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What makes a great actor?

Clockwise from top left: Ruth Negga in Hamlet/Michael Gambon in Krapp's Last Tape/Mark Rylance in Jerusalem and Judi Dench in Alls Well that Ends Well. Photos: Ros Kavanagh/Anthony WoodTristram Kenton Clockwise from top left: Ruth Negga in Hamlet/Michael Gambon in Krapp's Last Tape/Mark Rylance in Jerusalem and Judi Dench in Alls Well that Ends Well. Photos: Ros Kavanagh/Anthony Wood/Tristram Kenton

Though critics and audiences might often agree when naming their top performers, it can be difficult to define what characterises the very best actors. Leading theatre figures tell Lyn Gardner what it takes to reach the top and how today’s leading lights compare to past greats


What makes an actor great? Perhaps it’s an ethereal quality, as Paines Plough’s joint artistic director James Grieve suggests: “The actors I love seem to think quicker and move through an emotional spectrum more lightly and swiftly and truthfully than ordinary mortals.”

It is a question that could be answered in myriad ways but for Ken Rea, acting teacher at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and author of The Outstanding Actor, all great actors are characterised by at least three qualities: “Imagination, danger and charisma.”

“Of course, they need impeccable technique but what marks the greatest actors over and above that competence is their quality of imagination and the fact that their choices are always bolder and more unexpected. They take risks, and it gives them a quality of danger and I think audiences like that,” Rea says. “More mediocre actors feel under pressure to get it right and as a result they often get into bad habits and plateau, but great actors try things that might not work. They surprise you all the time.”

Ask theatre professionals for a list of great actors and the same names will often appear: from Judi Dench, Michael Gambon and Ian McKellen of an older generation, via Harriet Walter, Linda Bassett, Fiona Shaw, Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale, to a younger group where the names Rory Kinnear, Jade Anouka, Denise Gough, Paapa Essiedu and Patsy Ferran make frequent appearances.

But would actors from earlier generations such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud make that list if they had been born 50 years later? Do great actors adapt to the times or can they only ever be of their era? What would today’s audiences and critics have made of Edmund Kean, about whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared: “To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”?

It’s possible those “flashes of lightning” would be toe-curlingly embarrassing in our own time when actor Clive Rowe – starring in a concert version of Guys and Dolls at the Royal Albert Hall later this month – says that “the greatest actor is unseen”. Modern actors are much more likely, in Mark Rylance’s words, to “talk with an audience, not at an audience”.

The National Theatre’s head of casting, Alastair Coomer, agrees that great acting is often at its best when it is least noticeable. “We don’t go to watch the process but the product. An audience doesn’t want to see how an actor is doing what they are doing or see the effort.”

Twelfth Night at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London (2008). Photo: Alastair Muir

‘We are only any good if we are telling the truth’ Actor Clive Rowe

Changing tastes with each generation

One moment that demonstrated how acting styles are constantly in transition was watching three generations of actors – Margaret Tyzack, Helen Mirren and Ruth Negga – side by side on stage in Nicholas Hytner’s revival of Phedre at the National Theatre almost a decade ago.

Mirren’s portrayal of the title character seemed almost stagey beside Ruth Negga, who played Hippolytus’ lover, Aricia. Critic Susannah Clapp observed: “When she [Negga] speaks, she seems not to be reciting but telling the truth. She’s in a not very long line of actresses – Parminder Nagra and Carey Mulligan have the same quality – who appear not to perform but transmit.”

Seeing significantly different acting styles on the same stage can be jarring and directors increasingly need to work to create an integrated show. Melly Still, whose production of The Lovely Bones is out on tour, says: “We’re so used to how eclectic British acting is, we don’t think about it much. But I do think the preparation work I do is a way of accommodating that difference. It’s not just warming up, but a way of unifying the different ‘schools’ of acting, in order to find that shared language in the rehearsal room and on stage.”

Niamh Cusack, Catherine McCormack and Melly Still in rehearsal for My Brilliant Friend. Photo: Marc Brenner

‘Confidence can breed brilliance. Self-doubt has its place but those who are more self-doubting may not get the work’ Director Melly Still

Many, who had only seen Olivier on film, admitted he can look a bit of a ham on celluloid. Perhaps they would have thought differently if they had seen him on stage? Or maybe not. Peter Brook recently mused: “If we were transported back to the Elizabethan theatre, I think we’d be shocked by the crudity and coarseness of what we saw. Over the centuries there has been a quest for finer acting.”

There has been a quest for a quieter and often more naturalistic style too. As Hytner observes in his book Balancing Acts: “In many of the great stories about acting, the new generation stuns the audience by appearing not to act. The young actor says to the old actor: ‘I don’t believe you.’ The old actor says: ‘I don’t understand you.’”

In some ways the change in acting styles is a response to changing spaces, as the old Victorian and Edwardian playhouses give way to smaller theatres. Paines Plough’s touring Roundabout space is intimate, which is why audiences love it, but – as Grieve points out – it’s enormously demanding on the actors and highly exposing.

“Not everyone can handle it, just as some actors thrive at Shakespeare’s Globe and others don’t,” says Grieve, who argues that the demands of spaces such as the Bush and the Olivier are enormously different, and it requires real skill from an actor to negotiate both. Maybe not all can.

While actors once honed their skills in large rep theatres, many now begin careers in studio spaces and have little experience when they have to scale up. Rea says: “In a quest to be truthful, some actors keep what they are doing too small. There is such a taboo in drama schools now about being over-the-top.” He believes you can go smaller as long as you maintain energy, even if that energy is coiled and invisible.

Recalling seeing Dench playing Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, he says: “There was a moment after she told Leontes off in great anger and she went to exit, and just before she did she turned and looked at him and in that look was all her compassion and empathy for him. A tiny moment, almost no moment at all, but she made it so truthful and so powerful.”

Rea argues that the influence of TV and film is a reason why naturalistic acting styles are in the ascendant on stage.

“Go back to the 1970s and 1980s and actors’ performances on stage often seemed more flamboyant and bigger. But that doesn’t mean they were any less connected to the truth. It’s just a different style of truth.”

Erica Whyman. Photo: Topher McGrillis
Erica Whyman. Photo: Topher McGrillis

‘I don’t know a more self-critical group of people than actors’ Director Erica Whyman

Erica Whyman, deputy director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, suggests there are a number reasons why stage acting is changing, and she doesn’t believe the influence of screen acting is as negative as some people hold it to be.

“The conservative view is that the influence of the screen is damaging theatre acting because actors no longer understand the heightened nature of theatre. But that’s like saying that someone who is very good at baking cakes can’t make pastry. They are already halfway there,” she says.

“One of the things that has changed acting is not just the influence of TV and film, but also that theatre has changed. Theatre is now a much more visual and physical medium, it’s not just about text. Physical artistry is now also much more integrated into our rehearsal processes. Great acting is now much more of a marvellous cocktail – a total theatre. That’s a good thing.”

Can certain roles confer greatness?

When discussing great acting, the default position is to admire particular dramatic acting in particular kinds of work, which is mostly classical. Nigel Planer, currently in rehearsals for Vulcan 7, told me recently in mournful tones: “You don’t get awards for comedy.”

Nigel Planer. Photo: Robert Day

‘Actors need a director who will leave them alone at the right moments and pat them in the right places when they need it’ Performer and writer Nigel Planer

As casting director Coomer – who has looked back over the Olivier nominations – has noticed, if you want to up your chances of being nominated for an Olivier for best actor you would be advised to take on a Shakespeare or classical role rather than appearing in a contemporary play or comedy. “Even though acting is changing, to some extent our ideas about great acting are still shackled to an old-fashioned view, and one that is about the voice beautiful and classic texts,” he says.

But if great acting is associated with classical roles and epic plays, the question is: who gets to be big, who gets to be epic and therefore who gets to be labelled great?

Natalie Ibu, artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, says we need to think harder not just about what great acting is “but also who gets to be a great actor – who has access to those experiences to be able to build the muscle”. This is not about talent or capability, but access and how actors of colour often find themselves denied those epic roles. “When we are looking for actors to collaborate with on the wide range of formal adventures we are dreaming up, we’re always faced with an incredibly talented black community of actors, but not all with a range of theatre experience,” Ibu adds.

Natalie Ibu

‘I’m drawn to actors who seem like chameleons, changing shape from one show to the next’ Natalie Ibu, Tiata Fahodzi

It’s not just actors of colour who find themselves deprived of opportunities. Theatre director Matthew Xia, one of the founders of Act for Change, believes different times need different considerations about the definition of great acting. He cites Manchester Royal Exchange’s collaboration with Graeae on a production of The House of Bernarda Alba, which had an integrated d/Deaf, disabled and non-deaf and disabled cast.

“I loved it as a statement of intent, but it didn’t stop people writing in to say this sort of thing shouldn’t be in the main house and should be confined to the studio. It’s bound up with the idea of what people think of as ‘excellence’ – something I struggle with – and excellence often comes into play when we talk about great acting.”

Alan Ayckbourn once said that working with Michael Gambon was like driving a Lamborghini. “You get a bit of open road and put your foot down on the emotional pedal, and you realise the harder you put your foot down, the more they’ll give you.”

But even the greatest of actors need help to give a memorable performance. At the Radical Mischief conference at the RSC in July, Emma Rice gave a typically passionate speech about fear and risk in which she talked about employing actors. She said: “The moment I say ‘I choose you’, I am never going to question that choice. My job is to make sure that actors never feel fear so they can do their very best work.” She went on to add: “My job is to notice, enable and harvest what they are doing.”

Matthew Xia

‘Great acting doesn’t look like acting at all. It seems effortless, even though it isn’t’ Director Matthew Xia

How directors nurture great performers

Melly Still says that in order to facilitate great performances as a director you have to be acutely aware that every actor has different needs, and Whyman argues that over the past 20 years the industry has become better at supporting and helping actors “find their liberation”.

“Directing is a bit like hosting a party,” she says. “Once you’ve invited the actors into your house, you have to make sure that they feel welcome and comfortable.”

Xia says the more experienced he has become as a director, the more he has realised that it’s his job to “keep out of the way, because if you’ve created the right conditions then the more you keep out of the way and the more freedom you give actors, the more offers they make you.” He jokes: “Then you can claim all the brilliant things they come up with as your own.”

But he worries that “the passion, skill and stamina” that acting requires is not really understood by those outside the industry. “I definitely have friends who say of acting that it’s not a real job.”

Whyman thinks that even within the industry actors are sometimes devalued, most often by some directors. “I feel they are often not given full credit. There are directors who treat actors like puppets, treating them like a bit of the set. But what I would always say to directors is that in the end, whatever you do, every night during the run it is just the actors and the audience, so you need to treat them as the only thing that matters. When you do that and create the right conditions, that’s when you get great performances.”

But are great performances always recognised? One of the things that has happened over the last 20 years is that critical writing about acting has all but disappeared from national newspaper reviews. Whereas critics such as Kenneth Tynan once wrote at length about acting and individual performances, it’s now rare for performances to be analysed in any depth.

Coomer thinks it is a shame and believes that the increasing brevity of reviews means that most critics have lost the skill and vocabulary needed to analyse acting and to talk about great performances with any eloquence.

Alastair Coomer. Photo: Jack Sain

‘Audiences are no longer as interested in booming voices as in emotional and psychological detail’ Casting director Alastair Coomer

One of the few who still writes about acting is the Observer’s Susannah Clapp. “It’s the most interesting part of the job, and it’s a really good way into a play,” she says. “Trying to write about acting is vital because it is the actors who embody the text. Otherwise you might just as well read it.”

Clapp is fascinated by the way some actors self-disguise on stage (she cites Denise Gough), while others such as Patsy Ferran are distinctively themselves and never disappear. Yet both are undoubtedly great actors. “What you get with some truly great actors is a magnified intensity that just seeps out of them.” She also thinks that what we think of as great acting is changing, perhaps faster than it has in the past.

“Actors don’t roar anymore and often what we see them do is implicit rather than obvious. They are much more naturalistic and the very best make you feel as if you have witnessed something completely emotionally naked on stage. Watching a great actor is thrilling and galvanising, so it’s a pity that reviews don’t reflect that in a way they once did.”

But what about actors themselves? Are they aware when they are doing their best work? Clive Rowe is doubtful: “I’ve had nights when I thought I was great and I know I wasn’t, and nights when I thought I was terrible and people congratulated me. I just don’t know. I think great acting is in the eye of the beholder. Mostly I come off and think: ‘Tonight I was a pile of rubbish.’ ’’

This may well confirm what Hytner observes as one of the qualities of the best performers: “Good actors never think they are good enough.”

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