All the world’s on stage
I’m going to indulge myself. I’m going to forsake topics that tend towards the weighty or serious. For today I learned that Peter O’Toole has retired from acting. Don’t get me wrong; the news hasn’t made me sad; on the contrary, Mr O’Toole has given us so much over the past half century and more that it is not possible to feel anything but happy that he existed at all. But I am going to indulge in some of memories and thoughts of theatre that Mr O’Toole’s announcement has brought to mind.
My first reaction was to want to write about Mr O’Toole and his work. I am neither biographer nor theatre critic, though, and there are many who would do the job better than I. Part of the desire to write something about him stems from my indignation that the academy never awarded him the best actor honour. (The low point was 1969, when the Academy threw away all credibility and awarded the best actor statuette to John Wayne for True Grit. O’Toole had been nominated for Goodbye, Mr Chips, which wasn’t his best outing but it was far better than Wayne’s. In truth, the real travesty that year was that Dustin Hoffman didn’t win it for his remarkable effort in Midnight Cowboy.) They’ve had plenty of opportunity to rectify the matter, but failed to grasp any of them. Consequently, Peter O’Toole has the definitely dubious distinction of being the actor most nominated for best actor without winning (eight nominations). But I’ll move on; indignation of that sort is fairly shallow and soon passes.
I only saw O’Toole on stage once, in Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell. It was in 1999 at the Old Vic. I had a perfect seat, five rows back in the centre of the stalls, and O’Toole kept me riveted the whole time. It was once said of John Gielgud (by Kenneth Tynan, I think) that he was a great actor – from the neck up. O’Toole, though, was one of those actors whose whole body performed. The play is entertaining but not much else can be said of it beyond that. But there are times when the art of acting is the art that makes theatre compelling and this was one such occasion.
I’m sure that Grotowski, for one, wouldn’t agree but acting isn’t just the art of playing a character, going from thought to thought, emotion to emotion, movement to movement. It is also a construction, much like a good writing. There are punctuation moments in a good performance, and there are moments of encapsulation in which a gesture or look sums up a whole scene that has just been played out. It’s a bit like the old presenter’s dictum of ‘Tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em’, though much more subtle. There’s a scene at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia: Lawrence extinguishes a match, slowly and deliberately, with his fingertips, then responds to another soldier’s remark about not minding the pain. O’Toole then glances at the other soldier; it’s fleeting, just a swift moment, but in that look and the body language that goes with it, O’Toole captures every element of the previous five minutes – the frustration, the intelligence, the determination, the paradox of his self-deprecation and his glory-seeking and the stoic acceptance pain.
(Of course, I have never been able to watch Lawrence of Arabia in quite the same way since reading Noel Coward’s observation about O’Toole in that film: ‘If the boy had been any prettier they would have had to call it Florence of Arabia.’ My appreciation of the film since has been undone by five seconds of drollery.)
So, I thought, I was very fortunate to have seen him perform on stage. And that led me thinking of how lucky I have been to see so many wonderful actors and many wonderful productions, especially during the decade or so that I lived in London. Some, like Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench and Alan Rickman gave performances that will always stay with me, even when the play or its production were second-rate. I have a particular (and unfashionable) fondness for Heartbreak House, and though Peter Hall’s stagey ending undid the play, Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave, Imogen Stubbs and Daniel Massey brought the rest of it to life perfectly.
Others, such as Eric Sykes were great performers rather than great actors (his gift of stagecraft in Moliere’s School for Wives carried the play). As happens, there were some fine actors who were off-beam; Robert Lindsay’s Richard came across as a man tormented by severe inner bowel syndrome rather than by inner conflict in the RSC’s over-wrought Richard III. Both director Elijah Moshinsky and Lindsay just tried too hard. It was like watching Al Pacino at his unrestrained worst in And Justice For All.
Stoppard has figured prominently, which has been doubly rewarding as I had my doubts about him after seeing After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound as an undergraduate. I didn’t work on the production (I was assigned to Uncle Vanya) but when I was at the Melbourne Theatre Company as an ASM, John Sumner was directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and I’d slip into rehearsals when I could and watch. That’s when I began to realise what a treasure theatre had in Stoppard. Seeing Arcadia in London in its first production, with Rufus Sewell, Felicity Kendall and Bill Nighy (and others, all terrific, whom it shames me not to remember), India Ink (not good but with Ms Kendall again) and a Jumpers revival with Simon Russell Beale and Essie Davis, have been highlights not just of my jaunts to the theatre but of my life. And I do have to admit that I have allowed something of Stoppard’s combination of sharp intellectual curiosity and humour to infiltrate my own writing.
For sheer production joy, Daldry’s revival of Priestly’s An Inspector Calls at the Garrick for the Royal National Theatre has been unbeatable, a fine example of the sum being greater than its parts. From Kenneth Cranham’s inspector-at-the-door to the equilibrium of performance from all the cast, the unobtrusive but meticulous direction and the wonderful set with its collapsing house, it’s remains done of the most vivid of my memories of the theatre.
I think I’ve only ever walked out of two plays, the first of which was the RSC’s production of Jonson’s Volpone at the Swan theatre in Stratford. At the time I mourned the lost art of cabbage-throwing. There’s been a few others I perhaps should have left, though perhaps there’s something about Jonson that makes it impossible to stay when you want to go. When I was at the MTC, we did a season of The Alchemist at the Athenaeum theatre, with Jonathan Hardy in the title role. During one performance, a man rose from the stalls, walked to the aisle, turned to the stage and shouted, ‘It’s rubbish!’. He then stormed down the aisle and through the double doors to the foyer. Neither cast nor audience had had time to draw breath when the auditorium doors burst open again and the gentleman stood there and, just in case any one missed it the first time, yelled, ‘It’s all bloody rubbish!’ once more, and left.
It hasn’t all been overseas and not all good performances were by great actors. Frank Thring was one I knew only by a series of minor film roles in Ben-Hur, El Cid, King of Kings and, I think, The Vikings. But I saw him in the title role of Brecht’s Galileo at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne and saw him in a different light. Years later, he played the butler in a completely forgettable production of The Importance of Being Earnest for the MTC and offered to the adoring audience one of the most shamefully hammy performances every inflicted upon me (I shouldn’t take such things so personally, I know.)
Melbourne was also the site of the second play I walked out of, though as it was an outdoor production in the Botanic Gardens, walking out is probably not the right word. It was a production of dear Will’s Comedy of Errors (which, to be blunt, is a rather poor and very silly play, anyway) which was done on roller skates. Now, I’ve no objection to trying new ways of presenting old dogs, and no amount of added tomfoolery could harm Comedy of Errors but even it deserves to have the lines understood and spoken well, both of which aspects seemed to have escaped director and cast equally. So, interval came and I went.
Comedy holds another significance for me. My daughter had the role of the Abbess in a production during her performing arts degree and I went along to see it, of course. Eryn had made up her mind years earlier that her life would be in theatre and she’d won a scholarship to study drama in London when we lived there. But this was the first time I’d seen her in a serious production and was relieved to have the proof laid out before me that she’s made the right decision. It didn’t makes me like the play any better, though.
At the tail end of the 60s, I saw a rough and ready production of a play called White With Wire Wheels. It was one of the first stagings of Jack Hibberd’s first play. What struck me was how the strength of theatre can sometimes be in inverse proportion to its muscle. There was no set to speak of, no lighting, few props and a script that isn’t particularly notable; all in all, not a lot of the muscles of theatre. I couldn’t name any of the actors that night but I remember that performance almost as vividly as Peter O’Toole’s 30 years later. The actors were committed, passionate and involved. The power came from the actors’ conviction of the truth they found in the play. Grotowski would have approved.
Early productions by the Anthill Theatre Company at their space in South Melbourne were not always satisfactory but I always got a buzz just being there. Theatre has a frisson all its own, whether it’s the Theatre Royal in Haymarket or La Mama in Melbourne. One of the notable things about going to La Mama in the late 60s and early 70s, when it was in its infancy, was the feeling that everyone else who was there had some sort of kinship to you. You didn’t go there just because you were looking for a place to go on Saturday night.
Even low points have added to what I am. I recall going to see – in 1981 or thereabouts – a very unusual version of King Lear. David Williamson, the Australian playwright, had re-written Shakespeare’s tragedy in Australian vernacular – making it two tragedies on one stage in one night. Directed by Peter Oysten, it was one of the most painful of my theatre-going experiences. When I want to reaffirm my belief in the wonder of human beings, I turn to Art; when I want to confirm their stupidity, I turn to Art. Still, it was a time when Australia was painfully aware of the yoke of imperial culture around its neck and all sorts of things were tried in an effort to ease its aching shoulders. In such circumstances excesses and failures are part of the mortar of the emerging culture’s foundations.
Theatre has shaped me. I’ve seen more of the world through theatre than through all my travels. I’m grateful to all the people who made that possible – even those who, one occasion, made the visit almost unendurable. So, I wish Mr O’Toole a happy and long retirement. He won’t recall the face staring at him from seat E17 at the Old Vic one night in 1999. But the person behind that face won’t forget.