Power play

“The purpose of playing,” says Hamlet, “Is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” And so it is that theatre, in ways that other art forms can’t quite compete, holds a mirror up to our lives, our societies, our emotions and our very existence. It is a powerful reflection, one that has been influential in building and tearing down institutions, behaviours and beliefs.

As old as human history, and as varied, theatre has existed throughout the ages, across all societies and social groups. So, with the ability of theatre to entertain us, to move us, to make us see something differently, what better art form to celebrate the theme of Power [Glass issue seven]? To do this, please welcome to our “stage”, Britain’s longest serving theatre critic no less, Michael Billington, in this brief tour of theatre and some of its greatest stars.


What are the qualities that make a good stage performer?
A good stage performer should possess charisma, sexiness, vitality and energy and, more obviously, a voice that resonates and a physical presence that is magnetic. But the really great stage performers draw the eye towards them because of some built-in quality, they have to suggest that they’re complicated and interesting people, and that you want to know them better.

The novelist Henry James, who was also a theatre critic, once said, “the test of a really great stage performer is that you actually want to know them, you want to meet them“. I think that’s fundamental and in my experience the really great performers are always lively characters, they always have lively and interesting minds or have a sort of dynamic presence.

Another quote: the dramatist David Hare said “acting is a judgement of character”, and I’ve always remembered that because what he means is that it’s not just about technique and style, it’s also about who you are as a human being. And if you think of any great living stage actors, from Vanessa Redgrave or Judi Dench or Michael Gambon, whoever you choose, they are extraordinary people, extraordinary human beings, whereas the dull actors are often rather dull human beings.

I said sexiness which is true, but it doesn’t mean you have to conform to some sort of standard, so you can be quite a short person like Judi Dench, because she’s tiny actually, but there’s something about her. One of the best British stage actors now, Simon Russell Beale, is actually a middle-aged man who is rather stout but nonetheless he has a very magnetic presence. So it’s a combination of factors, it’s just some innate quality that compels you to watch that person while they’re on the stage.

Do you think that for many of the great actors, we’re talking about something that was there from birth?
I think the great actors have something that was probably there, nearly from birth. If you look back at their biographies you’ll find this. Laurence Olivier, even at the age of 14, people would pick him out and say, this boy is a great actor for the future.

Judi Dench in York was acting in plays and people were saying, you know, she’s got some magical quality, so I think there’s a quality, an X factor, that is there from the start. What actors then have to do, obviously, is to train that talent. It’s not just enough to have raw talent, you’ve got to have a technique to go with it, you’ve got to have a voice that is flexible and you’ve got to know how to use your body in interesting ways. But I think there is something, an inborn quality, and if you haven’t got that you can train and train and train, but you won’t acquire it.

What do you think theatre has that film can’t compete with?
Danger. The danger of the live event. We go to the cinema, settle into a seat, see something that is sort of an industrial product. You go to a theatre and no one quite knows what is going to happen that night.

Obviously the play is rehearsed, but there’s an element of mystery about whether the performance will take off that night, and it’s that element of – and when I say danger, I don’t just mean physical danger, of whether the actor will fall over – it’s the suspense of not knowing whether the magic will happen on that particular evening. It’s very strange, the theatre, there’s some nights when the performance can be flat and dull and another night when that same performance can suddenly take off…

It’s very hard to predict whether the magic will always work. Actors have to make it work, but the audience has to engage with the event, so we’re part of the mysterious chemistry of theatre. Comedian Tony Hancock, who’s long dead, he said he had a feeling the audiences used to gather somewhere in advance to decide whether they were going to be a bad audience or a good audience … I would say that because of film, because of television, because of video, because of all the mechanical entertainment that is now available, theatre becomes more precious and more valuable.

Everyone says, “Oh, won’t all of these things kill it off?” My answer is the reverse; no, they actually enhance live theatre, because there are fewer and fewer places now where people can go to see something in which they can participate. We’ve become so locked into the solitude of sitting in front of screens that I think people crave some social connection.

And people are surprised that theatre seems to be surviving the recession; people are still going in large numbers. There is also more interactive theatre than there used to be, by which I mean, no longer do we automatically sit in rows and look at the stage and sit quiet for two an a half hours – a lot of events now, particularly avant-garde events, involve the audience going on a physical journey or going to a space somewhere in some remote part of the city and going on a kind of mystery tour.

It’s big now! Audiences love this, because they feel they’re not just captive spectators, they’re active spectators. Even in some more regular spaces, like Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank, London, the actors are very interactive, a lot of the audience are standing, they are communicating with the actors; they are encouraged to make noise. It’s hugely popular and successful for that reason, so I think where we’re moving towards a much more interactive theatre than in the past where we sat quietly. So for all those reasons I think theatre will endure.

What makes a good playwright?
What makes a good playwright … I think it’s a vision of life that is somehow unique and particular in the first place, some vision of the world or human beings that is different, that is particular, or expressed in language that is different. Playwrights who have their own voice is really what I’m saying, in a nutshell, and a voice that you can identify very quickly…

Not all playwrights have this, but the great playwrights, the very good playwrights, all have this. Peter Hall, who used to run the National Theatre, always says you can actually hear a playwright’s voice in the way they talk, just in conversation you can distinguish between Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, and Alan Bennett and Caryl Churchill – their conversation reflects the way they write dialogue. So having a vision of life is having a unique, distinctive voice of your own. Plus obviously, like acting, technical skills as well – you’ve got to know how to structure a play, and that’s crucial, I think, structure. The less good playwrights just present you with a mass of material; the really good playwrights know how to organise the material to maximum emotional effect.

In your opinion, what have been some of the greatest theatre shows of the last century?
Twentieth century? Gosh! Well, that assumes that I’ve been alive for the last century! Old as I am. What’s astonishing is, if you go back to 1900, some of the greatest masterpieces were written in that period. [Anton] Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, (1904), for example, was a seminal moment because it changed the nature of drama.

I think I’ll pick the 20th century plays that changed the way drama is written: The most obvious, I suppose, is [Samuel] Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, (1955), in London. Beckett changed all the rules, because before Beckett people thought plays have to have a plot and a character and a story but Beckett says, “Hold on! I can write a play that has no real narrative, it has characters but only four of them and the main character, Godot, never appears… ” – What he’s saying is, “I’m going to give you a situation that expresses the human condition”, and what he shows is that you can dispense with a lot of the normal material of drama and you can still create exciting theatre.

Looking at this globally, or not just English terms, I would think Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein in America, (1943), changed the musical, because before Oklahoma! people said the musical had to have lots of spectacle, dancing girls, etc. Anyway, if you have never seen Oklahoma!, it just begins with a woman in the middle of a stage, in a farm, churning butter, and the song comes, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day… ” And it’s so simple, but it does away with all the spectacle and frippery of the conventional musical, and says a musical is a way of telling a story, and you can tell that story very simply. So that changed the form.

I think the first Pinter play, which is, in effect, The Birthday Party, (1958), changed the rules again, because what happens in the end of that play, we don’t know. People always used to plague Pinter and say, “But what does it mean? Where are they going, at the end?” – he said, “I don’t know!” And what Pinter did was to show you can present a situation and leave it to the audience to make up their own minds about the meaning, or even about the resolution.

So I think that alters the way theatre goes. Then there was a play in 1995 in London, that shatters the audience, and it’s called Blasted and it was written by a girl in her 20s called Sarah Kane. Blasted is the first play of hers and I was there on the first night at the Royal Court [Theatre], and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The play is a catalogue of brutality, violence and horror, and initially we all were revolted by it.

What the play was saying is that violence isn’t just something that happens over there, it can happen here. She wrote it at a time when there was a civil war going on in Bosnia, and what she was trying to say I think was that we think in England we’re sort or protected and sheltered but what’s to stop violence erupting in our society. So that’s another one of these rule-changing plays. There are a huge number of great plays I haven’t mentioned, but I just picked out four or five things that altered the way theatre goes, and changed the rules.

What is it that attracts an audience to a play these days?
That’s such an interesting question actually. I think that nowadays, increasingly, because of the world we live in, there’s one very obvious answer to that: plays lure an audience in because there’s a star people want to go and see. I mean, everyone writes about this a lot now. Certainly it’s true in London in commercial theatre. If you’re doing a straight play you can’t do it without a film or TV name, or someone who’s a big theatre name. We’re very hungry it seems to see stars in the flesh.

Why is Theatre so relevant today and will it survive in the future?
Theatre is relevant because it deals with living political issues and this has been true in my lifetime, but it has been particularly true I think in the last ten to fifteen years, because theatre has not been afraid to tackle things like Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the violence that took place in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

I can’t say this strongly enough actually, this is one of the reasons why theatre is so healthy in Britain, it’s not afraid to tackle what’s going on. I was staggered to read recently that in France they just had a highly topical political play and it was the first one they’ve ever had. I think that part of the strength of British theatre is that you go for lots of reasons: entertainment, escape, a night out also but people go because it seems to engage with the world we live in. Climate change is a very good example of a topic we read about in the newspapers, we see it on television, but also it’s there in the theatre. And, I think theatre is often ahead of cinema in this way.

Cinema takes a long time to get a film made; if you want to do a play about Iraq … plays about Iraq were happening from the moment the Iraq invasion took place in 2003. The National Theatre did a big play about Iraq called Stuff Happens. This is yet another reason why theatre seems to me to engage with an audience, and why it will be relevant in ten years or 50 years or a 100 years.

People often think theatre is sort of old fashioned and stuffy and passé; it isn’t. I promise you it isn’t. People still go to it, not only because of all the things we discussed already, the social factor, the living factor, the danger element, but because it’s about something, it’s about something that matters in their lives.

by Nicola Kavanagh

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Seven – Power