Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Acting My Age

CCP approved my mugshot and my profile came up as #391422. Great, I thought, I only have to wait for 391,421 people to retire or die and I'll automatically get work. Instead of mass suicide, however, emails started dropping into my virtual box. It can't be this easy, I thought, clicking on the links for various parts that came into my age bracket. Sure, I'm not going to get considered, far less get the part, but there's no harm in applying. The worst that can happen to me is that I get ignored, and I can deal with that.

Actually, no. The worst thing that can happen is that CCP tells me I'm too old to apply for several of the parts. Unh? My playing age is 50 (well, I'd say 45 - 60, but CCP's technology is not that advanced; you can only put in one specific year), but when I click the Apply Now button, I get reminded of my real age, and my real age (50+, if you haven't worked it out) is over the limit of several parts I've applied for.

This smacks to me of a computer glitch. I've been informed about the part because my playing age fits the criterion, but I've been denied applying for the part because my actual age (which CCP swears blind they will never reveal to anybody, not even Steven Spielberg or the Pope) is Over The Limit. Not sure whether the glitch is my end or theirs, I start corresponding with Ms B at CCP support. Ms B is helpful, although doesn't understand the problem at first, and then she tells me I'm only getting turned away by paid-for roles because - at that stage - I'm not a paid up member. That isn't the case (I was getting rejected by unpaid work) but by the time we're on our fourth exchange of emails, the glitch suddenly fades into the ether and I'm open for business.

Which has allowed me to apply for my first job - for a commercial, with a four-figure payment if I actually appear onscreen. I know I'm not going to get it. Someone, somewhere has splurted out their coffee on looking at the mismatch between my requirements and their needs. But it feels good. My toe is in the water and I'm not yet shivering with cold.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Throwing a Needle into a Haystack

I have just created my profile on Casting Call Pro. It was a relatively painless process, with only one minor hiccup, as it insisted on my entering at least one credit before I could be accepted. So I dragged up some presenting I did for Radio Forth in my student days and then was slightly miffed on that station's behalf, when CCP huffed and said it had not heard of such an organisation. I put them right. So I'm now waiting for the 24 - 48 hour delay while some monitor at CCP takes out a tape measure to reassure themselves that the pic I have submitted is in fact the regulation 10 inches by 8 inches and I have not cut off a few millimetres here or added a centimetre there in order to appear more dramatic than I am.

I'm aware, of course, that creating a profile on CCP is about as useful as throwing a needle into a haystack. The chances of any prospective director or agent e-flicking through the site, coming upon my phiz and saying to him-/herself, "By George! Felicity, (or "By Felicity! George") that's just the face I had in mind for the lead in our next production at the Theatre Royal. I can tell from his photograph that he has all the range and skills for the part. Get him on the blower now!" are slightly less than one in several hundred thousand. But it's all publicity and a profile on CCP is a start; if only one starving student director sends me a grammatically inaccurate and misspelt email offering to pay me nothing for the privilege of spending several hours lurking in the shadows of their next zombie movie, I won't rule it out of hand. In the meantime, it's back to the dayjob - the tedious task of scanning and uploading dozens of old magazines to Abebooks in the hope that someone will buy them; but before that, the all-important pot of tea . . .

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Half a shoulder

That's what I learnt at my photographic session today - an actor's headshot should focus on the face and reveal very little else. As a novice, I hadn't been aware of this strict convention, but when I thought back over my limited experience of the theatre, it rang a loud bell. Like all conventions, it sounded both reasonable and unreasonable - why should the picture that shows half a bicep be unacceptable to an agent? Surely you get a better sense of an actor's physical appearance when you step back from the two olives and banana that make up a face and put it into the broader perspective of shoulders and body?

But mine not to reason why... Instead I relaxed sat back and let Paul Harrison spend nearly two hours with me this afternoon, taking almost 200 pictures, which we then whittled down to three primary images and a bonus. It was - for me - a difficult task. I consider my face one of the less attractive parts of my body and do not enjoy having to go through dozens of pics showing nothing but my mug. All I see are wrinkles, spots, too big a skull, ears too big, misshapen mouth, baggy eyes, droopy eyelids and so on. The only good thing about my face is that I very seldom have to look at it. But others find it inoffensive and the Other Half has been known to call me good-looking, so I put up with it and can at least fall back on the old joke that I have an excellent face for radio or horror films.

Somehow, by the end of the session, Paul had taken about a dozen pictures which revealed a potentially interesting character who might be an asset in a production involving criminals or perverted uncles. From these we (including the Other Half, who had sat in on the shoot) chose three that revealed me to be more or less human, including one which even showed a bit of bare arm. "A casting director might not like that," Paul warned, "even as your third picture", but I thought I'd cross that bridge when I came to it. If I'm lucky enough to get an agent who gets me work, I'll give him or her a headshot that shows every vein in my bloodshot eyes if need be.... And with a spring in my step because I thought the final pics were not too bad and  I would soon be on to the next stage of my would-be career - contacting agents and looking for auditions - I said thank you and goodbye and the two of us set off for home.  

Sunday, 21 August 2011

I Don't Want This

The Other Half and I found ourselves watching The X Factor last night. It's the kind of programme that highlights the differences between us. Alone, I would never watch it, but the OH is a fan of reality and talent shows so I gritted my teeth and followed events on the screen.

About a third of the way through, the OH turned to me and said I should audition. My eyebrows rose. Did he really mean I should try to get on The X Factor? He nodded. Never, I said. Why not, he asked, lots of people would see me. I can't sing, I reminded him. Nor can many contestants, he reminded me, but it doesn't matter if lots of people see you. Or how about Britain's Got Talent? I could do something there and I'd get a big audience. Never, I said; these shows are about Celebrity, and that's not what I want. He looked bemused but another act came on and the conversation ended there - and I'm still not sure whether he was serious or joking.

Like millions of others, the Other Half loves these shows because they give ordinary people the chance for  their dreams to come true. The hype and hysteria, the hope and the hokum are all part of the package. Contestants and audience should leap up and down and scream their enthusiasm and financially and emotionally impoverished individuals should reveal hidden talents that bring a tear to the eye and a tug on the heart-strings. At the end of the day, someone - perhaps more than one - will emerge A Star and the country will celebrate.

A third of the UK may be hooked, but another third are indifferent and an unknown number, like me, dislike the artificiality of these shows, the way in which they manipulate people's emotions, the superficiality of the judge's comments and production values that encourage not only the talented - some contestants have genuine talent - but also the talentless and insecure and disturbed to step forward for their moment of humiliation or fame.

If the The X Factor and its clones were about real Talent, they would skip the self-congratulatory scenes of the judges gliding through crowds and uttering fatuous comments, and tuneless and tone-deaf contestants would be allowed nowhere near a camera. But the real purpose of these shows is the illusion called Celebrity, the idea that our lives only have meaning when the world showers us with fame and fortune. Listen to what contestants say when asked 'Why are you here?' and see the hunger, desperation, in their eyes when they almost invariably answer 'Because I Want This' - 'This', meaning Fame, meaning Fortune, meaning Television Interviews and Hollywood Parties, Autograph Hunters and Oversized Mansions with jacuzzis. 'This' meaning the world saying 'you are important; we reward you; we follow you; we worship you'.

Whether sixteen or sixty, the more intensely a contestant wants 'This', the more obvious it is that their present lives are unfulfilled and only Celebrity and Fame can give them meaning. But Celebrity is a lie that destroys our humanity and replaces it with the superficial values of the red carpet and airbrush. It is a conspiracy that says you have no value if others do not approve of you. It is fickle mob rule that decides whether you will be loved or reviled. (Perhaps the most honest reply to the question 'Why?' came from Frankie Cocozza (pictured) from Brighton, who says he entered the contest to get women. Given his looks and his personality, I doubt that he has any problems in that department, although I also suspect that he does not yet understand the responsibility that comes with such attractiveness.)

That is the sadness that lies at the  heart of 'reality' shows - the fact that the audience and the contestants fail to understand that true pride and self-worth do not come from other people, from money or a feature in Hello or a spot on The One Show; it comes from within, from an acceptance of who we are and an ability to build on our strengths irrespective of the acclaim of others. Only when people see through the glitz to the underlying truth will The X Factor and its clones fade away.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Entering The Matrix

At this early stage I have no idea whether my career - if any career develops - will veer more towards acting or voiceover, or somewhere between the two. But since acting is on hold until I get my headshots (I've booked a session next week with what must be the cheapest studio in London), I've been focusing on my voice.

I had thought I was wiser than Molière's Tartuffe; I not only knew I had been speaking in prose for most of my life, but I assumed that to be a voiceover artist, I had only to open my mouth and speak. Oh foolish man, how wrong I was... 

I started listing the accents I thought I could either do already or easily pick up. First was my basic pronunciation: RP with elements of Scottish. Some people identify the Scots immediately, others are uncertain. I've occasionally been taken for American (I did spend four years in LA and NY in the 1990s but, as far as I am aware, picked up none of the accent);  once or twice strangers have thought I was originally Dutch or German.

I noted down my normal voice as RP1. I can eliminate the Scottish elements and come across as upper-crust 1950s - although I'm not sure whether that sound comes across as normal, dramatic or merely comic. No matter, I listed it as RP2. Alternatively, I can head in the other direction and become more Scottish, allowing me to list middle-class Edinburgh as SC1 and generic working-class Scots as SC2. How about London? I've lived here on and off for over 30 years; surely that's CO. Then there's NO for generic northern English (somewhere between Birmingham and Liverpool). Add on French, German, Italian and Spanish accents. Maybe even US?

Accent is one dimension of voice. What about style? I wrote down three basics: normal, loud / aggressive, quiet / seductive. Add on women - not in the expectation of act women's roles - but in narratives where a male narrator has to give the impression of a woman's voice. And don't forget the several comic accents I can offer, like Kenneth Williams but without his range.

I didn't stop there. These were only the dramatic possibilities. There's also the commercial side to voiceover, which may be more lucrative. So far I've come across three basic styles - hard-sell, medium-sell and soft-sell; I'm not yet sure I can do them, and meanwhile, what is the voice that should be used when selling one's soul?

At this point I opened up the spreadsheet and created The Matrix - my database of possible accents and styles that would index the recordings that showcased my voice. Recording A1 would be my normal accent as a narrative (documentary); A2 would be narrative (drama); A3 would be normal voice high-pitched with normal rhythm, A4 would be high-pitched with a staccato rhythm, A5 normal pitch with staccato rhythm. B1 would be middle-class Edinburgh as a narrative (documentary), B2 as narrative (drama). And so on and so on.

So far, so good... but my confidence began to fade when I started to rehearse the different voices, using texts and scripts from Shakespeare to Dickens and Round The Horne to modern monologues...

I have, I think, two problems. The first is not serious. It's the fact that speaking clearly and authoritatively for any length of time requires stamina. Money for old rope, I had thought when listening to stories read aloud on 4 Extra; the reader only has to glance quickly through the text beforehand, checking for strange names and convoluted sentences and then they can tell the tale with no more effort than it needs to hold a conversation over or at the pub. I humbly admit I was wrong and recognise that it requires considerable mental concentration and physical effort to keep the listeners interested for long periods, particularly when there are no images to hold their attention.

That's an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. I presume I can develop both the physical and mental skills by spend time every day reading different texts aloud and checking the results on playback. Of more concern is the second problem ...

All the accents and characters that I was proud of are fine for a few short phrases, but I cannot yet maintain them for any length of time. In the space of a few minutes my middle-class Edinburgh heads for Inverness, drops down to the Gorbals and skips briefly into England before I can haul it back to Corstorphine. My French tones decide they'd be happier in Germany. The seductive low-voiced lady that was lurking in my larynx soon changes sex, and the various comic characters that were exchanging one-liners in my head soon melt into the background, leaving my everyday voice to take over.

Is this a basic lack of vocal talent, or is it something I can overcome with training? Is there a voice coach who can help me sort out my different voices so that I can draw on each of them on demand and maintain them as long as I need without fear that they will get disappear? I hope so. I've started making enquiries and may have a booking for next week. In the meantime, I'm about to spend another hour in The Matrix, picking characters at random and trying to hold on to them. And this is something I will do day after day. (Taps microphone, clears throat, intake of breath...)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Real life . . .

. . . keeps getting in the way. It's Thursday and I have spent no more than an hour this week on my supposed acting career. I had planned to learn a modern monologue and to confirm a photographer for a headshot, but work got in the way.

I say work, but the Other Half disagrees. He thinks that because he heads out into the city five days a week, taking a bus, then the Northern Line followed by the Central Line, while I sit at home semi-dressed, sipping tea by my computer, that he's working and I'm doing nothing. The fact that I deal in old books for a living and spend a considerable amount of time cataloguing and uploading stock and promoting the business, doesn't impress him, particularly when he knows that I very much enjoy what I do. I'm my own boss and run my own schedule; for him, that's not really work. Only the fact that money gets paid regularly into my bank account - money which goes into paying my share of utility and grocery bills - reassures him that I'm not just doing it for fun. He's also mollified by the fact fact that I ensure there's always rice waiting for him when he gets home at the end of the day (he's from South-East Asia and would die if he did not eat his weight in the white stuff every day).

Anyway, it's been a busy week in the book world, but I haven't entirely neglected the Acting. I've booked another course for November (I'm away from London several times in September and October - does this mean I'm not serious about my career?) and I've provisionally scheduled a photographer for next week. With a voicereel scheduled by the middle of September, I should be ready to launch my own website (I already have the domain and a temporary notice up), put myself on and start contacting agents and looking for auditions.

I've cleared the decks so that tomorrow I can concentrate on Acting. I intend to draw up the first draft voicereel - short phrases in different styles and accents to showcase my vocal range. I will also prepare a list of longer pieces - short stories and monologues that I can put on the website and give to agents and producers who are intrigued enough by the voicereel to want to hear more. I wonder what I'll come up with...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Roughly speaking

I can't get away from Arthur Smith, the comedian. I spend much of my time listening to Radio 4 and 4 Extra, depending on whether I want to be informed or entertained. (When I'm trying to concentrate on work, it's a choice between Radio 3, Classical, Chill or silence.) 

Smith seems to be a nice enough hail-fellow-well-met character, the kind of guy you'd happily spend an hour or two down the pub with bemoaning the state of the world. I haven't heard his comedy act and nothing he says makes me feel I'd react with more than a wry smile, but no doubt he has his fans. The problem is, his gravelly voice and his South London accent grate in my ear and more I hear him, the more quickly I switch off the radio. (After weeks appearing relentlessly on on 4 Extra, he's now non-stop on 4 reporting from the Edinburgh Fringe.) It's a great - or should I say grate - voice for a character actor, but for the role of host and presenter, it's too prominent for someone who should recede into the background.

It's not the gravel that irritates me - plenty of men have throaty voices (Leonard Cohen comes to mind) - that are acceptable to the ear. Nor is it the accent - Saf London can be as weloming and unobtrusive as RP; it's the combination of the two in Arthur Smith's voice. Nor is he the only irritating announcer on Radio 4. There's a Neil Someone who occasionally pops up between programmes, speaking slowly and with a large stone in his mouth. (I've also heard him on the World Service.) Every time he annouces another programme, I tell him to take the damn pebble out from between his teeth and to stop sounding so pompous. Regrettably, he can't hear me.

The fact is, the older I get, the more some accents irritate me. I find working-class Strathclyde one of the uglier forms of English known to humanity (I'm from the East Coast of Scotland where our tones are softer), a disappointing development from the warmer Glasgow accent of thirty or so years ago. Thick South African and antipodean English are equally ugly. I cannot take seriously the sing-song of most south Asian accents. Extreme Southern US is laughable. Geordie hovers on the edge of annoyance. Some Irish accents irritate (others pull you in). African English comes across as indistinct - another case of the speaker being encumbered by something in their mouths that garbles their words.

Of course I like some accents, or at least find them inoffensive. North-eastern England, the west of England, most London speech, most varieties of West Indian, the various Canadian accents, most US speech, Welsh sound patterns and the lilt that has almost disappeared from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are all easy on the ear. So too is the RP of today, in comparison with the RP of the 50s, which now comes across as stilted and artificial.

It's not just varieties of English that either please or annoy me. Most foreign languages come across as exotic, their personalities spanning the spectrum from romantic to robust, but there are a few exceptions. The Spanish from Latin American and the south of Spain is musical, but the accent of Madrid and neighbouring regions is a staccato monotone that drills into my head like a machine-gun. Newsreaders on Chinese television sound like sergeant-majors barking out orders. Some forms of Arabic sound as alien and unwelcoming as Klingon. And so on.

So why do I find Kirsty Wark soothing but Ant n Dec ennervating? What do Huw Weldon and Jim Naughtie have in common? There's something going on here and I'm not sure what it is, but as someone who wants to appear on radio and to extend his own range of accents, I ought to find out what makes an attracive voice. After all, although many people say they like my dulcet tones, there may be hundreds, thousands, millions who find my voice drives them up the wall...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Actor or Actress? A Play on Words

I've been asking myself whether I should stop using the word "actress" and, if so, why I find it so difficult to do so. The argument, I have heard, is that the word emphasises the gender of the individual, rather than their ability; by calling Judi Dench an "actress" we are belittling her acting skills.

My immediate reaction is poppycock! When I call the Dame an actress I am stating that she is a woman who acts (and who does it damn well and who should play the role of the Queen 24 hours a day when Elizabeth Windsor decides it's time to put her feet up and watch the Yesterday Channel morning, afternoon and night). The Dame's talents and skills are renowned the world over and are, as we all know, irrespective of her gender.

Really? says a politically correct voice in my ear. If her gender is irrelevant, why not use a word which is gender-neutral, such as "actor"?

But "actor" isn't gender-neutral! I reply. An actor is a man, an actress is a woman. It's oranges and apples. They're both fruit. Neither is better than the other. They fulfil the same function in different ways. Why not retain both words?

Then another voice makes itself heard. This is the linguist in me, the young man who decades ago spent four years of his life studying language in all its forms and history. Language changes, he reminds me. Words come and go. So what if "actress" disappears? Many words are gender-neutral. We don't say "editress"; we don't have a word for female writer. We focus on the action not the gender. Why not with acting?

You're right, I tell myself. But there's a problem. I'm nearly 60 years old and everyone knows that the older you get the more difficult it is to adapt to some aspects of modern life. (Yes, I have a smartphone; yes, I have a plasma tv; yes, I vote Green; but there is much in this modern world which others accept with glee but which I find ugly and destructive.) Sixty years from now, when I'm dead, will I care whether Prunella Scales - a woman who plays Elizabeth II much better than that long-faced Helen Mirren - was once known as an actor or an acress? And the answer, of course, is no, of course I won't care.

So perhaps I should drop the word "actress". And maybe I will. But I'm not going to leap towards "actor". I much prefer "player", the word that has been in use since Shakespeare's time and probably long before then, the word once recommended by the Motion Picture Production Code in the US (well that's what Wikipedia says, but it doesn't provide a citation), the word that always has been gender-neutral. But forgive me if from time to time I talk about my favourite actress. It's a word that I will always have a fondness for.

(Food for thought: I finished writing the above and started looking on Google for an image to epitomise the word "actress". And what do I get? Page after page of comely young women pouting at the camera or otherwise emphasising their general attractiveness. This is not a problem for each individual woman, but when the overall definition of "actress" appears to be no more than a 25 - 30 year old person of the feminine gender trying to present themselves in the most alluring pose possible, then I begin to wonder whether those players who dislike the word have a point. Try it for yourselves; it's not surprising that I ended up with Bettie Boop.)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Double Feature (1)

To the National Theatre on Tuesday, to watch two short plays by young writers on very different themes. They are performed in the Paintframe, the space where the National's sets are usually made, and the setting is suitably industrial, with scaffolding and paint cans and the various paraphernalia required for lifting and holding large and heavy objects. The audience sit on padded benches, and Terence and I are lucky enough to be at the back so we can lean against the wall.

First up is Edgar and Annabel by Sam Holcroft. The set is small, an anonymous kitchen in a large box, suitable for a young married couple. Annabel is preparing dinner; Edgar comes home. Their conversation is confused, stilted. Edgar pulls from his bag a couple of scripts and hands one to Annabel. They read their parts in turn, more coherently, but still awkward and odd (why do they talk about salmon when Annabel has prepared chicken?)  Things become clearer in the next scene when Annabel and Edgar step out of the box to meet the authoritative Miller. A and E are roles being played by a couple whose real names are Nick and Marianne. There is talk of surveillance and elections and resistance. The pretence of normality is maintained by the scripts that Miller produces daily. But how good is Nick at playing "Edgar"? How can they deal with the obvious lack of chemistry in a couple that is supposed to be happily married? And what happens next?

Edgar and Annabel is a clever idea, well played by its cast of seven (all competent performers, most noticeably Kirsty Bushell as Marianne). There is comedy and suspense, with a memorable scene involving karaoke and bomb-construction. But the conceit is dragged out for a good fifteen minutes longer than it deserves for a situation and characters that entertain but do not emotionally involve us.

In contrast, the second play of the evening, The Swan, is an intense emotional drama played out in an empty pub. The set, by Soutra Gilmour, who also gave us Edgar and Annabel's kitchen, is so realistic that we wondered why the National Theatre did not provide a similar selection of drinks in its own bars. First to appear are Jim, a loud and bluff South Londoner in his 50s, and Russell, similar age, a middle-class refugee from an unhappy marriage. A funeral is underway in a nearby church and the wake is to be held here. Whose funeral and the emotional turbulence that accompanied his life and death form the subject of the play, and the situation develops as various other characters come in and leave.

There are good performances all round, most notably from Trevor Cooper as Jim, although he is occasionally limited by a script that does not develop the vulnerability underlying his relationship with the dead man; from Pippa Bennett-Warner as the loud Denise and Nitin Kundra as dopey Bradwell. There's comedy and suspense and vulnerability, which come together in an absorbing character study and a satisfying story arc  which ends in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying close.

So I came out of the theatre muttering the comment "excellent", to find that Terence, who had also enjoyed the performance, was wondering whether the play was in any way different from East Enders. Which led us to wonder if that soap opera - which neither of us watch - was high art, or whether the play we had just seen and the characters who inhabit it were no more than - well-acted and generally well-written - clichés. But whether or not they were clichés does not distract from the fact that the piece was acted well and directed well (by Polly Findlay) and the writer, D C Moore, has the potential to create even more absorbing work in future.

Monday, 8 August 2011

London's burning...

...about a mile from where I'm sitting at my computer comparing acting courses. Every hour or so I check the BBC news channel and watch louts throwing bottles, breaking windows and setting fire to the communities in which they live. A mixture of testosterone, boredom, ignorance, bravado and ignorance lies behind such behaviour and it will die down eventually, but it's depressing to think that for many young people - mostly men, but some women - this is the human condition, this kind of action makes them feel good.

A couple of glasses of rosé and Chill (that's the name of the station) playing on the DAB radio is enough to restore my mood and I spend an hour or so online compare acting courses. There are several, but I haven't come across what I'm looking for - 8 to 12 hours at the weekend focusing purely on presentation of a text. The Actors' Centre is offering some interesting one-off day / evening courses, but it isn't clear if they're open to everyone or simply to AC members, and there are a couple of weekly courses that I want to follow up. The other option is to focus on my voice, and I'm looking at a two-day voiceover course at the London Academy of Media Film & TV and making a list of voice / accent coaches.

Once I've booked a course, next on the agenda will be to seek out some auditions. I know, I'm trying to run before I can walk, but my age, I can't afford to dawdle. If I don't get a paid part or a capable agent by 30 June 2012, I will stop looking for acting / voiceover work - and what a loss to the world that would be . . .

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Character or Caricature?

I always go to a Shakespeare play with a mixture of anticipation and dread, never sure whether I am going to find myself enthralled or ennuyed. The Bard's language is now so distant from us that his words appear like a mountain in the mist; we get the vague outline but the details are often uncertain. It needs highly talented players and directors to ensure that the words cross the centuries with the maximum of meaning. The poetry of iambic pentameters, if poorly expressed, can leave many in the audience dozing or dazed.

On the other hand, the distance between the sixteenth and twenty-first century does allow every director and player to present their own take on the play and characters, so that every time we see Hamlet or Midsummer Night, A Winter's Tale or Tempest we get new insights into both the drama and the human condition.

So what to make of the Sam Mendes-directed, Kevin Spacey-starring production of Richard III at the Old Vic, which I saw last night? It took me a little time to get into the plot (my own fault: it is years since I last saw it and I'd made the mistake of not rereading the script beforehand), but once I had the characters and situation straight, I was gripped. The story of how Richard, Duke of Gloucester, cuts a swathe through the royal and noble houses of England to have himself enthroned, and how he is then deposed, appeals on several levels, and the pace of the play - one of Shakespeare's finest, although a relatively early work - as it shifts from public to private scenes and back, focusing most often on Richard but bringing others (his brother Clarence, the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Elizabeth etc) to the fore at different moments - holds the attention throughout.

Perhaps I should say that it is Mendes' pacing of the play which is masterly. Certainly there is little to fault in this production. The excellent set (by Tom Piper) begins as a bare room in an anonymous country house, closing in to become a prison and opens up to become a cathedral, a city, a battlefield. Catherine Zuber's costumes are less successful, starting off in the early twentieth century and ending up sometime around World War II. The players, with one exception, are uniformly good, with Haydn Gwynne, in the role of Queen Elizabeth excelling as the widow of a king and mother of the murdered princes. The overall production is crisp and clear, with - for me - unexpected but welcome humour.

So what's the problem? In a word, it's the star. Kevin Spacey gives an all-out, energetic, over-the-top performance that in many ways is admirable - and exhausting as can be seen from the drained, almost pitiful expression that he offered to the crowd at last night's curtain call. But his Richard jars when compared with the quieter intensity offered by the rest of the cast. In the first half of the play Spacey's crippled monster (throughout the three and a half hour performance he wears what must be a crippling leg brace) cannot stop moving and his head and his free hand frequently jerk to and fro out of control. And too often his facial expression gives way to a self-aware mockery, particularly noticeable when his reactions are magnified on a large tv screen. We are offered a caricature more than a character, a man who is too easily seen through. Surrounded by men and women who are no fools, it is scarcely credible that none would question his motives and that his murderous path to the throne would be so easy

It is only in the second half that Spacey's self-mocking personality - so effectively revealed in such films as The Usual Suspects and American Beauty - is completely submerged by Richard's evil and paranoid nature. Among several strong scenes, the one where he woos Elizabeth, whose children he has murdered, - to strengthen his position on the throne - is one of the most powerful pieces of drama that I have ever seen. The evil schemer who appears in that scene - cold, calculating, focused, with no time for mockery or excessive movement - is the man who should have dominated the stage throughout.

My companions had a similar reaction to me, although they expressed it less strongly. And whatever the weaknesses in his performance, Spacey's energy and domination of the stage held our attention throughout. As he took his final sweating bow, we applauded with admiration and with gusto, but we were not persuaded as half the audience were, to give him a standing ovation.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Resting . . .

Don Freeman: Man Resting in Park
Don Freeman: Man Resting in Park 
available from Sullivan Goss

... with the family in Scotland for a week.