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Plays and Players:

Model Roles

The Daily Telegraph, 3rd June 1985, John Barber

People don’t realise what anxieties an actor suffers in preparing a big classical role – the weeks of study, the problems of liasing with directors and colleagues, and then what Michael Pennington calls “the seemingly haphazard process of planning and rehearsal, with its chance discoveries, its missed opportunities, its dry calculations and intuitive hunches … and jumps in the dark.”

Since Sarah Siddons set out her thoughts about Lady Macbeth there has been nothing quite like ‘Players of Shakespeare’ to be published by the Cambridge University Press this month, edited by Philip Brockbank, who invited a dozen actors to analyse their experience with some formidable part.

Once the p lay was on the stage, their fretting often relaxed – thought Sinead Cusack never stopped worrying about her Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’: she declares roundly she failed in it – not quite witty enough, she feels, nor light enough in touch in the last scenes. But most of the actors concentrate on the agonies of preparation.

As Brockbank says, an actor feels exposed and vulnerable, both in preparation and performance, knowing his personality and human resources are always on the line. “I have to endow her with me and my complexities,” Gemma Jones told herself at first, tackling the role of Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ – falsely accused of adultery by her husband, and restored to him, after years when he thought her dead, in the form of a statue which comes to life. Then the actress found herself contending with her egotistical desire to impress – to act devious, clever, complicated and interesting.

But Hermione is simply innocent, and knows it, like Joan of Arc. To convey simple virtue in that sepulchral rehearsal room off Leicester Square is agony (“Will my fellow actors think I’m good? Will I get a bigger part next season? Will I ever act again?). And when it comes to standing frozen like a statue, and think herself marble and keep “very very still and look very very lovely in a very very soft light,” she is musing “Have I enough money to pay the babysitter? And “I must remember to fill up the car with petrol.”

Approaching Hamlet, Mr Pennington realised that to pull it off takes an actor further down into his psyche, memory and imagination, and further outwards to the limits of his technical knowledge and equipment, than he has probably been before. For this performance (which I greatly admired) he tamed the hero’s sharp sarcasm in the first scene so as to present a Prince admired for all his courtesy and grace.

To achieve in the character “a kind of sweet optimism, bitterly disappointed,” he thought it truer to struggle to overcome the maelstrom inside him rather than make a continual public display of his demons – though he had his eruptions of violence, and seized on these to make the audience question the hero’s morality and so rouse some antipathy towards him as well as sympathy.

At times the part shook him like a rat. On some nights, it seemed to play him, effortlessly, while on others he felt he was labouring with an out-of-tune violin. Off-stage, it had the effect of separating him from his colleagues and friends, while the whole issue of private references underpinning his performances quietly changed with the patterns of his own life and even the world news. This deeply considered essay is worth setting beside the usual superficial tape-recorded interview, when an actor talks off the top of his head and conveys few of the struggles, the humiliations and rewards of his calling.

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Players of Shakespeare