In an article in the Guardian at the weekend, accompanying a set of extraordinary photographs by Nadav Kander, Richard Eyre said that Simon Russell Beale was probably the cleverest actor he's ever worked with, having just finished shooting a film of Henry IV with SRB as Falstaff.
"What's rare," says Eyre, "is to be able to shed that cleverness when you act. You never feel that his internal commentatoris visible. The last thing you want is someone showing off their intelligence, commenting on a performance as they're performing it."
Now, I'm not too sure about that. The first thing I like about SRB is the fact that he is so palpably intelligent an actor; I think it's very clear what he thinks about Stalin, for instance, as he plays the monster in Collaborators at the National. The mad gleam in his demeanour makes his performance both terrifying and satirical. This was also true of his definitive Thersites in Troilus and Cressida many years ago, directed by Sam Mendes.
Maybe it won't be true of his Falstaff, an ironic choice of role for SRB just when he's shed so many pounds for his appearance on the dance stage -- in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice in Wonderland at the Royal Opera House -- and in his wonderful television series about classical symphonies. One presumes he's either fattened up or padded out for Falstaff.
But it's probably safer to presume nothing. Kander's photo shows him sitting at a table looking sleek and austere, hair groomed and parted, one hand placed on a bare table where a crumpled piece of paper suggests a recently subdued fit of anger.
It's the wit and intellectual vivacity of some actors that can make them great, just as the brooding, physical sensuality of others makes them great in a completely different way. In the first camp you'd place SRB alongside Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, with Michael Gambon joining Vanessa Redgrave, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier in the second.
And even that glib categorisation is, well, too glib. All theories are suspect, though I'm sure Eyre is right about British actors being, as a breed, exceptional because of our national trait for introversion: "We produce great actors because we're emotionally repressed as a nation." And there are other reasons, too, Eyre suggests: the fact that Shakespeare is in our DNA; that so much of our ceremonial and public life in parliament and the law is built on adversarial conflict; and that role-playing is second nature to a nation obsessed with class distinctions and the necessity, sometimes, of having to pretend that you is what you ain't.
All the actors look as though they've been photographed in an institutional, antiseptic environment, a hospital or a prison, perhaps. Patrick Stewart bellows silently, draped in a featureless blanket. Judi Dench sits perched and serene, though troubled with inner visions, like Florence Nightingale back from the front line, on the edge of another bare table.
Bertie Carvel is in mid-fall, in a spotlight, clutching at his own titfer, while Anne-Marie Duff steps fearlessly into a void from a tiny doll's chair wearing sensible walking shoes. Most strikingly of all, Vinette Robinson, so brilliant in Philip Ridley's Tender Napalm and recently seen as Ophelia to Michael Sheen's Hamlet at the Young Vic, is in horizontal free-fall while lying on the floor, limbs poised elegantly upwards like those of a rag doll, or Alice in Wonderland.
No-one, let alone an actor, who was uninteresting or unimaginative, could strike these poses. The great mystery about it, and of performing, is how on earth do they manage that step from thinking what to do into actually doing it. It's the transition from dream to reality that they do so well, whereas most of us can only manage the reverse process.
Which is why actors are so special to us, not only as the abstract and brief chronicles of our time (as Hamlet says) but as our licence to see ourselves as we'd like, or fear, in our dreams, and as explanations of our own humanity.
And, boy, have we had some good illustrations of this phenomenon lately: Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd, Samantha Spiro in Filumena at the Almeida and Olivia Poulet and Joseph Drake in Philip Ridley's Shivered at the Southwark Playhouse.
So what to expect this week? Eve Best as the Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic and Iain Glen as Uncle Vanya at the Print Room are almost certain to prove that great acting is an everyday expectation in the British theatre, but one we should never take for granted.
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