ANCIENT YET MODERN
Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tiresias, reputed to have been 300 years old, is the latest, and I hope the most advanced, in my studies of old age. The very first was my award-winning performance of a poet in a retirement home, which I played at the age of seventeen with the aid of white greasepaint and powder in my hair. The Bradford Association of Youth Clubs shield for Best Performance of 1954 is small but impressively classical, with the winged figure of Nike holding what I can claim as my second laurel wreath; I had won the previous year too.
But before you laugh, the adjudicator in 1954 was an august sixty-one and knew about acting and creeping old age first hand, having played Viola in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic in 1927, graduating to Gertrude to the young Olivier’s Hamlet ten years later. Esmé Church as the principal of my drama school most certainly must have recommended me on the strength of my performance of the old poet to play the aged butler Frith in Rebecca – my first professional performance – in the Halifax Rep, when the company needed some cheap acting students to make up the numbers.
I don’t have to act decrepitude or dulled senses anymore, but there are advantages: I was alone in not detecting the smell of dead rat the other night under the upstage left corner of the rostrum of the Antigone set underneath the dank railway arches that form the Southwark Playhouse. In fact, concurrently on Sundays I was playing Greff in the musical Coco – Chanel’s sixty-year-old lawyer with a wife and young mistress … this required some effort of youthful characterization – a true ‘character’ part.
Having delivered Tiresias’ prophetic coup de grâce to Kreon, I was speaking my last lines to him – ‘I am a good archer, you will not slip through the heat of my arrows’ – and was just about to be led off the stage by Ruben, the younger of my boy guides. It was the last performance of the Antigone run and Doug, the elder of my guides, was watching the performance from the second row: by law, minors are protected from the tyranny of seven or eight performances a week and have to alternate. You would think as a grown-up, after seven performances of Tiresias a week for a month, I would have securely got the hang of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s translation, but not a performance had gone by without me supplying my own minor variations, occasional snippets of substitute translation, and this last performance was no exception.
However it is a variation of gesture I am concerned with here and Wertenbaker and Sophocles give one free rein in the gesture department. In rehearsal, as well as striving to be in the magic NOW in which all drama, ancient and modern, takes place, one was always haunted by the nebulous echoes of ancient classical utterance and visions of classical gesture. These are both indefinable of course. Actually Classical Acting was defined for me unforgettably, not by an imagined glimpse of masked actors performing a sunlit matinee at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens ca. 442 BC, but by an Old Vic top-floor dressing room conversation one night in 1965. Leslie, an elderly dresser, entered dramatically into a discussion being held by bit players in one of those longeurs between spasmodic appearances made famous by Stoppard. We were talking about Christopher Fry’s play, The Dark is Light Enough, which Les seemed to believe was a classical play, at any rate his sudden intervention was ‘Bit of the Othello touch that – The Dark is Light Enough.’ It was a conversation-stopper. We had to know what he could possibly mean. (Olivier’s Othello was in the NT’s Old Vic repertoire at the time.) ‘The Othello touch,’ he persisted.
‘Leslie, what do you mean?’
‘The Othello touch,’ he went on in his elderly cockney croak. ‘You know – the long robes and the pointin’ and the flailin’ about.’
I had remembered this conversation when our Antigone costume designer had suggested Tiresias should have a long cloak and showed an illustration of a sort of patchwork Afghan bedspread that might have been from a Kabul catalogue. It was with some pride that I saw it was of an infinitely less impressive design than the actual one I happened to have bought perhaps fifteen years ago from an intriguing little shop off Shepherd’s Bush Green, an Aladdin’s cave of Arabian fabrics and garments and high-quality tat. I was dubious about wearing such a garment in a production that featured modern military fatigues (and even, to my surprise at the dress rehearsal, an overture of helicopter and a suicide bomb). When I dug out my magnificent patchwork, I was a little dismayed; it had become moth-eaten, appropriate one might think for a prophet who is so old that even in the most up-to-the-moment production his wardrobe might predate the mothball.
Mothballed acting is another thing: how to reconcile the world of passports, suits and video cameras, which I found myself parachuted into as a late recruit to the company; how to merge in as Tiresias, divining signs from the way meat burns on altars and the inability of the gods to receive the smoke. Then, when a young director suggests a passage could be less ‘rhetorical’, one suspects one is being cautioned for acting.
But it is not vox I am talking about, it is gesture. I confess that Olivier’s Old Vic Othello had haunted about me in the Bermondsey rehearsal room, white-haired and wispy though I am. The shades of Thespis and his successors in their masks, Olivier in his black make-up, all had waited with me in the gloomy off-stage corner under the arches. They had been present even on nights when I had felt that curious nerveless indifference that can invade an actor before his entrance – a sure sign that that elemental existential energy had better manifest itself from somewhere or one will be left with … technique and no mystery.
I had been doing an archer’s gesture to accompany the line, ‘I am a good archer’. On the last night, on impulse, I abandoned it, stood still and said the line rather more simply, sotto voce. When we got off, I talked about the moment with my guide, young Ruben, who said it was good, better in fact, because, he said, the words seemed more important and I had already done a turning movement a few lines earlier and it was better only turning once. Out of the mouths of ‘screenagers’ one has perfected praise.
But Doug was my first guide and did the most performances and when we came off after the matinée – his last performance – he immediately embraced me. His succinct evaluations of how the scene had gone, observations about the pace or the momentum had always been welcome, encouraging, never impertinent or patronizingly tactful. They had even been amusing. After a preview he marvelled at my ability to make the bits I’d invented sound ‘just like the rest of it’, at the same time remarking how lucky he was to be working with an actor of my experience.
Prophesy in the theatre is a dodgy business. Have my teenage laurels been crowned? I can’t prophesy what might come of the fact that the octenagarian Sir Peter Hall was in the audience of that last matinée. But the very young seem to me to be full of promise and their wisdom palpable … of course, as a species, we humans are no wiser than the Ancient Greeks, however much I have been impressed by Ruben and Doug’s instinctive mastery of the iPhone (married to their ignorance of Peter Hall) But, after all, what are fame and transient laurels – what is the difference of a few decades when one is working on a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old script?