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Matt Trueman: Actors who give themselves up on stage are the most watchable

Alex Beckett. Photo: Young Vic Alex Beckett. Photo: Young Vic
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The actor Alex Beckett, who died suddenly last month, was a pleasure to watch. I don’t mean that politely, but literally: watching him perform was a pleasure. He gave joy up on stage. He delighted.

It seems a strange thing to say. You’d think actors should do that, theatre being a thing we go to for fun. And yet, really thinking about it, very few do. Many are brilliant; they make us think, feel and laugh. Plenty challenge us, move us or draw us into a part. But few make it their job to be straight-up enjoyable. Beckett did, I think. I loved watching his work.

That’s not to downplay his seriousness. He was discerning. If his name cropped up on a cast list, you knew a show had something going for it – a sense of itself, at least.

Beckett was wonderfully silly, but smuggled danger beneath – as an improbable, ineffectual traitor in Edward II, a swivel-eyed madhouse manager in The Changeling or a cigar-chewing, hoop-shooting Castro in Praxis Makes Perfect. His hipster Henry Higgins punctured blithe, self-centred pretension. Beckett often muddled mischief with menace. He did his best work under the cover of lightness.

I’d just started a holiday when news of his death came through. It reached me, halfway round the world, via Twitter, as these things tend to do. Initially shocking, strangely inconceivable, I found the thought of it – the thought of him – took hold in my head. I couldn’t shake it off. I found myself scrolling tribute tweets for days; lying in bed, distant, turning him around in my brain. It was strange to feel grief for a man I never met.

In part, I’m sure, that had to do with his youth: 35 is no age, certainly not for such a live spark. Partly, it was a case of critic’s regret: I’d enjoyed him so often, yet celebrated him so little. Supporting performers rarely crop up in dispatches. Few get the critical attention their talent deserves. The thought of never seeing him on stage again was striking. It saddens me still.

But the more I think about it, something else comes through. I never met Alex, but I felt as though I had. I had a really strong sense of him from just watching him on stage. The sort of shows he took on, the curveball choices he made, the wild exuberance he brought to the stage. He struck me as playful, goofy and unpredictable, good-humoured and good-hearted. I don’t know why, but I have a notion that he gave a really good hug. All that from watching him playing other people.

Increasingly, these are the actors I love most: not the transformers, who can disappear by some magic beneath a disguise, but the actors who are always most like themselves. I love the slow whirring burr of Alan Williams and the uncontained explosion that is Alex Austin; Linda Bassett’s matter-of-factness; Adjoa Andoh’s fervour; the scruff of Toby Jones; many more. They’re actors that give themselves up on stage – and it’s always a pleasure to be in their presence.

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