Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Shaw, Sharp and SRB

(Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw in London Assurance, NT)

I've attended several actors talks and Masterclasses over the past few weeks and wanted to record some impressions on them here. Readers of this blog will be aware of the esteem in which I hold actors, and I find their discussions of their work illuminating, inspiring and, invariably, great fun. There's something about the process of clambering up on a stage every night and pretending to be someone else - the combination of courage, talent, empathy, energy, imagination and sheer practicality that it takes - that is endlessly fascinating.

Fiona Shaw, Lesley Sharp and Simon Russell Beale all offered diverse yet complimentary insights into that process. I saw Shaw first in a National Theatre Platform chaired by Al Senter - an interviewer so knowledgeable, funny, sharp and relaxed that he should have his own fan-club. Seemingly reluctant to talk about her early stage work, Shaw discussed, among other things, her current role as Lady Gay Spanker in the phenomenon that has become the NT's production of London Assurance; the challenges of her amazing performance as Mother Courage last year; Harry Potter; and her recent foray into directing opera, an achievement of which she was visibly proud. But Shaw's particular brand of brilliance and eccentricity emerged more fulsomely at a Masterclass a few days later, at which she took students through scenes from three Shakespeare plays - Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and All's Well... - offering some priceless insights into her approach to the language, and bouncing up and down with glee as the students became more confident and began to take greater risks with the texts. At one hilarious point, Shaw gave direction by alluding to "that woman ... oh, what's her name? Madame Gaga?" My favourite moment, though, was her quite brilliant taxonomy of a whole history of theatrical language and experience, from the "inclusive, truth-telling" emphasis of Shakesperean drama through the "lies" of Restoration comedy to the fragmentation of Beckett and the estrangement of Brecht. I'm not doing what she said justice here, but it was a remarkable insight - one of many, in a great afternoon.

Lesley Sharp's Masterclass took the form of a Q&A session in which the actress, about to open in Ingredient x by Nick Grosso at the Royal Court, discussed with frankness and clarity her drama school days, the Mike Leigh working process (Sharp appeared in both Naked and Vera Drake), the challenge when performances go wrong, and her sense that the hard work of actors has been devalued by celebrity culture. I particularly liked her comments about auditioning: Remember, it's not just the director who's auditioning you, but you who are auditioning them, and deciding, from what you can glean of their process, whether you in fact want to work with this person.

Genial as always, and wearing his erudition with customary lightness, Simon Russell Beale was delightful at yesterday's NT Platform and the waves of warmth coming from a packed Olivier auditorium were palpable. (How could anyone who's witnessed his Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance not love this actor?) Russell Beale is the performer I've seen on stage more than any other in my ten years of theatre-going and as Senter listed the roles he's stacked up in just the last couple of years - Andrew Undershaft, Leontes and Lopakhin amongst them - it was easy to understand Russell Beale's reputation as the hardest-working actor in Britain. ("Just the greediest," he demurred.) Russell Beale talked about the physical - if not the intellectual - demands of Sir Harcourt (and of his concern about the upcoming filmed performance of the play), of playing George Smiley on the radio, of his presenting work on the marvellous BBC4 Sacred Music series, and of an early, somewhat unlikely aspiration: to be a ballet dancer. He also offered a mini-masterclass in approaching a Shakespearean text, noting the importance of casting aside reductive preconceptions about the characters - "Leontes is jealous"; "Iago's a psychopath" - and instead "following the thought" of each speech and being open to what it gives you. An intense desire to communicate was at the heart of each of these performers' reflections on their work. Leaving the Platform I thought about Max Reinhardt's quote: "We can telegraph and telephone, wire pictures across the ocean; we can fly over it. But the way to the human being next to us is still as far away as the stars. The actor takes us on this way."


  1. sounds as though you have a HARD spot for mr beale!

  2. You're so lucky, Alex...I would love to have attended these events myself! Fascinating stuff. I cover some similar topics in my latest blog post as well...

  3. John - That's one way of putting it!

    Jason - Thanks, I'll be sure to check out post later.