Michael Billington talks to half a dozen actors recently making headlines
A profession of open-hearted dreamers and neurotics. That was how one Sunday television critic recently described the acting business. It sounds fine in print but just how true an assessment is it?
My own impression, after talking to six actors currently playing lead roles in major London productions, is that it is a travesty of the truth. Once upon a time actors may have been feckless, impractical creatures ready, at the drop of a curtain to rush off and join the raggle-taggle gypsies-o. Now theyre more likely to be worrying about mortgages, their childrens education or constructive ways of filling their leisure. Significantly, of the six actors I talked to, a couple were interested in the possibilities of further education: one was toying with the idea of taking an external degree somewhere in English and History and another felt the urge to acquire some practical or physical skills to jolt me out of myself.
The six actors in question were Michael Coles, playing in the D H Lawrence trilogy at the Royal Court; Edward Petherbridge, rising young National Theatre player; Michael Jayston who has recently appeared as Oswald in Ghosts and Bertram in Alls Well with the Royal Shakespeare Company; Timothy West, currently in The Italian Girl at Wyndhams; Barry Dennen, who has scored a great hit as the MC in Cabaret; and John Standing, a brilliant Algy in The Importance of Being Earnest. My purpose in meeting them was to find out their views on the theatre they work in and discover if there were ways in which they wanted it changed. In general, they were neither complacent nor mutinous: all had pertinent comments to make about the theatre set-up as it is today.
First, though, I asked them about their careers so far. [ ] Michael Jayston has also had a more or less exclusively theatrical career: Guildhall School of Drama, repertory at Salisbury and Bristol and now the RSC (is also married to an actress in the company, Lynn Farleigh). Like Edward Petherbridge, is an excellent example of the way talent rises gradually to the top in the two major ensembles.
[ ] Only Michael Jayston was critical of drama school- mainly because of the lack of discipline that exists. (You can spend most of your time at drama school in the pub if you want to.) He personally favours a system of benevolent dictatorship in the theatre and thinks this is no less vital in drama school days than it is later on.
Inevitably when one talks to English actors these days, one soon gets round to the question of the relative merits of subsidized and commercial theatre. Which system do they prefer? Which offers more scope? [ ] And Michael Jayston at the Aldwych, says he would be quite happy to spend the bulk of his working life in a company like the Royal Shakespeare- with the occasional excursion into cinema or television.
[ ] What about the present-day theatre makes you angry? This is one question always guaranteed to get actors going. [ ] From Michael Jayston came a different source of anger. The fact that the theatre is still largely for people who can afford 1pound or 25/- for a seat. The people who are most appreciative of theatre often just cant afford the best seats. In fact these days if someone says one is playing to the galley, then I take it as a great compliment. I feel very strongly about the need to try and widen the range of theatergoing audience, in the way Vittorio Gassman has in Italy for instance. And if I won the pools one thing Id very much like to do would be to take a theatre over for an evening and give a free show to old age pensioners.
[ ] There was one point, however, on which nearly everyone agreed. The fact that fame as an actor doesnt justify anyone in going on television and laying down the law about sex, morals, drugs, warfare or whatever. [ ] Said Michael Jayston: Why the hell should actors be expected to be oracles?
[ ] Michael Jayston and Timothy West both had interesting points to make about audiences. Mr. Jaystons line was that however bad audiences were (and he mentioned the two Americans who walked out of Henry IV at Stratford after five minutes because theyd seen what they came to see: Shakespeare being performed on the Stratford stage.) it was wrong for an actor despise them: it was really the actors fault if they didnt respond.
[...] Still, whatever audiences may do, its nice to find so many articulate young actors around who are prepared to wash their clean linen in public.