January 24, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

An anecdote

Seeing the small crowd waiting outside Stage Door after ‘Merry Wives: The Musical’ at the weekend, hoping that Judi Dench or Simon Callow would stop and sign autographs, I was reminded of a night back in August.

I was sitting in the front row in Holy Trinity Church, waiting for AandBC’s ‘Henry VIII’ to start. Across from me was sitting Harriet Walter, who predictably got mobbed at the interval by people wanting to tell her (in case she didn’t know) just how wonderful her performance in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was.

Further along from me was sitting Forbes Masson. As I looked over, the woman sitting behind him leaned forward and started the following dialogue:

“Excuse me- where you in the ‘Henry VI’ plays?”
Forbes (politely): “Yes, yes I was”
Woman: “I thought so!” (beat) “Now, who did you play?”

I found this particularly funny, as Forbes is one of the faces I instantly recognised and was excited to see this year, having been a huge fan of his performances in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ as Dromio and ‘Twelfth Night’ as Feste in the previous season.

This highlights two things I dislike about Stratford, which to me go right against the company’s ensemble ethos. The first is the star system, by which some actors get considerably more praise than others. Some of the best performances of the festival have been by lesser-known actors in plays dominated by more famous people- Ken Bones as Enobarbus, Julian Bleach as Ariel, Johnny Weir as Don John. Yet it’s the celebs who get all the photo time and column inches. The great thing about Michael Boyd’s histories, in fact, is the equal footing between the cast, who all get their moment in the sun. This is the approach to which the company is moving, yet Stratford still iconicises its leading lights and big names. I’m resigned to the fact that the finale of the Complete Works is going to be dominated by one actor, Ian McKellen, and I’m hoping against hope that I’ll be proved wrong, that we’ll be talking about a wonderful production and an all-round great cast that McKellen is a part of, not overshadowing. We’ll see.

The other thing is the cult of pestering actors. Okay, seeing a celeb on the streets in London, or on the red carpet, or that kind of thing, fair enough- I guess it comes with the territory. But when a play is in residence, when Patrick Stewart (for example) is living and working in Stratford for a period of several months, it just doesn’t seem appropriate to me to go and pester them. If they’ve come to see a play, why not let them watch the play in peace? It was notable in the first example that, after the interval, Harriet Walter didn’t return to her seat. Yet a few days later, she sat quietly next to me in the otherwise empty back row of the main house to watch ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (I actually got more attention than her, from a family who thought I was their cousin until they got right up close to me), and got to be just a normal member of the audience. It links into my first point really- this is an ensemble, a residential committment to a company and a theatre. Surely actors, even the more famous ones, should be able to live that life for a bit? To circulate, go to the pub, be part of the whole theatre experience, rather than being singled out and have people waiting for you in places they know you’ll have to walk past?

It’s a bit of a silly thing to argue, as it would probably never work. I’d love to see the actors being able to be part of the community when they’re resident though, part of the scenery rather than a focus of attention. I’m an idealist sometimes, but I do think we’re all in this together, to some extent. Also, this star treatment in many ways takes away from the work they’re actually doing. How many people were talking about Judi Dench’s performance in ‘Merry Wives’ as opposed to rhapsodising about the fact that it was Judi Dench? Will it ever be possible to see actors as fellow professionals doing a job?

I’ll stop now.

Posted in News