Theatre in Wales

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Holding Up at Thirty Years of Age

Actor Theatre Book

Simon Callow “Being An Actor” part one , Penguin , July 5, 2014
Actor Theatre Book by Simon Callow “Being An Actor” part one Thirty years, a generation in the lives of humans, is for a book, or a play, an eternity. The bulk that pours out is huge and the vast majority are both forgotten and deserving to be so. Simon Callow's book of 1984 met an immediate audience. It was published by Methuen and went the following year to Penguin, was twice reprinted and the same again happened in 1986. My copy is from 1987. The glue is cracking, the pages loosening but the book's content remains vital.

It starts off a long time ago. A room in 1970 in Primrose Hill costs £5 12s 6d a week. The names that Callow encounters are also from long past: actor Michael MacLiammoir, dramatists C P Taylor, Martin Sherman, Snoo Wilson, directors Bernard Miles, Mike Ockrent. He is frank about all his deficiencies of sureness and certainty as a young man. The ascent had in retrospect its elements of fortune and opportunity but Callow plays down those of determination, application and sheer hard work.

There is an early involvement in the amateur stage but the life in theatre kicks off properly with a letter of request to Sir Laurence Olivier. That results in a stint at the National Theatre box office. Callow never meets the people who make the theatre but he steps once alone onto the stage. He pronounces “To be or not to be” and is shocked by the power that his voice contains.

He applies to the Drama Centre. After study he joins a production of Carl Sternheim's “Bürger Schippel” which goes to Edinburgh. The production has a great lead which makes it stand out. Callow writes that it is sheer good fortune that Charles Marowitz is on hand to see it at the Traverse. He takes it to the Open Space theatre in London. Callow has some fiddly stuff with a moustache which he throws off on stage. The critic Irving Wardle calls him one of the finest young characters on a British stage. The next day the agent he has set his heart on is on the phone.

At the Mermaid he faces the actor's ultimate humiliation. At a matinee in a bubbling dressing room he fails to hear a cue. “It can happen to anyone” say his fellow cast members. Gay Sweatshop follows and the Bush, Joint Stock, the Abbey in Dublin. He is in David Edgar's dramatisation from R D Laing of “Mary Barnes”. For Arturo Ui he is nominated by the Times for best performance of the year. At the National Theatre he encounters the rigours of working with John Dexter. “Galileo” and “Amadeus” follow and the first part of his book ends with Shakespeare's “Sonnets” and 320 performances of “the Beastly Beatitudes of Balthasar B”.

This first part of the book contains hardly an anecdote or funny tale of the theatre memoir genre. That may explain its commercial success at the time and since. The Callow of now is an established author, substantial biographer and fecund reviewer. The actor-author in 1984 already had a probing cerebral intelligence into the art to which he had chosen to give his life. Ironically he describes early on being young among veterans. They recount japes and gags but “never ever, is there any mention of inspiration, audacity, originality, intensity of feeling. These are not thought to be the ingredients of theatre. What one goes to see are accomplishment, adroitness, cleverness. The satisfaction is in seeing the time-honoured craft being put through its paces by well-known faces.”

Callow by contrast is both a sharp-eyed observer and a serious inquisitor. The rehearsal description with John Dexter- “the best play-mechanic in the world”- has a detail and vividness of flavour that asks to be read in full. He puts the question “what then is the function of the director?” His own answer is “the director's skill is a distinct commodity, like the designer's or the actor's. It should be at the service of the company, realising the group's understanding of the play and its needs.”

By the end of his book's first part he is not wholly satisfied with the state of things. His conclusion on the National is harsh. “The company, as such, barely exists...the involvement of the company in decisions is non-existent...It is in these subsidised theatres that the directocracy is at its most unqualified. The waste of actors' intelligence and passion...”

Earlier Callow has written a definitive account of being in Joint Stock. He concludes of “Fanshen” that the production “had changed everybody's lives in almost every way.” The company seethes with discussion and debate. Character, avers Bill Gaskill, was a bourgeois concept. The members' politics are varied, “a source of division rather than unity.” The stances are “libertarian, anarchist, Marxist, Maoist, parliamentary democratic, IRA. We even had a full-blown anarcho-syndicalist.”

Then it changes. “The play arrived and the discussions stopped.” Three weeks remain out of eight. “Rehearsals were excruciating.” The penny drops. The actors have nothing much in common. “Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors. The Joint Stock style was the Bill Gaskill style, the Max Stafford-Clark style. This style didn't stem from a political position or even an aesthetic theory. It was just their taste, what they liked to see.”

At thirty years of age “Being an Actor” is holding up. The second part of Callow's book is a substantial piece of writing in itself and is deserving of a separate review.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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