I’m not exactly sure of the precise Venn diagram between readers of The Stage and viewers of Doctor Who but I think it’s time I came out: I was responsible for casting Catherine Tate as Donna Noble.
To be honest, I was not the show’s casting director. But I did see Tate being blindingly good in the otherwise less-than-whelming Neil LaBute play Some Girl(s) at the Gielgud Theatre in 2005. She had already begun to trend as a talent but at that point I hadn’t seen her TV show, much less fallen for the charms of ‘Am I bovvered?’ Lauren, ‘How very dare you?’ Derek or ‘What a fuckin’ liberty’ Nan. Tate wasn’t just assured and blessed with blissful timing – she’d been working on stage since leaving the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – her performance was startlingly truthful.
So I enthusiastically commended her to Russell T Davies. And the rest is TV history – and if you don’t believe me, go through the annals of Doctor Who magazine and you’ll find him thanking me.
Aside from nudging director friends towards actors I’ve seen, the rest of my casting non-career has been confined to my brief stint as a theatre director. There I learned more about casting, acting and, specifically, auditioning than when I was an actor. It made me wish that, early on, I’d sat in on someone else’s casting session.
It’s the single most illuminating thing any young actor can do. Taking notes, reading in or simply watching, it doesn’t matter: being in the room is what counts. It allows actors to experience the process they’ll routinely go through from the perspective of the people who’ll employ them. Seeing how the other half of the equation operates is invaluable.
What it reveals is not so much how others interpret or perform the material, although seeing alternatives is always helpful. More usefully, it reveals how you are seen: how actors can present themselves to their betterment – and otherwise. It shows that the way you present yourself, how you talk, respond and, above all, connect with whoever is interviewing, is as important as how suited you are to the role. Crucially, it shows how attractive it is to a director when an actor appears open and relaxed.
On the other side of the fence, the other thing to know about casting is that when it comes to plays, the rule is: always cast Deborah Findlay, Bill Paterson or Penelope Wilton. They should, basically, be in everything. See also: Andrew Scott who lit up play after play at the Royal Court, Soho and the Barbican before leaping to fame with his performance as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock and, later, inflaming the nation as the hot priest in Fleabag.
‘Lynda Bellingham had the rare combination of comic precision and real warmth’
To that list, before her untimely death, I used to add the criminally underrated Lynda Bellingham. Forever cast as homely – not least because she played the mum in the Oxo ads on TV for 16 years – she had extraordinary comic precision counterbalanced by real warmth, a seriously rare combination. I mentioned that once over lunch with producer David Pugh, saying she was capable of far more and that someone – I looked beadily at him – should cast her as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He snatched up his phone, dialled her number and shoved the phone into my hand. “Tell her,” he said.
In that spirit, here’s further casting that will occur the moment I take over the National – not, I concede, happening any time soon.
The glorious, 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday was a very early case of re-gendering a classic, since it’s a rewrite of the buddy-buddy newspaper comedy The Front Page. John Guare adapted it for the stage and it needs to be revived with Allison Janney in the snappy Rosalind Russell role.
Earlier this year, the aforementioned Scott seduced audiences in Present Laughter. He was matched at every turn by the purringly lethal delivery of Indira Varma who, frankly, should be playing Arkadina in The Seagull as soon as possible. She is another actor whose assumption of varied roles is seamless and effortless.
Speaking of Arkadina, Kristin Scott Thomas was spectacularly funny in the role for Ian Rickson opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor, another remarkably versatile actor who ought to be back on stage as soon as possible. Since then, Scott Thomas was due to star as Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard for Rickson but pulled out because she was making her debut as a film director. If her Ranevskaya is not ideal casting, I don’t know what is.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict