This summer the boards of London’s West End are twinkling with stars. Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Sally Field, Bill Pullman, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Broderick, John Malkovich, Andrew Scott, Clive Owen, Tom Hiddleston, Maggie Smith, will all be shouting “Red leather! Yellow leather!” into their dressing-room mirrors, hanging “Sorry, not speaking between shows” signs on their doors, laying in party-size packs of throat lozenges and forcing their agents to grin through 10 per cent of considerably less than they’re used to receiving.
London has always been a magnet for celebrity actors swapping the warm bath of the screen for the cold shower of live performance. But why? Why would well-paid, high-demand movie stars want to submit themselves to night after night on the London stage?
That’s an awful lot of lines to learn, an awful lot of seats to project your exquisitely naturalistic film voice to, and an awful lot of takes, night after night, week after week, of the same material.
It’s two or three hours, live, continuous, no one yells “Cut!”, gently reminds you of your lines, applies a fan to your sweat patches and brings you a cortado before you go again. No one puts an arm around your shoulder halfway through the show and says “the hell with this lousy script anyway, just say what feels right this time”.
No one can take your tricky monologue and put deeply affecting strings underneath it in post, a more sepulchral light out on the verandah and some cutaway reactions of your co-star fighting back tears. When you punch someone you have to do that thing where you slap your own chest at the same time to make the sound.
Hiddleston slapping his own chest, while an actor falls backwards on a sofa going “Ooof!”, clutching the blood capsule to their nose that they’ve been fumbling for in their trousers since the start of the scene! Why would he put himself through that?
Then there are the vagaries of theatre reviews, the notoriously sharp judgements of London critics to anyone deemed not really able to “do it” live, the scent of expensive blood in the water if the rich and famous can’t back up their screen wattage onstage (Madonna in Up For Grabs anyone?)
Too small, too quiet, too stiff, too loose, too filmic, too damn pretty, much smaller than you’d imagined – these are the judgements that bubble around a star seen live in the flesh across footlights, along with the contradictory allure of their celebrity, until sometimes it seems as if their celebrity and our sudden, surprisingly adjacent access to it is what we really blame.
On Broadway, stars still get an appreciative round of applause the minute they appear. In London, when Jackman walks onstage it is more like a collective mutter of “Okay, Greatest Showman, let’s see what you’ve got…”
I talked to one of these stars, Matthew Broderick, to try to understand why anyone would swap the lavish trailer and high-class catering of the movies for the cramped dressing room and the looming sell-by date of the theatre milk.
I had the good fortune to have the dressing room next to Matthew’s in 2009 at the American Airlines theatre on Broadway when we were appearing in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. He reminded me of the cautionary tale of one of our cast mates.
This actor came to our first rehearsal with his entire part memorised. Then as the run went on he began to forget it all. It was like watching a ghastly, slow-motion stage actor’s version of Benjamin Button, the run of the show returning him to a sort of helpless, memory-less, infantilism.
He was remarkably sanguine about this act of shedding until, onstage at one late performance and faced with the theatrical Eiger of a two-page monologue, he casually turned to ask the rest of us: “Help me. Please? Someone? Help me.”
And still Matthew wants to go back on stage.
To some Matthew will for ever be Ferris Bueller in John Hughes’s imperishable 1986 classic. To my son, who couldn’t quite place where he knew him from when they met, he is the voice of the adult Simba in Disney’s The Lion King. To my father he was the perfect Leo Bloom in the phenomenal Broadway success and then the movie of Mel Brooks’ Producers. To me he will always be the vengeful teacher Jim McAllister in Alexander Payne’s Election, or Brian, the terrifically anal bank manager who’s both disdainful of and attracted to Laura Linney in You Can Count On Me.
The last of these was written by his longtime friend and collaborator, Kenneth Lonergan, whose play Starry Messenger is what is bringing Matthew to London this summer.
The two met and acted together in high school, and then at Naked Angels in New York as young performers. As Lonergan became one of the most celebrated American playwrights of his time and then a force in independent film, they continued to collaborate. You Can Count On Me led to Lonergan’s epic – and epically troubled – magnum opus Margaret and then Manchester by the Sea, which won him the Oscar for best original screenplay. Starry Messenger was first seen with Matthew in the central role in New York ten years ago.
This history of working together gives Matthew a degree of security before embarking on eight shows a week in an alien, if still enormously admired theatre culture. “London is the World Series in a way,” he told me. But only a degree.
“If I’m comfortable then I’m fine,” he says, adding darkly: “But if I don’t feel comfortable, for whatever reason, then I get very nervous.” Then, contemplating the World Series: “… the idea of coming to London to do a play is absolutely petrifying. A new level of horror is certainly possible. A tremendous viciousness could be awakened …”
But with the perennial hope of his tribe, for whom Kipling’s twin imposters are like permanent stage management, he adds: “But there’s a teeny sliver of hope of a triumph, so … I gotta go for it.”
Film feels like the art form most in lock-step with our wider digitalised world. Huge behemoth franchises dominate, the global corporations of art, built around special effects and technological manipulation, the really glossy, kinetic falsehood, the higher production-value lie. The currencies of modern film are the currencies of the tech revolution: faster, sleeker, louder, more logic-defying, on delivery platforms that are either the biggest ever devised or the smallest.
Fantastical, mythological, mind-bending. We must be awed but we must also be moved. The technology must both remove us from feeling with its alien wizardry and deliver us back to our human size with its claim on our emotions. Gasping is a must, but so is blubbing. We must have, as Cecil B de Mille probably said, all the feels.
Compared with film’s resources, the payloads at its disposal to deliver said feels, theatre is absurdly antiquated.
When that door slammed didn’t I just see the wall shake? Why are we all pretending that this person whose chest is going up and down is actually dead? I’m sitting in a roomful of strangers for God’s sake and I can’t find my pause button. This one with Maggie Smith is fine but I’d rather switch to Hugh Jackman in the theatre across the road in HD now and I’m in the mood to binge-watch his entire theatrical career. Can Hugh just come out again 12 seconds after he’s left the stage to start Oklahoma?
But of course the truth is that theatre survives precisely because it is such an analogue corrective to our gadget-driven world. And the liveness of the event is key to that.
It is no wonder that Burning Man, the annual festival in Black Rock, Nevada, has become such a modern phenomenon. It is predicated on the idea that everything put up must come down, all traces removed – the burning of an effigy takes place at the festival’s end and it only exists in the memories of the people who participated. In other words, it is pure theatre. And it is no coincidence that it has begun to be dominated by tech industry grandees, desperate for real, grubby, analogue, human exchange.
As our world grows more superficially sophisticated, those forms that encourage the imagination to work harder, rather than just spoon-feeding a dazzling series of images, can still thrive with much less. How else to explain podcasts? Or, even radio.
Theatre also has a secret weapon for storytelling. Matthew reminds me of the Billy Wilder quote: “Individually the audience are idiots, but collectively they’re a genius.” The audience constantly informs a performer or a writer of what works and what does not. This is why London theatres are increasingly adopting the New York habit of previewing plays for longer, so that the audience, that tremendous collective brain for comprehension, can help them shape the play.
“The audience tell you what something is about,” Matthew says. “You find yourself onstage thinking ‘Oh God, I wish I could skip the next ten minutes, I know you know this already’.”
Tellingly, when he’s filming, Broderick is keen to turn the experience back into a form of theatre: “I’ll run to video village [where the directors and producers watch the action on monitors] to make sure everyone is happy. And I listen for any titter I can hear on set. If I make any of the crew laugh, even if it ruins a take, I’m the happiest.”
Paradoxically, the experience of making a film is endlessly, grindingly, analogue. Days are long and often dull. Broderick likens it to being “cops on a stakeout, trying not to eat too many doughnuts”. Metal-detecting, bird watching, or, for those more dramatically inclined, being a sniper come to mind. There is a kind of weird suspension of energy required to wait hours on a film set while all the technical apparatus is put in place before the actor can come into the centre of it for a burst of concentrated work.
Theatre acting, on the other hand, feels much more like a live sports event. Curtain up and you’re off, no going back to the start, no let-up until the final moment when audience and performers alike can take a breath and decide what the result was.
“When I finish a movie, even when it’s great, and I’m leaving the set in a car, the feeling is ‘God I hope I sort of got somewhere’,” Broderick says. “It sort of drips away, a movie. Whereas, with a play, at the end, you can take a shower and, good or bad, you can think: ‘Well, that’s that. I did it.’ You don’t get that feeling of an ending with a movie in the same way.”
For many film actors, theatre represents a form of work, of expenditure, that feels meaningful. And maybe more meaningful if you’ve been waiting in an overheated trailer all day to say: “I am Priapus, from the planet Tharg.”
In Nothing Like a Dame, Roger Michell’s recent film about the queens of the British stage, Judi Dench tells a story about how much the work of theatre means to her. She’d had a fall and a paramedic asked her, “What’s your name?” This already rankled. “Judi,” she muttered. “Do we have a carer?” To which she wanted to reply, “Oh fuck off, I’ve just done two months in The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick!”
I had a similar experience visiting Harold Pinter on a Saturday night in Chichester after he had given a blistering performance in his own play The Hothouse. A few of us stood, completely mute, around the famously intimidating figure while he sipped champagne. “Did you… did you do a matinee today Harold?” I eventually asked, groping for the least contentious thing I could think of.
His eyes both narrowed and flamed. “Yes.” Pause. Uh-oh. “Why?”
“Oh, oh, just … you know … that’s a huge part to do. Twice. In, you know, one day.”
Pause. Flamethrowers on full. “Are you implying, Jonathan, that I can’t fucking do it any more? Is that what you’re implying? Are you perhaps insinuating that I’m not up to doing two shows in a day? Is that what you mean?”
If actors find themselves wanting to work hard in a different way to filming, I wonder too if the adrenalised excitement of live performance is a bit habit-forming.
There are not a lot of other professions that leave you pumped and ready for anything at 10.30pm.
The intense resentment the actor feels for members of the public, idly sipping rosé outside a sunlit cafe at 6.30pm, oblivious of the gathering intestinal storm of the actor as they make their way to the stage door, is replaced at curtain down by the immense thrill of being released from that burden, from fear, from the judgement of hundreds of strangers, from the judgement of their own internal critic (” a tremendous viciousness could be awakened…”), free from the fight or flight of live performance. The condemned man is safe again, until tomorrow at least. Safety, plus adrenaline, plus a bar, can be a dangerous combination. But also an attractive one.
The theatre actor’s intense dependence on and simultaneous aversion to the audience feels to me what lies at the heart of why actors who really don’t need to keep clambering back onstage. “It’s a struggle in some ways,” Broderick says. “Part of me wants to say ‘I don’t care what you think’, both in life and onstage.”
But we do care what other people think and for distinguished actors it is no different. However many Instagram followers a person has, however much they can command for their next movie, the feeling of an actor being told what an audience thinks of them right there and then is impossible to find anywhere else.
When you have a relationship night after night with people that frighten you, who teach you how to tell your story, who you would give anything to charm and seduce, win their approval, make them all suddenly laugh or hush them into intense, concentrated silence, screw up in front of but recover, refocus their concentration and yes, of course, be applauded by them. And then escape them.
That is a relationship you might itch to return to. That reciprocal relationship mirrors life itself and our feelings about other people. If in our age of individualism, where people’s voices are strident online but lonelier in the real world, where truth is subjective and people are increasingly suspicious of the collective, those nightly moments of togetherness, the laughter of comprehension and the shared pleasure that theatre can bring, feels more and more like a subversive and vital act.
For movie stars, for regular actors and for all of us lucky enough to watch.
Jonathan Cake has most recently appeared in Julia Davis’s Camping and will be in Showtime’s The Affair. On stage, he has played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra for The Royal Shakespeare Company and Coriolanus at the Globe.
All photographs Getty Images