Stiff upper lips
The director Michael Grandage has just won an Evening Standard award for his production of Chekhov's early play Ivanov in London, and Kenneth Branagh was nominated as best actor for his performance in the title role. Not sure I would have gone that far, but I had a fine time at the show, watching the characters' collective very bad behaviour and extraordinarily poor choices with enjoyable dismay.
But I met two friends last night who absolutely hated the production. One an expert in matters Chekhovian (who felt the production had nothing to do with Chekhov), the other a non-British professor, steeped in the big beasts of world theatre, who said she was beginning to think that British actors were wonderful screen artists but terrible on stage. I think she meant that the attempt to amplify their performances left them looking exposed and empty - that the screen was the natural habitat of their talent for the sensitive tremor, the banked-down yearn, the hooded glance and bitten lip.
It's true, there's some big, occasionally blowsy, acting going on in Ivanov. Didn't bother me, because I'm in a Dickensian frame of mind at the moment (Little Dorrit is being dramatised on British tv, and I'm drinking in great sooty lungfuls) - and Chekhov's grotesque melodrama seemed similarly full of monomaniacal figures each imprisoned in the caricatures they've made of themselves. In different ways (miserly, snobbish, boorish) their behaviour is unimaginably stupid, venal and miserable, because those are the lines they've drawn for themselves. Branagh's protagonist works on this level too; a depressive who has allowed himself to become callous, his distress moves on parallel lines to his helpless cruelty to his dying wife; even as he curls up beside his desk, sobbing, he can't connect his intense unhappiness with the effects of his behaviour upon others.
Whether or not this is truly Chekhovian (and, more importantly, whether or not that means anything very useful - I'd argue not), I increasingly feel that what I love about British acting isn't the celebrated repression, but the black-hearted sarcasm. They're intellectually articulate, emotionally confused, flailing with cruelty when backed into a corner. Sarky, pawky and sleazy: stooge emotions that can be simultaneously heartfelt and heartless. My favourite stage actors are artists like Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale who know all about the uses of wit (as shield, as sword, as self-harming razor).
For much of the 20th century, the accepted wisdom was that the silver-throated British ruled the stage, while the sweaty Yanks ate up the cinema screen. Just tonight I saw a new print of Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, where Leigh and Brando barely seem to exist in the same space-time continuum, let alone share a pokey apartment in New Orleans. If my chum is right, and British performers are now more at home on screen than stage, it may be a terrible indictment of a faltering tradition, or a sober acknowledgement that they've had to develop skills that will enable them to earn a decent living.
But am I wrong? What's distinctively British about British acting? Or essentially American about American performance? Let me know what you think.
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