The other day I was stupid enough to lock myself out of my flat, without cards or phone as well as keys. I walked the few streets to my nearest friend's flat, hoping to phone the locksmith from there. And that's how I found a front door being opened to me by Tim Fountain, clad only in a dressing gown. Apparently he'd started taking afternoon naps to marshal his resources before performing each evening.
Tim's show elicited a lot of outrage, which was of course almost entirely the point. Forget all the guff about wanting to show how the Internet has altered sexual behaviour or about the culture of "reality" media coverage: what this boiled down to is that, after writing plays which lionised the likes of Julie Burchill and Toby Young on stage, Tim was eager for some notoriety of his own. And... actually, this is where reality culture does come into it... the simplest way to achieve that goal was to become well-known for what he is: a voracious Yorkshire queen. And, lo and behold, the likes of the Daily Mail duly obliged; even the noxious Taki, in his column in the Spectator, denounced Tim (without seeing the show, of course) as "a freak-cum-pervert poofter", which equally naturally pleased him no end.
I was, I suppose, rather surprised by the strength of the negative critical reaction. I mean, obviously it's not theatre and obviously it has no business being at the Royal Court; I said as much six months ago when I reviewed it on the Edinburgh Fringe. But once those points are taken as read, I actually found this version of the show quite charming. Big, bright and brash, often crass, but still charming. Because, having known Tim for more than 15 years, I can testify that that, too, is what he is. In Edinburgh he had cultivated something of a stage persona, which was bizarrely muted. This time, he presented himself au naturel, so to speak: the passion for hi-tech boys' toys, the gift for bluntly obscene anecdotes as well as marvellous turns of phrase... all unfiltered Fountain, and the better for it. I think the remark he most appreciated was that of a mutual friend: after the night when Tim was so publicity-hungry he performed a half-hearted sex act in Sloane Square in front of the Court, and noting the famous department store opposite, our friend said, "It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'I'm just slipping into Peter Jones'."
It's interesting, too, that so soon after the major kerfuffles about Behzti and Jerry Springer: The Opera, an issue that could upset quite secular notions of decorum and morality – that of a live audience sanctioning and even encouraging promiscuous casual sex on a nightly basis, and therefore complicit in all the health issues that entails – generated no comparable hoo-hah. Quentin Letts harrumphed predictably about the Court's public subsidy in a "must we pay for this filth?" way, but that's surely a trivial point in comparison. It strikes me that, in ignoring this issue, we're performing the opposite of the conventional theatrical transaction, and willingly suspending belief: belief that it matters or is anything to do with us. And I think that's the most pernicious fall-out from reality culture. Cue Germaine Greer.
As regards suspending disbelief, January offered a vexing instance of the limits of this facility. One of the worst things you can do, as a spectator, is to write off an entire production just because one person doesn’t look right to you. And Simon Russell Beale is perhaps the best British stage actor around. He brings a terrific light of intelligence and bitter humour to every role he plays. Unfortunately, what stops John Caird’s Almeida Macbeth being epochal is Beale’s appearance.
It’s not that he’s portly – I, of all people, could hardly complain about that. Nor is it that he’s not very tall, and spends several scenes beside the gigantic Silas Carson as Banquo. The point is that Beale knows as a general principle that he’s not built for action, and always plays his roles accordingly. This is no exception Yet Macbeth needs action. Beale’s thane is a brilliant infernal schemer, but in Acts One and Five we need to see the warrior, first as a plausible candidate for a martial kingship and latterly as someone who can plausibly throw all into the lists even as fate stacks up the fulfilled double-talk prophecies against him. We just don’t see that crucial aspect of Macbeth’s character here.
It’s all the more tantalising a lack because during the middle phase of the play, every other moment drips with extra significance and portent. Beale’s performance is simply without peer in this respect. He uses pauses, hesitations and his natural gift for slightly curdled bathos to find levels of nuance in virtually every line. Pretty much every other character gets similar moments of insight at one time or another. The conversations between third parties about events at court are exemplary in this respect: not only does everyone know exactly what evil is afoot yet dares show it only in sly glances, but everyone is also gauging their interlocutor as a possible informer. This complexity leads to a lot of significant pauses and considered delivery of lines, which in turn means that the production clocks in at nearly three hours; in this respect the overlap of scenes in and around Christopher Oram’s huge roundel of a stage design serves to buy some much-needed time. There is a great deal of brilliance on display in Caird’s production, but it’s crucially undermined through no fault of anyone’s but Mother Nature.
(I really, truly have no call complaining about persons of generous build: the promenade performance of Tejas Verdes I attended at the Gate was annoyingly interrupted by an audience member crashing to the floor. It was me, as a combination of personal stress and sheer obesity simply caused my legs to fold up under me without warning. It was immensely embarrassing; the excellent cast of Thea Sharrock’s fine production deserved rapt and immobile silence, not a dull thud. My profuse, and almost literally prostrate, apologies to them, and to the rest of the audience I unfortunately distracted.)
There were other disappointments this month, of which let me approach the biggest in a roundabout way. I have a quirk of checking programme biographies to see how many members of the cast have appeared in The Bill. I reckon a proportion of 30-50% is respectable; only once have I scored a full house, when all six members of a cast including a 13-year-old boy had appeared in the long-running TV series. (I know a broadsheet critic who prefers to tot up cast appearances in ITV’s The Bill as against those on the BBC’s Casualty.) It would, however, be much easier to count up those whose biogs declare that they trained with Jacques Lecoq. Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to avoid whole castsful of the specimens.
For Britain, the pioneers of Lecoqism were Théâtre de Complicité. Their revival of their 1984 show A Minute Too Late as part of their 21st-birthday celebrations illustrates how much has changed in that time. Not only have Complicité moved on, as Michael Billington notes, beyond “the slightly self-conscious cleverness into which they occasionally lapsed”; we as theatregoers, too, have become much more familiar with what has been described as “that Lecoq thing of swimming whilst standing on one foot”, and are far less liable to be impressed by such techniques alone.
A theory that’s not, it must be admitted, borne out by the majority of the reviews. Only Alastair Macaulay is candid about finding A Minute Too Late underwhelming, not just in terms of the physical shtick but of engagement with the supposed themes of death, bereavement, coping etc. I have to agree: my own bent in this area is excessively morbid – I’ll reminisce about family losses at the drop of a hat – yet this show left me entirely unmoved, even when I consciously tried to feel something on a personal level. And I can’t believe it’s because I’ve suddenly discovered how to deal with it all.
By the same token, Ta main dans la mienne is a prime example of the “exquisite miniature” side of Peter Brook’s work. It’s infused with an unfussy, precise naturalness, and Michel Piccoli and Natasha Parry both command attention in a less-is-more way, but it’s a bagatelle of a piece. Sometimes less is less.
And a final gobbet of smug self-congratulation. Nine months ago in this column, I recommended the great 1970s Brit-horror film Theatre Of Blood. Lo and behold, what has Nicholas Hytner just announced as the surprise inclusion in the Olivier’s third Travelex £10 season? I wonder whether adaptors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson will update the serially murdered critics to more recognisable contemporary caricatures? And where should we send the bundles of used fivers?
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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