Theatre in Wales

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Giving it to the Critics: Theatre Book Of 2010

Actor Theatre Book

Simon Callow , , January-13-11
Actor Theatre Book by Simon Callow The best new theatre book to come my way was Simon Callow’s “My Life in Pieces”. The whole book flows over with enthusiasm for everything in theatre, with one exception- (see end).

Its first virtue is that reports from the inside on acting are relatively few in number. Timothy West and Harriet Walter have both written good things. Michael Simkins’ “What’s My Motivation” should be mandatory reading for drama students for its mix of passion, comedy and sheer career happenstance.

Simon Callow is about an eloquent as can be on an art that is about as elusive as can be. In structure his book is unusual, if not unique, in linking a biographical text to the occasional writing- reviews, obituaries, articles- that he has done over decades.

In reviewing a biography of Lee Strasberg he pins down the Method in a way which I might have suspected but would never have been quite able to articulate.

Historically, the book occupies a fascinating time span with its first-hand reports of a generation of departed greats. The great knightly Autumn performances from plays like “Home”, “No Man’s Land” and “the Old Country” are all there.

A contrast between Guinness and Olivier opens “I was initially disappointed by the lack of visceral energy in Guinness’s work...but I soon succumbed. The measured gravity, the detachment, the faint air of whimsicality should all have produced a muted impression, but they were, on the contrary, curiously compelling. The physical transformations in every case were complete, but not conspicuous; they did not draw attention to themselves, which had seemed to me to be the whole fun of the thing when Olivier did it.”

He evokes the galvanic effect of drama school. “You will learn to live with language in all its many forms in way that that the whole temper of the times denies. You will learn how to access and use parts of your body and your brain that you scarcely knew existed. You will discover rhythm and tempo, absent for the most part from daily life. You will learn to look at life with the keen eye of someone who has to reproduce it. You will learn, as Brecht said, to drink a cup of tea in forty different ways….You will have to think about history, about the past, about the present and the future, and you will have to ask why the theatre has been central to the life of society for more than two-and-a-half thousand years.”

But there is a stain in this effervescent world. “Critics. Even as I write the word, a sort of hopelessness spreads over me, an inner voice whispers: "You can't win this one."
At the beginning of one's career (and in some cases, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end), one is so shocked by the whole phenomenon of criticism as it is practiced - the cavalier judgements, the slipshod reporting, the personal animus, the power of life and death over a show or an exhibition or a career - that one's instinct is to fight back, to have a show-down, to scotch the lie.

…When the critic of a Sunday paper devoted a whole paragraph of his vitriolic review of my production of My Fair Lady to my arrogance and lack of psychological insight by re-arranging the order of numbers in the score, I wrote a mild letter pointing out that the sequence was the standard sequence. The critic in question wrote one sentence by way of reply: "I could have cried all night."

…This is particularly true of drama critics, for whom there appears to be no qualification whatever. It is generally assumed that music critics have some training in music, some capacity to perform it or analyse it technically, but this is not the case with drama critics, most of whom have neither acted, nor directed nor even so much as attended a rehearsal.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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