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30 March 2013


Tag(s): Languages & Culture
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”
                                                                                                    "As you Like It" William Shakespeare
Last week I saw a superb production of This House, a new play about the extraordinary events in Parliament between 1974 and 1979. None of the cast is a household name but all were excellent with the drama ranging from comedy to tragedy and back. I thought for my blog this Easter I would write about acting.

My mother was a fine amateur actress. She appeared in many local productions with the Townswomen’s Guild, the Mother’s Union and later the local Theatre Club. When I was very young I had to be warned that she was making up to play the part of an old woman  so that I would not be frightened. Her make-up must have been very good because years later, when she was old, she looked exactly like that, a beautiful young woman with old skin.

I was supposed to appear with her in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. There’s a part for a young boy. He is on stage most of the time, but has no lines. Unfortunately this production was cancelled so my debut was delayed. It was the 2nd Gatley Cubs who gave me my first starring role as a Red Indian chief. I nearly missed this, as it was that time of year when the clocks go back. Ours didn’t so I turned up an hour early. I waited a long time and concluded that it had been cancelled, as that was the way with plays I appeared in. I went home or rather to my grandmother’s house as my parents were away. Some while later a man turned up in a car to collect me. How they traced me I do not know but I appeared as an out-of–breath Big Chief. The whole audience was on tenterhooks waiting for this first appearance in public.

Manchester Grammar School has a fine dramatic tradition and in my day I saw Robert Powell appear as King Lear with Russell Davies of Radio 4 Brain of Britain fame as his Fool. Later the TV historian Michael Wood practiced his asides to camera in Hamlet. Intimidated by such company I hung up my greasepaint. In my exchange year in the Blake School in Minneapolis I attended some auditions for Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and found myself reading for the part of the Emperor. My British accent won the role and I thoroughly enjoyed myself hamming it up with a scantily clad homecoming queen hanging on each arm.

The British accent was again featured as a butler to the wicked witches in The Wizard of Oz. This production was taken to the inner city schools in Minneapolis, a splendid experience. To see the poor black kids asking Dorothy about her flying was not to be missed.

At the end of the year we exchange students went on a bus trip through the United States. The bus stopped to stay in a number of communities from Keokuk, Iowa to Cattaraugus, New York. In each town we sang for our supper with a talent show. We were 40 students from 23 nations and there was some talent although it is remarkable how similar the national dances of the various cultures are. Of course the British contribute humour and with a French lad named Jean-Noel I got up a routine based on the simple question, “Have you seen the big green hat of the countess on top of the big green tree?” This was posed by Neanderthal man, by Italian opera singers, but what brought the house down was when Jean-Noel as President Charles De Gaulle put the question to the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

In Midwest America my impression was obviously faultless, but it passed a sterner test when we came home by boat. The SS Waterman sailed from New York to Southampton and took 9 days to complete the journey. We entertained ourselves with various games and shows and the sketch of the big green hat was revived. On the last day of the voyage we sighted the Scilly Isles and I remembered that that was where Wilson liked to holiday. I got on the ship’s PA system and greeted the American Field Service Students returning from their year in the USA. I said that if they looked over the port bow they would see me on the beach with my shrimp net. Sure enough hundreds of international students rushed to wave to the British Prime Minister!
Of professional actors I have seen the most celebrated was Lord (Lawrence) Olivier. I saw him play Ibsen’s The Masterbuilder. It was somewhat spoilt by the deliberate pause for applause as he made his entrance thus making the impression of someone giving a performance. Altogether more impressive was Dame Judi Dench whom I have seen several times. She made a convincing Cleopatra opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, a fine Countess of Rossillion in All’s Well That Ends Well and a marvellous Ranyevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Hamlet is my favourite play. I studied it both at MGS and Blake where I finished up teaching the teacher. I saw it performed by David Warner at the RSC, by Kenneth Branagh in his own Renaissance Company, by Simon Russell Beale at the National, and by Jude Law in the West End. In addition there were film versions by Olivier, the Russians and even Mel Gibson. Each sheds new light on a timeless script. It is the exact opposite of the Japanese Kibuki theatre where the objective is to play it in precisely the same way for generations.

Also in Branagh’s series was Dustin Hoffman as Shylock. My wife and I were in the front row and could see the great man spitting and yelling his way through Shakespeare’s lines. As he apparently said at the time,” You can’t improvise this shit!” Other distinguished actors I have had the luck and privilege to see have included John Gielgud and Paul Eddington in Forty Years On, Jeremy Irons in A Winter’s Tale, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey  in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Derek Jacobi in Breaking the Code, Beckett (with Robert Lindsay) and Richards II and III, Alan Bates in Melon, Rex Harrison in The Admirable Crichton, Charles Dance as Coriolanus, John Wood as King Lear, Alan Alda in Our Town, Tim Pigott Smith in Amadeus, Kenneth Cranham in An Inspector Calls and School for Scandal, Denis Quilley in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew, Martin Shaw in An Ideal Husband, Edward Fox in A Letter of Resignation and The Chiltern Hundreds, Henry Goodman in Feelgood and with David Haig in Yes, Prime Minister, David Troughton in Henry IV part 1, Patricia Routledge in The Importance of Being Earnest, Ray Fearon as Othello and Pericles, Ian Hogg in Julius Caesar, Peter Bowles in Sleuth, Joseph Fiennes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Douglas Hodge in Titus Andronicus, Tom Conti in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Jane Horrocks in Absurd Person Singular, Patrick Stewart in The Tempest, and with Sir Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot, Kevin Spacey (again) in Richard III, Vanessa Redgrave in Lady Windermere’s Fan and with James Earl James in Driving Miss Daisy, Celia Imrie in Noises Off, and Simon Russell Beale (again) in Timon of Athens. If this looks like I have been chasing stars then I am sure I would have chased Bernhardt and Garrick in their day. Equally I have seen many wonderful ensemble performances where the names of the actors don’t resonate but their performances were on a par with all but the very best of those I have enumerated here.

Acting as a skill comes in useful for a business leader. All of us will have presented to audiences at conferences and the like. It helps if these can be impactful, memorable and entertaining. As a young salesman at Procter & Gamble I used to love the presentations by brand managers at new product launches. These always involved a bit of theatre. A few years later as a brand manager at Pedigree Petfoods I had the opportunity to follow this example. We arranged for an actor to help us with rehearsal, he had played the brigadier in the Dr Who series, and he gave us invaluable tips to sharpen up our presentations. On one occasion a colleague and I introduced a sales promotion based on discounts off gramophone records (showing my age here). We dressed up as outlandish Disc Jockeys and gave a show to get the sales force motivated. When we played Ian Dury’s “Hit me with your rhythm stick” I led the next section with “After that fleeting reference to D… S….’s private life”, and brought the house down. D… was one of the sales managers and that’s an easy way to get a laugh. 

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

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