There is a danger of overlooking mature talent in the theatre industry, which would be to the detriment of the arts as well as future generations of actors, argues director Stephen Unwin
One of the things that makes me most proud about my 15 years running English Touring Theatre was the way we brought together actors from across the generations.
Then there was Timothy West’s Falstaff, opposite his son Samuel as Hal, and Joseph O’Conor’s (1910-2001) Shallow in Henry IV. There was Annie Reid’s sublime performance as the mother in Peter Gill’s The York Realist opposite the young Richard Coyle, and then came Faith Brook (1922-2012) in Peter Hall’s production of Uncle Vanya with Michelle Dockery.
Putting these remarkable veterans alongside the brightest young stars made for a dynamic and, at times, lively brew, which I’m convinced benefited everyone.
The more I direct, the more I’ve come to treasure the enormous contribution made by so many actors no longer in the first flush of youth. And I sometimes worry that British theatre, in its eager embrace of the fresh and the new, is in danger of overlooking the amazing wealth of mature talent that still has so much to offer.
Of course, older actors do still work, whether it’s the great Maggie Smith at London’s Bridge Theatre, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, or Ian McKellen celebrating his 80th birthday in such consummate style.
But this is about something deeper: the existence of a living, breathing tradition – reaching back to Garrick and beyond – which, at its best, has been passed on and developed, generation by generation, actor by actor, year by year.
Of course, young people hold the future of the theatre in their hands and they should clearly play the leading role in the development of the art form. Old assumptions should be challenged, traditions can and should be rejected; as Konstantin in The Seagull says: “We need new forms.”
But there’s an enormous amount to be gained by contact with actors of a different generation. Sometimes it’s just a casual comment, not so much a note as a delicate tip: “You’ll get a good laugh if you pause before the last word in the line.”
At other times, the veteran sets an example, perhaps by just getting on with the job in hand, or by questioning both the text and the director. One of the many things they’ve taught me is that good actors have autonomy, a capacity to make up their own minds about the part and the play, and they should be listened to.
Above all, older actors bring a welcome sense of proportion: yes, the production matters, and, yes, it must be done well, but it’s only a play, and really not worth falling out over.
I witnessed the value of this in the late 1980s when Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies – who died in 1992, a year after she turned 100 – was interviewed at the National Theatre Studio in London. She had played Juliet to John Gielgud’s Romeo in 1924 and could still remember “Gallop apace”. Peter Hall, that notorious iambic fundamentalist, hailed her verse-speaking that afternoon as “perfect”.
And watching her laugh and joke with a group of actors and directors in their early 20s showed how much the generations had in common. It’s essential that we protect this fragile, organic and infinitely valuable golden thread, which has helped make British theatre so remarkable.
There’s an enormous amount to be gained by contact with actors of a different generation
But it’s not just skill that is passed on, it’s life experience, and I’ve often observed young actors enthralled by their older colleagues, loving the mixture of wisdom and delicious nonsense. There’s a danger of slipping into one’s ‘anecdotage’, but this, too, is part of theatre culture.
I vividly remember Frank Middlemass telling me that, though he’d had a “good war”, Dunkirk was a “bit grim”. Even Chekhov gets put into perspective after that.
This can happen outside the rehearsal room too. In December, I had lunch with a very distinguished elderly director in his flat. I remembered how at Cambridge I used to go for supervisions with distinguished elderly scholars in their flats, surrounded by books, paintings and memories.
And it made me think that if you want to train the next generation of directors, send them round to my friend’s flat for a supervision. No amount of training manuals could match what he could teach.
Shakespeare, as usual, shows the way. Look at Adam, the old manservant in As You Like It. If the play takes place in the year it was written, 1599, the character – who is almost 80 – was born before the Reformation and has grown up in an entirely different world, with an entirely different set of values. And he offers his master’s younger son not just his pension but his enduring service.
How can we feel the distance between his physical fragility and his determination to help, his memories of a better world and his insistence on righting the wrongs of today, if the casting ignores his mighty age?
I will no doubt be accused of literal-mindedness, but if all the world’s a stage, actors in the sixth and even seventh age earn their place in the story as much as anyone else. We often hear the call for the British theatre to ensure that it’s diverse and truly representative. But that must include the fragile and the old, the weathered and the venerable. Our audiences expect nothing less.
Stephen Unwin founded theatre company English Touring Theatre. He is now a freelance director, writer and teacher