Sunday, 27 June 2010

Close Encounters of the Callow Kind

As I was saying last time, I travelled back to Cambridge on Saturday to catch the matinee performance of Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford. This pilgrimage wasn't due to any vital new surge of passion for Shakey (a term lavished on Paper Five has put paid to such uncomplicated illusions), but my altogether more heartfelt dedication to its sole performer, the wonderful Simon Callow. I need pontificate no further about my passion for the man; the infamous Facebook group speaks for itself. I got a bit more than I bargained for from my inaugural trip to the Cambridge Arts Theatre - if it's anywhere near this good all the year round, I might have to fold myself into one of the seats, fuse with it by turns across the hot summer months and remain in perpetuity.

So, as I promised, on with the reviewer's hat. It's a splendidly tall thing, pitched somewhere between a bishop's mitre and a dunce's cap, and instantly puts me in mind of the tapered sock of a gremlin in an Arthur Rackham fantasy. Seems to have been designed for people whose heads come up to a peak, which must put damnsome pressure on the brain and its attendant critical faculties. Or, in other words, I'm not that great or experienced a reviewer, and have very mixed feelings about the practise in general. Consider this more of a reverie or wallow through the multifarious snickleways of the Swantonesque cranium. The odd bit of structure may come from my staying alert to clever little bits and pieces to steal for my own one-man show. But we'll see.

Callow's performance was a surprise in many respects. The presence that can seem so overpowering and ostentatious in film and television was actually a perfect fit for the auditorium. Callow never once lapsed into bellowing, something he's repeatedly accused of doing by a generation who seem intent on confusing him with Brian Blessed (another skillful actor you're hard-pressed to find scalping his lungs outside the welcome context of Have I Got News For You). Vocally, this was a very controlled performance, well-modulated throughout and brimming with quiet intensity. Surprisingly informal as well. No hint of swagger or posturing - just an audience and an actor, one who had no qualms about hitching up his trousers every so often or getting a bit tongue-tied. Always generous too, the trait that I admire most in Callow's acting. 'This is such a brilliant approach,' I remember thinking, 'and there's no way in hell I'll be able to match it'. I comforted myself a few seconds later with 'Aha! But this approach is unsuited to Dickens'. Is it really though? After all, there's got to be solid foundation on which to construct Dickens's multitude of comic grotesques, if only to afford the audience a little light relief. Callow has come into his own over the years. He's at ease with himself as a person and performer now more than ever, and it shows itself very clearly. What ease! I have more personal hang-ups than hangers to put 'em on, but I don't think that their systematic elimination would result in my inheritance of a performance style even distantly similar to that of Callow. It strikes me that such mastery is the preserve of two kinds of actor: the exceptionally experienced and the exceptionally arrogant. What a pity that those who can't abide Callow insist on confusing the two. Callow's a man of experience, and his stage presence is overwhelming in its compassion. I don't think that's the result of all of my extra baggage with Callow either. It's a heightened solidarity and openness that's very rare indeed, and really rather enviable.

Not that Callow shied from the grotesques when the opportunity arose. After enjoying his rhapsodic criticism of Falstaff for the last few years, it was a treat to finally see him perform such substantial chunks of the character. The 'honour' speech was fantastic in that respect, the soaring banality of his deadpan, petulant 'no' a happy confirmation that even the critically acclaimed resort to gimmicky voices when the moment calls for it. Callow has a fascinating approach to character that I've never quite got my head round either, and this is especially clear where voice is concerned. He never seems to dissolve into the twisted, perspiring overreacher that I periodically do in rehearsals, in which the search for the 'perfect' voice inevitably starts to eat away at and dissolve the character (or at least, it doesn't show). Macbeth's 'she should have died hereafter' was slightly slurred, an intonation worlds removed from the unadventurously clipped tones of the RSC. I made out a few titters in the audience. Interesting reaction. Was this because this was 'bad' acting? I suppose that the possibility can't be ruled out, but I'm inclined to think not. Distinctive, definitely, but it would be a very cruel audience who'd recognise something as dreadful and instinctively think to laugh. Why must laughter be the hallmark of a bad performance? It might well hint at something very different. We live in an age where people are so bloody resistant to anything the least bit unusual or peculiar. I can't see that there'd have been a great improvement had Callow used his natural voice (which is still superhuman by mortal standards). Equally, I can't see the virtue in going for a thick Scottish brogue to promote maximum virtuoso realism. Enacted with conviction and skill, two such 'extreme' choices would never incite laughter. With a truly bold performance (is it that inscrutable dramatic 'arrogance' coming through again?) there can be no room for ambiguity. The audience knows precisely where they stand and is engulfed by the actor's self-confidence. This is fair enough I suppose, but I'm not entirely convinced it makes for good acting. Surely there should be some depth, confusion, murkiness... And surely this should be even more pronounced in a speech so famous and so ruthlessly overacted. It's that sense of picking up a gauntlet, I think. Actors nearly always feel inclined to make a meal of the lines that Providence has smiled upon. (Unlike every other actor I've seen perform it, it was very telling that Callow didn't ham up the word 'and' when he arrived at 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...') The slurred voice seemed an instinctive choice, and in a way, it's a pity it flashed by so quickly. Although perhaps that's the secret. It hinted at an undiscovered world, something deeply personal and even uncomfortable in its rawness; uncontrolled while still bound in by the theatrical; an impulsive choice that conveyed enormous complexity at a stroke. Confusing indeed - valuable too, I reckon. No wonder people feel inclined to laugh. Perhaps it's that the theatre is a public forum, and very few of us are any good at confronting the uncanny in public.

Technical elements were handled very tastefully throughout. I was prepared for something in line with the minimalism of The Mystery of Charles Dickens, but ten years on, this show incorporated technology to unobtrusive and elegant effect. The projection screen and sliding black panels, which every so often opened out onto a tree branch or a writhing bed of shadows, put me in mind of nothing so much as an outdated museum exhibit. I'm sure that many will deride them on this basis, but personally speaking, my sense of the past was developed from visiting such fascinating, runic places in my earliest years, and the slight creakiness of the stagecraft only aided the nostalgic effect for me. Elizabethan music is one of the few things that never fails to get me misty-eyed (I blame my sister's unmitigated love for this sort of thing), so it was splendidly atmospheric when it was piped in to complement Callow's evocation of a country house. Under-lighting fed into one of the most memorable moments of the show when Callow read a particularly bloodthirsty speech from The Spanish Tragedy in the persona of Edward Alleyn. Gone was the jolly, red-faced reveller of Four Weddings and a Funeral. It cast some surprisingly disturbing shadows and reminded me of nothing so much as Henry Hull in Werewolf of London (anyone who's got an eyeful of that surprisingly intense bedroom invasion will understand what I mean). I wonder whether there's a place for such a thing in the Dickens show. My mind's still immersed in the Pickwick section, where characters do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time glued to various bits of courtroom paraphernalia. Although it'd probably be too ghoulish for protracted use (except where the Judge is concerned), it certainly imparts that shapeshifting quality I'm after. My centuries-old ultraviolet strip lamp has been entombed in a drawer for some time now, but it still works, and may be scheduled for a trip to Cambridge soon. Callow had the benefit of a trapdoor to conceal his lighting trickery, but I'm sure that something could be devised for Dickens. On a related note, a cascade of sand from the ceiling has reminded me to root out my smoke machine. There ain't nothing more Dickensian than a room brimming with smog.

One other thing that's stuck with me is Callow's rendition of Mark Antony's memorable 'honourable man' litany from Julius Caesar. Callow has a beautiful voice at the best of times - ripe, resonant and pleasingly fruity - but a hidden microphone added the extra element of an echo effect. It made it stunning to listen to, one of my favourite sections of the show, and I suppose for some it might reopen that age-old debate of sound versus sense. How dare this man resort to an electronic aid to, to... improve his acting! cry a belligerent stream of philistines bemused by showmanship and obviously blessed with the tonal range of Paul Scofield. Personally speaking, I think it's cracking when you can have both. The heady voluptuousness of revelling in vowels and consonants shouldn't be sacrificed in a mad hunt for dramatic truth. This is the best I've ever heard the speech. That's right - even better than Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood. Callow's version was far preferable to listening to some upstart method actor shriek and screech in an effort to tap into some futile vein of edginess and emotional exposure. Mind you, if Dustin Hoffman were to do such a thing, it would be acclaimed as genius. If Simon Callow were to do likewise, it would no doubt be scorned as another example of his unacceptably outdated and florid approach to acting. Critical hypocrisy never dies. Different techniques for different actors - a trite maxim, perhaps, but there's often truth in triteness.

Just before the play started, it was announced that Callow would be signing copies of his latest book in the foyer. I had a pressing engagement with Will Seaward just after the performance, so I assumed I wouldn't have time, contented myself with the thought of going to see the other loudest man in Britain and hummed merrily along to myself. Development however. The play finished considerably earlier than expected, so I was able to hang about for a bit. I joined a preposterously long queue, and about ten minutes later, I had my brief encounter with Callow. The theatre was offering copies of the book for purchase (My Life in Pieces, incidentally - take a look at it), but they'd all sold out by the time I reached the foyer. Fortunately, it didn't seem that Callow was bound by any fierce contractual obligations set by tyrannical publishing companies, because he was gracious enough to sign my considerably cheaper programme. Then I worked up my courage and asked him the question I'd plotted in the queue.

DISCLAIMER: Please forgive the completely unwarranted yet entirely sincere drippiness of the below. I'm not one to fetishise memories in the common way of things, but my admiration for Callow is long-standing and multi-layered. If it was anybody but him, they'd have got a sprig of holly, a box on the ear and thanked me thrice for the privilege. Well, maybe not, but the drippiness stands.

I: Simon, can I ask you a question?

SI: Yes.

Aha, success! Now. Focus. It's only Simon Callow. Favourite living actor. Admirable writer. Very enormous role model, very. My precarious mental state wasn't helped by marvelling at his ability to recite an entire Sonnet at the drop of a hat when prompted by the group in front of me.

I: In November I'm going to be performing two of Charles Dickens's Public Readings...

SI: Ah, which ones are you doing?

Blimey, he's quick off the mark... Blast, blast, what were they called now? Think quicker, damn you!

I: Err, 'Bardell and Pickwick' and 'Nicholas Nickleby at the Yorkshire School'...

SI: Ah.

What does this 'ah' betoken? Disdain? Amusement? Contempt? Approval?

I: Do you have any particular advice? I'm a little terrified at the prospect.

Yes. Actually said 'prospect'. What a twerp. Perhaps Callow has that arcane linguistic effect on people. Another exciting moment: he's doing the famous Callow thinking face. Oh, this is splendid! He's leaning back in the chair and furrowing his brow and going all intense like! Wowee! At this interesting moment, Callow launched into one of his celebrated non-sequiturs. It was the most personal interview I could have hoped for.

SI: The most important thing, I would say... is to throw yourself into it, because Dickens, in these two pieces, more than anything else, really presents us with cartoons... So, do everything you possibly can with your voice - make them distinct, exaggerate facial expressions - and go into it with all the energy you can. And good luck.

That's my year made.

I: Thank you very much.

SI: Thank you.

What the hell. I probably won't get another chance. I impulsively stick out my hand. There's a bit of pause. Then Simon Callow assents to a handshake. I'm probably being more than a bit irritating by forcing him to drop the pen he's holding, but this is all to the man's credit.

SI: Goodbye!

God bless him.

Well, there you have it. It may have occurred in a very informal context, and my recollections may come across as little more than garbled nonsense, but I'd like to think that I got a minor insight into the Callow acting philosophy, unsullied by the need to impress anyone in a position to criticise. In truth, it's the common sense approach to acting that I'm falling slowly more in love with - if it feels right, just get on and do it. Do the voices, do the faces, make the characters different - if only for the sake of it. Do it with conviction, and have a bit of bloody fun with it. I still remember my one sad attempt at writing a novel. It collapsed almost instantly because, with incredible, revolting self-importance, I devised a subtext in advance. Failure! Instant failure! Characters and events were concocted to slide unobtrusively over the top of my priggishness, and became exasperating as a direct result. Acting should likewise be uncomplicated. A complex character can't be created. It is always incidental, the result of good acting rather than the catalyst - and it is always at its most potent in the minds of the audience. Sure, I can play Richard III with a Napoleon complex, a Freudian mother fixation and Adolf Hitler's legendary missing testicle - but what use is that if the audience doesn't have the faintest clue? Let the people in the dark engage in this romantic process of incessantly reading into this and that. That is their privilege.

The actor's task is both deeply mechanical and deeply childish - a seemingly contradictory mixture that I'm confident can be reconciled. Alfred Hitchcock is often misquoted as saying that 'actors are like cattle' (what he really meant, as he would drolly correct interviewers, is that 'actors should be treated like cattle'). There is no reason to dignify this practice of affecting stupid walks and voices - equally, there is no reason to denigrate it. There's just got to be that acknowledgement (miraculously freeing, I think) that that's all there really is to it. 'Subtext' and 'depth' and 'psychological realism' and 'motivation' and all the other wanky buzzwords that serve as self-congratulatory signposts for thespian intellect are perfectly alright - but only so long as it makes you happy in what you're doing and isn't set loose to irritate anyone else. What these dangerous terms most certainly should not be permitted to do is break free from an actor's sequestered imaginings and run rampant in the intolerable forums of master-classes and drama schools and theatre text books and every other off-putting thing adrift in the modern endeavour to rationalise acting. Go into a performance with the carefree mechanics of childhood. Don't question why the Wicked Witch of the West absolutely has to have a high-pitched cackle by investigating her relationship with her recently crushed sister or the percentage of highly flammable silver paint in the Ozian air. Just get on and do it. The assumption is there for a deeply ingrained reason that's beyond your enfeebled powers of analysis. A desire to avoid a stereotype is really no more than a cry for attention, and will more often than not wind up disappointing the audience: the one truly unforgivable crime. If the audience for a medieval mystery play didn't get a Satan covered in red paint and cackling like a loon, the poor actor would have been pelted in rotten vegetables as a singularly unworthy destroyer of mankind. Trust to simplicity, and I believe that little can go wrong with acting. Cattle don't compose a dissertation on the consumption of grass - they bend their redoubtable necks and get down to grass-roots, in a manner of speaking. Suffice it to say that my admiration for Callow and all of the complicated things he's done to my brain over the years continues to grow and grow.

I'll part with an image from when I ambushed Callow after Waiting for Godot last year. I was at the height of my Callow mania then, so I blurted out some muddy and indecipherable profundities about Love is Where it Falls that probably alarmed him a fair bit. Maybe I was mistaken for one of the truly insane celebrity stalkers scattered about - the creepy, obsessive individuals who would buy a programme, skip the play, scamper to the stage door and announce things like 'it's my sixth time!' in hushed and reverent tones. (Most amusing to hear their collective groan when it was announced that Ian McKellen had already left the building.) Weirdness of the West End circus aside, it's a photo that I treasure.


Next time I really better focus on my own show again. I rounded off the first spate of preparations for the 'Bardell and Pickwick' segment by recording myself doing it. There are few things I hate more than listening to myself, but it's a necessary evil here. With such massive reserves of time and the available technology, it would be a criminal waste not to record the cringe-worthy snippets of failure so that they can be expurgated and cleansed ahead of the performance. Reading back, I'm aware just how horribly negative that sounds, so rest assured that I'm a bit more pleased than disgusted with the results of my experiment. Provided the audio file wings its way over to Wales intact, it'll be interesting to see what observations James has as to what's ticking over nicely - and what still needs adjusting before it can really hum.

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