Theatre is a living art, alive in the moment of its creation but living on after it only in the collective memories of those who saw it. Sometimes a film recording may give an approximation of what it might have looked like, but never what it felt like to be sitting in the audience that night; a really good critic might be able to communicate that feeling, but won’t be able to put you back in the seat experiencing it for yourself. So instead the memories are passed down in a different way, in a torch passing from one generation to another of actors.
I recently interviewed Roger Rees for The Stage, an actor who spent some 22 years with the RSC before moving to America, where he lives now and continues to act as well as direct himself (he is currently represented on Broadway by his co-direction of Peter and the Starcatcher). And he spoke fondly to me of the traditions of acting and how one generation carries on and borrows from another:
Someone plays Hamlet and then someone else played Hamlet – you always do something different to someone else, but you also borrow. In my Hamlet, I stole a bit from Gielgud: he played it nine times and also directed it. When Claudius prays in the chapel scene, takes his sword off and puts it by his side. He’s in soliloquy, then Hamlet comes in and does another soliloquy on top of it, which is a very anarchic thing to do. I did as Gielgud did and took the sword, holding it over his head, and then taking it off with me to the Queen’s bedroom, where I kill Polonius with it. When Claudius wakes up, he turns to pick up his sword and it’s not there. I copied that!
Other productions not only borrow from the past, but actively incorporate it in the present. Last week Lyn Gardner reviewed a new Wooster Group production of Hamlet at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and as she puts it:
Over every Hamlet looms the shadow of the Hamlets who came before. Richard Burton played the Dane on Broadway in 1964, in a production directed by John Gielgud, one of the most famous Hamlets of all time – who in turn provided the voice for the ghost of Hamlet’s father, itself represented by a shadow. The performance was filmed using 17 cameras in a process called Electronovision, later being shown simultaneously in 1,000 cinemas across the US, using what was then cutting-edge technology to mimic the nature of live performance.
Apart from the fact that this obviously long predated NT Live‘s current initiative that takes National Theatre productions live, as they happen, into cinemas across the country and then the world (in a recorded transmission), one copy of that Burton/Gielgud production survived – and now, Gardner tells us,
the Wooster Group has digitally altered both soundtrack and visuals for their own saucy assault upon Shakespeare and theatre history. With Scott Shepherd (recently seen in London in Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz) appearing both as the prince and as on-stage director, the production offers not so much a performance of Hamlet as a conversation between the filmed and the live, the past and present.
But sometimes conversations about the past only serve to scare some actors. Sheridan Smith, who is currently playing the title role of Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, told me in an interview I did with her for the Sunday Express:
I got the phone call while I was filming Mrs Biggs in Australia, and I’d never heard of Hedda Gabler, I’m ashamed to say – maybe I’m a bit thick, but I googled it and saw the words ‘female Hamlet’ and found out that it’s the part all actresses want to play, and it freaked me out completely. I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do this!’
But she accepted the challenge, only to suffer a panic attack on the first day of rehearsals. She got a word of advice from a kindly senior member of the company, Anne Reid.
She said, ‘Darling, take the curse off it, call her Elsie, not Hedda.’ There is so much pressure of the past and all the people who have played it before, but you have to try not to think of that.
But to embrace the future, we need sometimes to know a bit about the past, too. And teaching, of course, is yet another way to pass the torch of the past down to the present. I’m really happy right now doing just that: every Monday I go to ArtsEd in Chiswick, west London, to teach the First Year BA Musical Theatre students about the history of the genre they’re now being trained to become exponents of.
And it’s just thrilling to see these brilliant, eager young singers, dancers and actors soaking up a bit of theatrical history, and knowing that they will, one day soon, be a part of helping to make its future, too.