Superstardom is not necessarily good for the theatre. If an actor is a superstar worldwide, or even nationwide, surely he or she is bound to have difficulty fitting properly into a serious theatrical production.
Could Charlie Chaplin, for instance, ever have played anything on stage other than himself? Or could a man indelibly imprinted on the world's imagination as James Bond ever succeed in convincing a theatre audience in any other role, no matter how great his talents? Could Marilyn Monroe, a very underestimated actress, have played Phèdre, or anything other than a blonde bombshell?
This question has nothing to do with the actor's ability: stage and screen superstars have usually been outstanding actors. Think of the master-class in comic timing given by Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. The question has everything to do with the theatre audience's perception, with the great problem of the suspension of disbelief that every actor must solve. While it was always difficult for superstars, such as Olivier or Gielgud, these days the mass media have made superstars even more incandescent.
For instance, can Jude Law play Hamlet? True, he is an accomplished classical stage actor. Yet he is also a sublime piece of Hollywood beefcake, known to millions for being mesmerising even in his bad films. He is much more disablingly starry than Ralph Fiennes, who has also played Hamlet on stage. Helen Mirren is another great classical actor who is a star on TV, the stage and films. She is now firmly identified in many millions of minds with the Queen. Can such players really play anything other than themselves or their most famous roles?
We seem to be in the middle of an excess of such superstar casting. Law is playing Hamlet in a Donmar West End production at the Wyndham's (until 22 August). Mirren is playing Phèdre at the Lyttelton (until 27 August). And in a very starry cast of Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket (until 9 August), Ian "Gandalf" McKellen and Patrick "Captain Jean-Luc Picard" Stewart are Estragon and Vladimir. They are joined by Simon Callow (Pozzo) and Ronald Pickup (Lucky). The Old Vic's current Bridge Project, which is taking Sam Mendes's Anglo-American company around the world, has a cast of well-
established or rising stars, including Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke.