The Stars Come Out

The London stage is both winner and loser from super-celebrity casting

Minette Marrin

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.

The current production of Godot both gains and loses from super-celebrity. All the performances are about as accomplished and intelligent as humanly possible. There is something very endearing about these ageing actors exploiting their verbal and physical talents with self-conscious virtuosity, as if they know that we know that they know that they are sometimes showing off and also playing themselves and hamming it up a bit together, as part of the business of growing old-one of the great themes of this play, after all. McKellen and Stewart sometimes slip, like aged troupers, into fragments of
old music-hall routines and Callow undercuts his brutal Pozzo with his best hammy bombast. All this, while convincing within the play, is also partly about themselves. It is all tricksily self-referential — but perhaps that is itself rather Beckettesque. It’s an interpretation of the play that creates more comedy than usual, and a strange sweetness in places, but loses something of the malignant sadness that is central to the text. Perhaps that is why, surprisingly, it is not quite as moving as it might have been, though nor is it a production to be missed.

Jude Law manages to lose his celebrity in an outstandingly good performance that made me cry. He also manages to discover Hamlet’s famous lines for himself, so rediscovering them for us. His Prince is neither mad nor neurotic, but a promising, witty and open-hearted man, driven to distraction by betrayal and grief. Law has a sense of timing in Shakespearean verse as good as any I’ve heard, and some critics’ comments that his voice is too light are simply unfair. 

He moves with the suppleness and strength of a dancer and the same is true of the way he speaks. There is perhaps something almost too clear in his delivery. He gives such careful meaning and movement to every phrase that at first the performance feels a little didactic, a little like a master-class in speaking it trippingly.

Years ago, I watched an unforgettable TV master-class by McKellen, in which he examined a Macbeth soliloquy. While no one can better McKellen, Law comes from the same school of inspired and passionate understanding of every Shakespearean syllable. 

Helen Mirren’s problem with Ted Hughes’s version of Racine’s Phèdre is that his lines are rather uneven. Sometimes very powerful in their vernacular, they are occasionally bathetic, almost comic, and generally too far from the epic spirit of Racine. Mirren’s furious sexual obsession and horrified shame are completely convincing, if always very Mirren. 

But the play’s greater themes belong to a different, lost kind of language and a different, lost mindset. It’s notoriously difficult to put Racine into contemporary English, and Hughes has not succeeded. This production makes Hamlet seem entirely contemporary by contrast, though Shakespeare was writing so much earlier than Hughes (1998) and even than Racine (1677). The brave Bridge Project cast have the same problem with Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Here Shakespeare has written an unsatisfactory play, with many unsatisfactory lines and there’s little that any cast, however starry or anonymously good, can make of it. The play’s the thing. 

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