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Daniel Evans: Like actors, the personalities of writers shine through in their work

Small Island at the National Theatre – "Andrea Levy’s gloriously wicked sense of humour shines through Helen Edmundson’s adaptation", says Daniel Evans. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I happen to believe that no actor, however brilliant, can truly and completely efface themselves in performance. That is, despite all attempts to disguise themselves – using physical and vocal techniques and adaptations – their innate personality will always shine through. It’s inevitable and indelible.

I also happen to believe that this is not a negative thing. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we wish to see different actors assail parts we think we’re familiar with – in order to see how their particular and personal attributes illuminate those of the character. When a gross mismatch occurs, we deem it to be bad casting; other times, even though the match may not be perfect, we seem willing to suspend our disbelief that much further as we enjoy unexpected discoveries about both the character and the actor.

The same could be said for writers. There are many privileges of being an artistic director and none more edifying than being able to collaborate with writers and witness how their own personalities shine through their work, even as they depict myriad characters with conflicting opinions and modes of behaving.

There are many privileges of being an artistic director and none more edifying than working with writers and seeing how their personalities shine through their work

Watching Small Island in the Olivier Theatre this week, I was struck profoundly at how Andrea Levy’s gloriously wicked sense of humour shone through Helen Edmundson’s adaptation. As unmistakable as a birthmark, Levy’s ability to shift her compassion from character to character and to surprise us constantly by her characters’ actions was writ large. It was as if Edmundson was a lightning rod, channelling Levy’s electricity.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating again with Tim Firth (on This Is My Family). In this case, Tim had written the music, lyrics and dialogue and, in each dimension, his personality was present. For me, this centres around an extraordinary ability to note and record the ordinary exchanges of everyday life – and elevate them to an almost poetic level through a grounded humour, warmth and insight.

As you work with Tim, you come to realise that his ears are always alert to the rhythms, idioms and patterns of people. His gift is being able to codify these into drama that can make you laugh and cry.

These personality traits, which make recognition possible, are not merely syntactical factors but rather interior, private and innate qualities.

And, as with any artistic expression, the most effective attempts occur when artists allow their work to flow from themselves. The act of self-revelation is a precious gift.

Daniel Evans is artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/daniel-evans

Small Island review at National Theatre, London – ‘wonderful performances, tone-deaf production’

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