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Posts Tagged ‘Ian Holm’

I know that many – perhaps even most – people believe that the truly great plays demonstrate their greatness, in part, by proving themselves to be infinitely open to interpretation and presentation.

Along side this belief there is also the much-repeated claim made by actors (genuinely meant, I am sure) that they feel that they never did – never COULD – get totally to grips with the character of Lear, Hedda, Iago – whomever.

These two things taken together make it almost blasphemous to talk about a definitive performance in one of those roles (let alone the more complex and wide-ranging idea of a “definitive production”)…and yet…

Of course these things are matter of taste, and they are locked in time (even if one were to admit its possibility, a definitive “Othello” of the 1950s is going to be very different to one of this decade – not least because of the natural skin tone of the actor playing the eponymous hero), but that said, I think I have seen quite a few “definitive” productions of the great plays (and thus with “definitive” performances at their heart) – and I think (without modesty) that I have seen enough and no enough to be able to make that judgement. I’m thinking of “the classics” here – rather than modern plays where the production has been mind-blowing (and hard to imagine an improvement being made: such as Denise Gough in “People, Places and Things” or Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”).

These are not in date order, and I don’t know how they’d hold up today: but I would guess “pretty well”…

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Hedda Gabler” – still the best night (nine nights, in fact) that I have ever spent in a theatre.

Antony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s “King Lear”

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth”

Adrian Lester in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello”

Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge”

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Medea”

Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s “Hamlet”

As I write this, “Hamlet” is still on at The Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it for the first time in the Almeida, and then the second time with my children at The Gielgud – and I’ve got tickets for two more nights before it closes in a month’s time. It is absolutely extraordinary.

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet makes the play – and the character – feel newly minted (which I would have never thought possible). He is conversational, clear and accessible, never once striking a false note; and managing to find wit, humour and passion in even the most well-trod of passages. There isn’t one cliche, there isn’t one moment that feels manufactured: this is the first time that I have seen the leaps in emotion executed with such clarity and conviction – it really is a monumental performance. This Hamlet is so grief-stricken because he is so passionate: you feel that he has one layer of skin less than anyone else – he is so vulnerable to what goes on around him, to the endless betrayals that he faces and the lies that he is told that his death felt like a release that he was yearning for. The “fall of a sparrow” section had me in pieces: this was someone looking forward to death as a way out of a tormented life. Mind-blowing.

The direction is a masterpiece of clarity and creativity. I’ve never seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father presented in so chilling and brilliant a way. I’ve never seen Elsinore feel so watched and watchful (even in other productions when that was clearly a core part of the interpretation: Nicholas Hytner’s great production with Rory Kinnear in the lead was awash with FBI types with earpieces and walkie-talkies – but somehow I became immune to it: here, the touch is far lighter and far more significant). I have never seen such a strong and affecting Ophelia as Jessica Brown Findlay, whose mad scenes were handled with such control and pathos that there wasn’t a single embarrassed titter throughout (and if that doesn’t sound like the highest praise imaginable, I assure you that it is): this was the first time that I thought Hamlet and Ophelia really, really loved each other. The final scene (well cut and sharply staged) ends in a coup-de-theatre that delivers a punch to the heart.

It is absolutely once in a lifetime, dust-free, fuss-free stuff: and it blew me (and my children) away. If you can get to see it, I would urge you to see it. If you only go to the theatre once a year, make it this. It is so, so good and I know that I will never forget it.

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I had lunch with Hilarious Researcher recently, and she (who is married to an actor, and who likes theatre) and I (who am married to a woman who does not like theatre at all) were discussing what it is to travel across London to see something truly execrable.

There is nothing worse than Terrible Theatre: nothing to make one conclude that this is an outmoded form, populated by self-indulgent actors whose understanding and experience of human nature seems as remote as our general understanding of alien life forms. I have recorded the unspeakable horror of Gary Wilmot as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and the (usually immaculate) Fiona Shaw’s ghastly folie d’amour in “The Powerbook” – but Hilarious Researcher was reminding me of another type of theatre: the type where one knows a member of the cast, and is thus performing every bit as hard and carefully as the paid performers. I haven’t been to this sort of show for a while, but I do remember at University (and for a number of years afterwards) turning up at “spaces” to stand (always) with a handful of other “friends of the cast” (invariably) to see someone one had spent too many earnest evenings with in the past, stand at a microphone in a tight spotlight, clad in a leotard, intoning “I am vagina” over and over before covering themselves in four pints of milk, assuming a foetal position and sobbing, as we wait for the pitilessly long and final fade of the light to release us all.

It seems that Hilarious Researcher has not been so lucky: her husband’s profession means that they are still finding themselves in strip-lit church halls with leotard-clad performers a little too often for her liking. Maybe it’s because I have been on the other side of the divide often enough (either as performer – although I always drew the line at the leotard, but was less resistant to the “basic black – a WORKING ACTOR” look, which is equally morally awful, if less anatomically repellent – or as director or designer) that I am ready to forgive bad theatre a little more readily than most others would. I know that it is, to some extent, a numbers game: because there is no financial barrier at all to a group of people performing a piece of theatre, it is bound to be prolific in a way that film isn’t (although there are lots of developments that mean the gap is narrowing, though still significant) and so that means that there is an awful lot of bad theatre knocking about. But when it is good (Shaw’s “Hedda Gabler”, “Electra”, “Medea”, “Happy Days”; Ian Holm’s “King Lear”; Simon Russell Beale’s “Hamlet”, Paul Schofield, Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave in “John Gabriel Borkman”; Judi Dench in “Amy’s View”, Judi Dench and Antony Hopkins in “Antony and Cleopatra”) there is nothing to compare with its thrill – and it stays with you undimmed forever.

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