘shock’, why else open with Enone (Michele Forbes) discussing re-shaping the contours south of the female border? Fannin favours profanity over profundity to an extent that quickly becomes deeply tiresome, and a number of Theseus’ gynaecological-flavoured insults in the second act receive no laughs when they are clearly meant to be hi-larious.

Gate mainstay Brennan’s Theseus is absent for nearly half the play and when he does appear he is deeply over the top, rolling his voice and relishing his swearwords. Sarah Greene’s saucy Ismene, talking dirty in broadest Corkonian, matches him while Darragh Kelly’s subtle turn as the psychiatrist Theramenes provides a badly needed emotional anchor. Leech redeems himself for Man About Dog with a fine performance as the tortured Hippolytus but while Catherine Walker is strong as Phaedra, for all her dialogue you never feel allowed into her psyche, and that is a disappointing outcome for a classical heroine here re-created by women.

This is worth seeing but what should have been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival only intermittently reaches the heights that were expected of it.

2.5/5

Phaedra continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 10th.

June 16, 2010

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

INT.HOLLYWOOD OFFICE-DAY
DELANEY, an agent to the stars, well, minor actors, sits at his desk lovingly watering his potted plant while MARK PELLEGRINO, seated opposite him, complains…

PELLEGRINO: I just…it feels like I’m stuck in a rut, you know.
DELANEY: A rut? Don’t I get you roles in good stuff? Didn’t Capote win Oscars? Doesn’t Dexter win Golden Globes?
PELLEGRINO: Yeah, and I’m glad to be in good stuff but…I’m getting typed. What was I playing in Capote? The second-string killer from In Cold Blood. What was I playing in Dexter? Rita’s strung-out abusive ex-husband. I don’t want to become the go-to guy for down the bill vicious rednecks. I’d even shave if that would help…
DELANEY: Is this an ego thing? You want to be a regular now?
PELLEGRINO: No, it’s not a credits thing. I just want something, bigger, you know.
DELANEY: Bigger?
PELLEGRINO: Yeah, (mimes with his hands) BIGGER.
DELANEY: So, okay, bigger, okay, so you want something like Jake La Motta, something where you can bulk up like De Niro for the part? Be bigger-
PELLEGRINO: No, not physically bigger you idiot.
DELANEY: -Because I could still get you an audition for the Blob in Wolverine if you want to go full-on method to get attention.
PELLEGRINO: No, no! Not… (pause) Why do I keep paying you?
DELANEY: Some deranged sense of loyalty?
PELLEGRINO: (sighs) I don’t want to gain weight you moron, try to understand me. When I say bigger I really mean, loftier, you know. Some role where I don’t have to explain what my part was, and then have people go ‘oh’, and think ‘vicious redneck, I can see that’. I want a character whose name speaks for itself. I don’t mean get me Macbeth-
DELANEY: What’s Macbeth?
PELLEGRINO: (pretends he didn’t hear that) I just mean get me something that’s a bit classier than the seedy thugs I’ve been playing with distinction and sensitivity.
DELANEY: So, still a small supporting role, not a regular, but lofty.
PELLEGRINO: Lofty, you know.
DELANEY: Lofty, yeah, I getcha.
PELLEGRINO: So, do you think you can get me something lofty?
DELANEY: Sure, no problem.
PELLEGRINO: Good, good. Thanks Delaney.
(Exit Pellegrino)
(Delaney waits a few beats, dives into his desk, and emerges with a dictionary)
DELANEY: ‘Lofty’…

INT. HOLLYWOOD OFFICE-DAY
DELANEY sits at his desk lovingly watering his potted plant while MARK PELLEGRINO, seated opposite him, looks expectantly at him…

TITLE: 2 MONTHS LATER…

DELANEY: They’re so lofty they’re practically- (hits speakerphone switch) Janine what was that word again.
JANINE: (O/S) Non-corporeal.
DELANEY: They’re so lofty they’re practically non-corporeal.
PELLEGRINO: Well what are ‘they’?
DELANEY: Well I’ve got you a part in Supernatural.
PELLEGRINO: That’s the one with the two guys?
DELANEY: Yeah, the two pretty boys who drive around the country looking outrageously pretty while killing monsters with a surprising amount of gore for a network show so that it appeals to every demographic!
PELLEGRINO: Okay, that doesn’t sound over lofty though, what’s my part?
DELANEY: Lucifer.
PELLEGRINO: Oh cool! There’s name recognition for ya! No need to explain that part to people. Good going Delaney.
DELANEY: I thank you. I also got you another recurring role in another show.
PELLEGRINO: What show?
DELANEY: LOST.
PELLEGRINO: No freaking way!
DELANEY: Yes freaking away.
PELLEGRINO: Awesome! I get to ‘work’ in Hawaii. What’s the part? Is it lofty?
DELANEY: Oh it’s very lofty, you’ll be playing Jakob.
PELLEGRINO: Who’s Jakob?
DELANEY: He’s so lofty he’s non-corporeal. He’s, sort of, God, on the island.
PELLEGRINO: He’s God?
DELANEY: Yes. No.
PELLEGRINO: Well which is it? Yes or No? Because that would make just a teensy bit of difference to how I play the part…
DELANEY: He’s, well… Look they explained it down the phone and they weren’t particularly clear about it but just play it as probably being God, okay?
PELLEGRINO: Probably?! (pause) Okay, I can explain to people that Jakob is God and then go ‘I also played the Devil – Range!’ When do these two roles shoot?
DELANEY: Next few months.
PELLEGRINO: What, both? I’m doing them simultaneously?
DELANEY: Yes, that’s what I agreed to.
PELLEGRINO: Oh Christ, that’s going to get confusing. You’ve got me playing God and the Devil in two shows at the same time!
DELANEY: Well it shouldn’t be hard to remember which is which. If it’s hot as hell,
PELLEGRINO: Yeah?
DELANEY: Then you’re playing God.
PELLEGRINO: (beat) Not helping dude.
JANINE: (O/S) Did you want something else sir, because I’m still on speaker…
PELLEGRINO: (head in hands) About a million post-its with, ‘Please tell Mark which Ultimate Being he’s meant to be today’, please Janine.

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