Robert Lindsay On ... Upstaging Antics & Letting GoDate: 26 October 2009
Actor Robert Lindsay this week publishes his autobiography Letting Go, giving the inside story on his life from his childhood in Ilkeston to winning a place at RADA, multi award-winning stage success in the West End and on Broadway and television fame.
Since becoming a household name as revolutionary Wolfie Smith in 1970s TV sitcom Citizen Smith, Lindsay has had a diverse number of roles on stage and screen. In theatre, he scored massive hits with the musicals Me and My Girl (which won him Best Actor in a Musical prizes in both the Olivier and Tony Awards) and Oliver! (garnering a second Olivier).
He has also had seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange, Manchester, and has starred in plays including Becket, Cyrano de Bergerac and Richard III in the West End. Most recently, in 2007, he played faded music hall entertainer Archie Rice in the 50th anniversary revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Old Vic, and last year, he starred as Aristotle Onassis in the premiere of Martin Sherman’s Aristo in Chichester.
Back on television, Lindsay has twice portrayed the Prime Minister, in A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair, and has also starred in the likes of Horatio Hornblower, Jericho and Alan Bleasdale’s GBH (which won him a BAFTA for Best Actor), Jake’s Progress and, perhaps most famously, the long-running sitcom My Family with Zoe Wanamaker.
Lindsay’s other screen credits include: Wimbledon, Fierce Creatures and Divorcing Jack on film; and Gideon’s Daughter, Friends and Crocodiles, Hawk, The Canterbury Tales, Oliver Twist and The Office on TV.
The way I engage with an audience can sometimes cause a problem for other actors. Do they think that I deliberately set out to steal the show? Is it professional rivalry? Or merely a clash of approach and attitude?
Michael Coveney, a theatre critic (editor’s note: for Whatsonstage.com, of course!), once interviewed me in a platform discussion at the Old Vic. He suggested that everything I’d done in my career, including Me and My Girl and The Entertainer, involved me playing both to the audience and to the actors on stage and that I am as ‘aware’ of entertaining the crowds as I am of playing the character. Perhaps it’s this that can rub other actors up the wrong way.
When I was in Godspell, one of the original cast members from the David Essex days returned to the show, a guy who’s a big star now. We were halfway through the show when I noticed that this actor had started to be very physical with me. Something wasn’t quite right. We did the curtain call and as we came off he just punched me straight in the face, and I mean a full blow. I saw red and started hitting him back – it was a full-on fight! The other actors tried to intervene. I remember Mary Magdalene jumped on my back, pulling me off, and there was Jesus piling in.
As it was one of those ‘hippy’ shows, everyone shared a dressing room and make-up together, which, after the fight, was awkward to say the least. The actor in question didn’t speak to me for two weeks – he just stared into his make-up mirror every night. Tina, a friend in the show at the time, thought he was irritated by the amount of attention the audience was giving me and by what I was doing to get it. So perhaps Michael Coveney has a point. Maybe this actor thought I was ‘playing’ the audience and he resented it.
I don’t deliberately try and upstage people, but I think I do engage with the audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: when you are a member of the audience you want to be engaged, to be lured over the footlights and into the action. You have to bring the character alive for them, to the point where the audience feel like they’re experiencing what you are.
Maybe other actors think “this guy is so engaged with the audience that I’ve ‘lost’ them for my character”. It may come down to a clash of styles. Some actors aren’t necessarily ‘emotion rich’, yet feel they ought to be. Given my style, it’s easier for me to engage with the other players and the audience – I try and take both with me. I like to think of myself as a team or ensemble player. I’m not on a solo bid for stardom. I’m saying, let’s all go together on this journey on stage...
It comes down to being part actor, part performer. While my head yearns to be taken seriously, my heart has always had a soft spot for the pure entertainment side of what I do. That’s probably why the sitcom turned out to be such a good medium for me.
Clearly you have to strike a balance between playing the character and playing the audience and, if push comes to shove, you’ve got to choose that authenticity over relating to the audience. I was always in danger of not doing that when I played Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Because of the nature of the role, it was tempting to take the easy option and play to the audience. But the director’s notes were always in my head: “He doesn’t like the audience; he’s a bad entertainer.” So I wouldn’t allow myself to compromise the character...
My route to The Entertainer was rather convoluted. It had been in the back of my mind since Laurence Olivier had suggested I should play Archie Rice one day when I was old enough, and I got the chance to perform a section of the show during a Royal Court event celebrating the play’s 50th anniversary. That involved me giving a rehearsed reading for David Hare. The reading went well and received some very good reviews, prompting me to think about a full production. The Archie Rice part was one that I really wanted to play.
I saw David Hare again in New York – I was there to see about playing a role in Spamalot – and I asked him, “Can’t we do The Entertainer together in the West End?” He told me that Kevin Spacey owned the rights and suggested I write to him, which I duly did. Within a week, I got a phone call and the plot was hatched: we’d do The Entertainer at the Old Vic.
David Hare was busy elsewhere, but Kevin had the idea of approaching Sean Holmes, a young director. He turned out to be fantastic – a real find. He allowed me to sit in the inventor’s seat, letting me throw in ideas here and there but always keeping control of the bigger picture: he operates a bit like he’s flying a kite, occasionally giving a little tug or not, as needs be, when things need to be pulled in or let out.
I enjoyed playing Archie Rice but there were a few issues with the audience. The rehearsed reading at the Royal Court had been given to a hundred or so intellectuals, journalists, theatre producers, directors and theatre trust members. The audience at the Old Vic was completely different. On some nights they loved it, on others they seemed rather nonplussed. I asked Pam Ferris, also in the play with me, what she thought the reason was. How could we get a euphoric reception one night, with cheering and a standing ovation, and then follow it the next night with silence?
In the last week of the run she came up with an answer. “We’re established TV names, both of us, so on some nights we’re bringing in audiences who have no preconceived idea of the play they’re seeing,” she said. “They are simply coming to see Pam Ferris from The Darling Buds of May and Robert Lindsay from My Family. They are our TV audience and they’re asking, ‘What the hell’s this?’”
The penny dropped. At the performances when we had our TV ‘following’ in, the audience didn’t really get the show, or if they did, they didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t know how to take the play. The ‘following’ has expectations of you. They should be thinking “that’s Archie Rice up there on Stage” but instead they were saying to themselves “that’s Robert Lindsay. That’s the guy out of My Family”. Because the publicity for the show was so extensive – it was on buses, the Tube and in the papers – a lot of people thought I was the entertainer, rather than in The Entertainer.
We were getting the coach parties who usually go to see Spamalot, The Sound of Music, The Producers, Me and My Girl and so on. But The Entertainer isn’t that kind of show. Archie doesn’t like the audience within the play – he’s crude and abusive to the imaginary ‘them’. During those bits of the play you could feel the shock among the real audience. They couldn’t believe that I, Robert Lindsay, was saying, in effect, “You bunch of shits – what are you doing here?” I had a real problem with it. So did they...
That’s the problem with carrying TV popularity over into the theatre. It’s the problem with having two sides: a ‘legit’ theatre side and a light entertainment side... It doesn’t help that there’s a real snobbery within the business itself that makes that crossover even harder, even if it doesn’t prevent it happening altogether.
I’ve come to that stage in my career, the stage where it’s getting harder and harder to take the audience with me into another world. I’m too familiar to them. The theatre is hard work and I’ve made it harder for myself by being well known; I’m recognised too easily as Robert Lindsay. It isn’t that people aren’t nice, they are: they smile and are friendly, but I have to confess I’m not comfortable with celebrity, not with my own or with its wider culture.
Perhaps I’m guilty of making a rod for my own back. Why do I feel like I have to constantly prove myself as a ‘serious’ actor, even at this age? Who am I trying to convince anyway? I’ve done the Ibsen, the Shakespeare, Osborne, Hare and Bleasdale; what do I have to prove?
The above is extracted from Letting Go, which is published in hardback (priced £18.99) by Thorogood on 26 October 2009. Readers can obtain a 10% discount if they purchase via the publisher’s website.