RSS
 

Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: STAGE ENGLISH’ Category

The Three Sisters – Olivier version

10 Apr

The Three Sisters – directed by Laurence Olivier. Tragi-comedy. 2 hours 45 minutes Color 1970.

The Story: Three young women stranded in a provincial garrison town long to escape.

~

Mildred Dunnock once said to me, “The English know what acting it, but they don’t know how to do it.”

She was speaking about the English acting of this era and type and she said it at the time of this production, which was the same time that she herself acted with Olivier. How was that, I asked her. “Oh, he was up to his old tricks.”

He’s up to them here and it infects the life-style of the production as a whole and fixes its virtues and its lacks. It is a style in which the actor exists in an impenetrable circle. You might say Brando did the same. He did. But Olivier, creates the circle, not outside himself but inside his character. And it is a character which is built on appearance. As though appearance could provide content. The circle is empty.

So we have Olivier in padding, to suggest that The Doctor has grown portly with sitting and reading the paper. We have Olivier in wonderful facial hair, which looks real. We also may have Olivier in a new nose, for he loved to build them. But we also have Olivier in his disgruntled walk, his gimlet eye, his quick turns of head, and his bite.

All this brilliant surface is at one with the fact that the women’s wigs are sensationally good. So are the costumes, with the exception of Irena, who is garbed in pale blue, and needs to be in darkening shades of green. As a color, blue never turns bad; green can.

We have big vocal control from the actors, but poor diction, so that most of the actors drop the last consonant of lines and words, such that we do not quite know what they are saying, or such that our effort to find that out diminishes our response to what they are saying. Joan Plowright is particularly guilty of this. She has a big vocal range combined with careless enunciation.

What’s great about this version of The Three Sisters acting is its finish. We are in the presence of actors absolutely at home in their parts, long installed in their lines, and bodies, and costumes and sets. But, as my friend, actor John Hutchison remarked: “It looks like a museum piece.” For this is a production which resulted from a big success at The National, which toured for a good while with Robert Stephens as Vershinin. For a short time, Alan Bates took over the part when Stephens fell ill, and went on to make this, the last movie Olivier would ever direct.

Of course, Stephens would have been ideal for the part, with his neurotic masculinity, height, and danger. Bates cannot bring that. What Bates brings is his deft timing, both physical and vocal, and the bearing in him, common to English actors, that everyone is acting all the time, on the stage or not. He is also physically beautiful in his beard and uniforms.

And sometimes acting very well, so that Bates’ beautiful, large, wide-spaced eyes can register his love for Masha as he announces it to her. You can see it happen. And Bates can render melodiously the philosophical monologues, with which the play abounds, those songs of the soul with which Masha falls in love. He is lovely in the role.

Masha, who becomes scandalously hot for Vershinin, is played by what is surely the coldest actor on the English speaking stage, Joan Plowright. I remember seeing her in Ionesco’s The Chairs and The Lesson at The Phoenix in New York when she was just starting out, and her most signal characteristic, a pronounced indifference, kept her at remove from the passionate and physical vitality of those plays, as it has always done with her, and does here.

Joan Plowright is always like an understudy playing a part whose necessities some other actor has established, and, boy, does she stand-in for the role here. English acting requires blind obedience from the audience to supply everything the actors omit that is demanded from the scene played. It requires preparatory admiration. It requires respect for fussy technique. It requires the collapse of everything but the maintenance of the indoctrination that this sort of acting is good.

And this may be good. First because it may be the only way the English can bring these plays forward to audiences at all, wrapped in cellophane. And second, because it may supply the audience with the distance of surrender necessary to grasp the overall and operatic impression the play offers.

I say operatic, because in part the play is as operatic as Shaw. It reads and plays like a series of arias and duets emitted by characters all of whom stand apart from one another.

Arias meant to impress the audience, not the other actors.

Which means that you feel that none of the actors’ lines actually land inside any of the other actors. Which means than nothing happens. And nothing happening means nothing builds.

And nothing building means that the architecture of the play is foresworn.

For the architecture of The Three Sisters is plain. Four Acts. Each one offering a momentous event. Each one offering a hope and then a new and changing relationship to that hope.

Act one, the event is a Saint’s Day party for the youngest sister, Irena. In this production, no one prepares for it, no one sets out decorations or arranges flowers, no one dresses up for the special day. The hope is that the three sisters will move back to Moscow from this rural village where they have been cast away.

Act two, the event is a carnival. Here again, no excitement about it, no sense that it is a Mardi Gras preceding Lent, no dressing up, or particular ritual. Here the sense needs to be about the giving-up-for-Lent-or-for anything-else or about postponing this hope for Moscow, temporarily. It needs to be reflected in the style of the monologues, just as it is reflected in the contents of them. But of this, nothing.

Act three. The event is a fire. The whole town is burning to the ground, but here we have no sense of what is burning down, the peril to them, or the actions they take to relieve it. The words are there for it. But not the energy. The action of Act Three is: the hope for Moscow burns down. Again, it is in the monologues; again not acted, not directed.

Act four. A farewell. Farewell, finally and irrevocably to hope for the future and for everyone. The lines carry it. The performances do not; they are sculptures without living bodies within them.

 

Sviatoslav Richter said one must play Brahms as though every note were farewell. And certainly hope’s slowly turning around into a farewell to hope, a looking forward slowly turning into a looking back, a paean to the future slowly turning into a dirge about the future, a promise into resignation of all promise, are the very substance and structure of the play. We are asked to experience and by experience to know the life and death of hope. This is the great play which embodies the capacity and career of human aspiration. The fact that our lives do not turn out as we envisioned them. But, I, as an audience, do not feel from the actors any resonance with this common human theme.

It is no secret. Inherent in that farewell, is the first line of play, which announces that the birthday of Irena concurs with the death of the father of the sisters.

So what prevents them from slipping out from under that death and taking off for Moscow?

The failure to act.

Through fear?

Through social style?

But here, the failure of the characters to act becomes confused in the failure of the actors in the play to act. You might say that the actors act all over the place. Olivier acts up. But that’s not the same thing.

These parts are frightfully difficult to do. They require all the sense of period style shown here, but they also require superhuman alertness. Superhuman alertness because all the characters are lazy. All of them lounge about reading poetry. Or making it up. And then quoting it. They are ourselves. We all do that. In our minds. The disease of suicidal postponement, hope disemboweled on the operating table of Doctor Chekov.

The Doctor, which Olivier plays, is the most actively lazy person on stage, and the one most actively aware he is. He is ignorant of his own profession and of everything else in the world, except the scandal sheets he reads, and the irascibility he can achieve when drunk.

And yet the actor playing him not only cannot say the lines in his sleep, but, on the contrary, he must play the part with an awareness of his character’s own awareness. And this Olivier does not have.

Chekov called his plays comedies because his characters see themselves for what they are. Likewise, the actors must know and embody that no matter what their characters say, no matter how passionately or tragically they feel, no matter how high they aspire, they are futile and they know they are. The actor playing The Doctor must see himself seeing that folly, that inaction; so must they all. And this act of super awareness must drive each of them about that stage like pinballs. They each really must be searching for something on that stage each time they appear. And that’s not what I see here. I see poise and pose. Not bad things at all for theatrical presentation, and a good foundation for Chekov’s upper-class flaneurs, but only nice shoes, not the whole outfit.

 

Some day they will re-release on DVD the Actors Studio version of The Three Sisters. It is a conglomeration of styles, which the Olivier version is not, and the great Kim Stanley as Masha, while she cannot actually play anything above the truck-stop class, brings to the stage a steamy frustration delivered into a book of poems mean to quell it. I have seen The Three Sisters played in Russian by The Moscow Art Theatre.  I have seen The Three Sisters with Olympia Dukakis as Olga and Louis Zorich as The Doctor. Zorich’s vitality and humor is a perfect foil for the Doctor’s laziness and prevarication – which proves that you can cast these parts in various ways, making Plowright as Masha not actually miscast at all.

The difficult riches of The Three Sisters I witness as I watch this version again. So I come to give everyone their turn. I see how fluid Ronald Pickup is as the unloved Baron Tusenbach. It is a performance which would register more if it registered more on the actors around him. The production is filmed marvelously, for it is a company piece, and we need to know who is in earshot of whom on a filled stage. The groupings remind one of Sargent at his best.

In Act Two Derek Jacobi plays his brother as a temperamental, nervous martinet. (In the Olivier style.) His important scene with Ferrapont the deaf old servant is misplayed. We never feel how talking to someone who cannot hear to be poignant and representative of all of these people, none of whom really listen to one another, but each of whom spouts forth, while all the time not walking the talk.

In Act Three, when the whole town is burning to the ground, the level of relationship to this event is virtually nil, even to the needed degree of overlooking it. Olivier is really good in his solo drunk scene, which he does without accompaniment. The actress plays Irena such that virtually not a word she says is audible: crying-scene-self-indulgence and swallowing air. The big scene between Natasha and Olga goes to waste because the actress playing Olga weeps in capitulation from beginning to end. But it’s written as an out-and-out argument between the two, an argument which Natasha wins with a fusillade of vulgar vituperation of the kind Olga has declared she cannot endure and does.

Also left out of this production is any relationship to the passage of time of day. The First Act takes place at lunch. The Second Act takes place in the evening. The Third Act takes place at 3 AM. And the Fourth Act takes place around noon. No registration is taken by the actors or director for any of this. It’s not a literary matter. It’s a theatrical matter. It’s an unnecessary omission.

The Fourth Act is so beautifully set by the designer one is prepared to forgive much. And the arrangement of the scenes by the playwright almost forgives the rest. It is a Brahmsian farewell on all sides. One watches Olivier do it, and one sees that he is doing what he has almost always done. He is not playing the character; he is playing an actor playing the character. The good thing about this is that the actor he is playing is one of a certain daring and imagination. The bad thing is that the character is dead.

Most of what Irena is saying is still inaudible, and Derek Jacobi acts the part as though he did not need to be in it to do it.

He is not an actor of much imagination and of no daring at all. The brother is weak. The brother’s weakness is that he is distracted by fancies, such as gambling, violin playing, his ghastly wife, and finally his brats. He is distracted most of all by his boredom. Jacobi realizes none of this. We should all love the brother, as do the three sisters, because there is something endearing about his weakness; instead we are indifferent; his piques grant us so little.

Joan Plowright has the great farewell scene with Vershinin. Our hearts should break for her. But there is not enough for us to land on in the performance for us to do that, because Plowright executes Masha, as she does every character I have ever seen her play, as an abstraction; that is to say, as a figure which she need only touch down on with a few dots, lifted up and abstracted from the page. Abstraction in acting is usually reserved for older actors, whose right is earned by their years of acting experience and of life.

Of course, Plowright is very watchable. As with Bette Davis, say, it makes her naturally conspicuous. One attends to her, no matter what. She draws focus. Not by anything she is doing to seize it, but by a natural inheritance. The same is true of Olivier. One looks towards them automatically. They were born to be attended to. And then one looks towards them for a sign of life. This one does not often find.

The Three Sisters is a very great play, if only from the point of view of its construction, which is extremely strong. You can tell that, maybe, because it takes its time. If you want to understand construction in art, listen to the music of Franz Liszt.

I suppose all the parts are winning roles, although the most difficult, I believe would be Masha’s cuckolded husband who must announce, despite all sensory evidence, that he is “content”. And none of the parts would be easy to play, right down to the exact strategizing of the deafness of Ferrapont. One could go on as to what the play is about or for, how it reflects modern human life and has not aged. But those are matters for an audience to expose themselves to in person, not on the printed page. My criticism is that this version does not offer enough for the audience to expose themselves to. Not enough rises to the surface to catch us, ere we drown. Drowning alone would make us live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Comments Off on The Three Sisters – Olivier version

Posted in ACTING STYLE: STAGE ENGLISH, Derek Jacobi, ENSEMBLE DRAMA, FAMILY DRAMA, Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier, Period: 19th Century

 

King Lear [Orson Welles, 1953 Omnibus TV Version]

11 Aug

King Lear [Orson Welles TV version] – directed by Peter Brook. High Tragedy. To retire with his cronies, an English King divides his kingdom, and the two daughters between whom he partitions it drive him to his death. 83 minutes Black and White 1953.

★★★★★

I saw Welles play King Lear at The City Center in New York, and he was quite inaudible – a grumbling old stage thunderer – magisterial and hollow.

Orson Welles was inaudible in many film parts – deliberately inaudible, evincing by that a grand contempt for the piffling project he was in and for acting and for the actors around him. I later came to realize he was neither a stage actor nor a movie actor nor a TV actor, but a radio actor, having to and eventually choosing to achieve all his effects vocally. He had voice of great depth and plangency, and he fancied it, and he thought that such a voice, if used as a bravura instrument, was all that acting needed to be for him, that such a voice was sufficient to play any part whatsoever. Many actors with natural or highly developed voices do the same.

But I find this boring. Misguided. Arrogant. Especially, in basso voices, such as Welles’, it leads to incomprehensibility. The words tend to become drowned in the tumult of ocean. The character as tuba.

Welles’ voice doomed him. He was too famous for it. He, like Reciter-Actors such as Richard Burton, foundered on the rocks of vocal vanity. Vocally his Macbeth, his Othello, his Falstaff are all the same: deep without depth: orotund: the deep sounds shallow.

But Orson Welles’ TV-Omnibus King Lear is another matter entirely. You understand every single thing he says. And part of the pleasure of this is one’s sense that Welles loves this play, this poetry, in just the right way, which is to say humbly. He also knows it so thoroughly, so inwardly, that you sense the actor knows it truly by heart. It’s a wonderful rendition.

He brings the great mass and height of his body to bear without bullying and augments it with a big long nose, which removes from his face the piggy quality it ordinarily had and the visage of a demonic elf, and sets him above all lesser noses. He gives himself patriarchal eyebrows, which erase his own which were those of a mountebank and mere magician. He wears a Neptune beard and hair, which turn him primordial. We are in the presence of a terrible old king before he even opens his mouth, which actually happens at once, since the Edmund/Edgar subplot is banished from this production. Removing the first scene, which justifies the children’s behavior to parents who treat them as no parent should, still does streamline the play for TV length. It’s all right. We are not really asked to concern ourselves with anything other than the central performance.

Alan Badel plays the Fool; Natasha Parry, Cordelia; Arnold Moss, Albany; Bramwell Fletcher, Kent; Beatrice Straight, Goneril; Margaret Phillips, Regan; Michael MacLiammóir, Tom A Bedlam; Fredrick Worlock, Gloucester. And. aged thirty-eight, as the four-score-years-and-more King Lear, Orson Welles. A great Lear, a true investment by the actor. Miss him at your cost.

 
Comments Off on King Lear [Orson Welles, 1953 Omnibus TV Version]

Posted in ACTING STYLE: STAGE ENGLISH, HIGH TRAGEDY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, MADE FOR TV, Orson Welles, ROYALS, Tudor Costume Drama, WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare

 

Night Train To Munich

17 Dec

Night Train To Munich — Directed by Carol Reed. Boulevard Thriller. The daring rescue of an important Czech scientist brings his daughter and their rescuer into close shaves. 95 minutes Black and white 1940.

* * *

Carol Reed directed four great films, all fairly early on in his career, and so I saw this to see if this early film of his would add itself to this category. It does not. The great films are The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, Odd Man Out, and the greatest of them all: The Outcast Of The Islands, a film that I have watched many times, each time adding to its mystery and power. Later on Reed directed big Hollywood films of no particular distinction of content, such as Oliver, which is a lot of fun, and Mutiny On The Bounty, which is an albatross. But this piece is a War Film. War Films tend to fall between two stools: propaganda to raise one’s spirits and a story to harrow them. This divided energy is apparent here, and is understandable. But Reed, who even here is a great technician, stalls the story with Basel Radford and Naunton Wayne, popular from The Lady Vanishes by the same screenwriters, in flat comic interludes whose pauses drain them of humor and dampen the momentum. And Reed also offers us a gunshot finale that beggars credulity. It stars the pretty and accessible Margaret Lockwood, and the mercilessly highfalutin Rex Harrison, who brings his mastery of querulous irritability to play three separate parts, none of them convincingly but all of them entertainingly. He’s not what we would call a responsive actor. Feed him a line and he will wait it out for the next opportunity to attack someone, at which he is a genius. He’s gin and bitters every time. He tips the picture into being a Boulevard Thriller, such as we later so enjoyed being led through by James Bond. Felix Aylmer and Roland Culver make us happy, as do all the British character actors on display. Brilliantly acerbic as a light comedian, Harrison is overshadowed in all his scenes by Paul Henried, who is really good as the antagonist. Watch Henried; look at his attention, his emotional foundation, and his carving of the character he plays into a believable human being, which Harrison, for all his personality, never is. Harrison was not a great actor but a great entertainer, and as such earns a high place in our admiration of human sacrifice. (The exposition by the biographers of Reed and the screenwriters is helpful, kind, and delightful.)

 

 

Dear Murderer

15 Jul

Dear Murderer – Directed by Arthur Crabtree. Murder. A jealous husband plans the perfect crime, and gets away with it. 94 minutes Black and White 1947.

* * * * *

Dear Murderer has nothing to do with Noir. It is instead a good old fashioned pip-pip British murder story. We know who the murderer is from the start, the redoubtable Eric Portman. Opposite him is a pompadour from hell, played by Greta Gynt, as his wife. The lady is untrue, and one of her untruths is a pompadour almost as towering as hers. The story is well told and satisfying in its genre. Everyone is excellent, since in this sort of piece the acting does not need to amount to much, and the editing needs to amount to everything. Portman tends to rush his lines, a habit that got worse with him as he matured. It’s a habit of English actors when they don’t feel anything. Margaret Leighton used to do it, too. But that his lines hiss by doesn’t really matter so much, since we are, after all, engaged in a battle of the lizards. Watch them sink their giant jaws into one another’s necks. How satisfying!

[ad#300×250]

 

 

The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale

16 Apr

The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale — Directed by Stephen Porter. Romantic Drama. A Southern spinster sets her sights on the handsome boy next door. 1970’s/2002 Color 120 minutes.

* * * *

Tennessee Williams wrote this material four times, and his rewrites never solved the defects it presented. Samson Raphaelson said that while Williams was a much greater playwright than himself, if he had only fifteen minutes with Tennessee Williams he could have solved the problems of his plays, and he’s right. In this one, for instance, Williams writes a long closet or bedroom scene between the mother and John, but places it at the end of the play. The mother should not appear in the park, and it should be set, if at all, at the beginning of the play after the first scene between Alma and her father. This would invest the piece with the power of suspense, and build to the the seduction scene in Act III. Williams was a great playwright but not much of a craftsman. The essential problem of the play for an audience  is Alma, and the fact that, like Flora in Milktrain, Alma talks too much for an audience to care about. She is flibbertygibbet-boring.  But her tragedy is not that she has eccentricites or that she talks too much or is nervous or laughs oddly. Her problem is she has adopted these to make herself different from what she knows herself to be, which is normally sexed but maybe sexually unmateable. Adapting Eccentricities from From Summer And Smoke, Williams removed the rakes-hell boy next door and all the madness of The Moonlake Casino. But Rosa Gonzales and  little Nellie, while not subplots, at least gave the play something solid to bounce back from, and their light sheds upon the boy next door  the color of his vices. Wiliams replaced the rakes-hell with a nebbish. He replaced his righteous father with an incestuous mother. He replaced the melodrama with nothing. Alma got laid. But nothing improved. And nothing happened. The play declined in power and lost its great and brilliant and moving final scene in the doctor’s office. And in neither version is there is there a subplot, no secondary line of interest feeding the main matter, as there is between Stanley and Stella, for instance in Streetcar, or Mitch and Blanche, or between big Daddy and Brick in Cat, and in any Shakespearean play you might mention. What we have instead is two hours of  the rantings of a frustrated spinster and some voluble locals, and a mother who will not shut up, all of them molasses-Southern and rendered with Williams’ infallible ear, but none of them of sufficient dramatic or comic import to supply the deficiencies of a play which, being underwritten, ends up overwritten to compensate. The long bedroom scene at the end of the first part offers us nothing we do not already know from the mother’s merely taking her son’s arm at the fireworks display. Neva Patterson plays the mother here, a part written so it can only be played one way, witchy, which makes her character one-note-monotonous. It’s not Patterson’s fault, although she and all the players over-Southernize their accents, when Williams, by his diction alone, supplies all the accent needed. Summer and Smoke is certainly the better play, and Geraldine Page as Alma is superb in the role. Blythe Danner is an actress so inherently lovely it seems impossible she could remain a spinster, although she does supply a wince to regulate and demote her beauty and the neurasthenic affectations which make her annoying enough to make us think she is unmarriagable. But the part cannot work, because Williams has not got to the heart of it. Frank Langella brings his rich voice to the characterless part of the boy next door. Langella smiles affectionately throughout, a smart move, but it’s a dog’s-body of a part; here’s nothing there; and all one can do is thank him for not making more of a thankless role than can be made. Their losing their virginity together is a beautifully written scene and beautifully played, and worth the price of admission, but it shouldn’t be in the play. These two actors have played together many times on the stage, where I have seen them, and their high style is well suited to one another, and the respect for the talent and workings of one another make them look like Lunt and Fontanne. I love Tennessee Williams. And I love this material. Yes, as Hal Holbrook says in his introduction, it is different From Summer And Smoke. Different, yes. Better, no.

[ad#300×250]

 
 
Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button