Sunday 14 August, 2016

I love sport, but...

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Did anyone notice how the drug-tainted (by association) Mo Farah was virtually ignored by his fellow competitors after winning the 10,000 meters gold medal at the Rio Olympics? I think this is quite telling.

The BBC, on the other hand, waxed breathlessly hysterical and referred to him as the greatest ever British athlete … wait for the faux shock to emerge from the same source as various revelations are made about who cheated.

This item goes on my acting blog because I suspect no other commentators will mention the legitimate doubts about “our Mo” until it becomes fashionable to do so.

Wednesday 10 August, 2016


Directed by Kenneth Branagh

It was an evening where the old met the new and pretended to like each other. The tiny foyer of The Garrick, looking and feeling as it did in 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest opened down the road, is now guarded by security, square-jawed and muscled, perversely relishing the task of rummaging through innocent handbags. It was the same on stage, where Derek Jacobi showed a few young people how to act.

And it was a very modern beginning when a sheet fell from the programme regretting that Richard Madden, due to play Romeo, was unable to perform. Subsequent research revealed that he has a “bad ankle”. So bad is his ankle that he has left the production altogether. I can’t be alone in smelling a rat; didn’t Brian Blessed play Lear a couple of years ago twenty minutes after having a heart attack? Isn’t the tradition that actors keep their ailments to themselves and just get on with it?

Did the show work? No, there was too much bad casting and too much bad acting. Was it worth seeing? Yes, the company cared and fought, sometimes too hard, for every moment. If they had sore ankles they kept it a secret.

People who know nothing about theatre and care less know the balcony scene. Two serious, shy adolescents, alone in a garden at night, embarrassed and awkward but ardent, each equally obsessed with the other. They inhabit an enchanted, private world that can be visited, if at all, only once.

As far as I know Shakespeare never attempted this kind of scene again; his love scenes, and falling in love scenes, are anguished, unfulfilled (at the time at least), triangle-ridden, painful clashes of unrequited passion. But not here. This scene is devastatingly simple. That’s why it’s so hard.

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Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi

Neither actor got to the garden, nor even bought a ticket. As a dramatic event the evening died here. Lily James is mostly an assured actress; she has detail and an effortlessly rich voice. Only on the balcony did things go wrong. She spoke at a level that could be heard several streets away, never mind by the Nurse behind the curtain. Does Juliet really want everyone in the neighbourhood to know her business?

I wasn’t able to identify any effort to embrace the vulnerability required. It is possible to say “tis almost morning” without breaking stride or glancing at the sky, as she did, and make sense, except she didn’t. It was just another line. By then it seemed the actress was more concerned with getting the tiresome scene over with.

The new (and apparently fully fit) Romeo had an excellent start. He brought on the right kind of energy, listening and thus talking not reciting. Only during and after the balcony scene did he lose his way and become a photocopy of himself. Acting is like that. Each evening is a breathing animal. Once dead there is no comeback, even with two hours to go.

Never have I seen such a dreadful Nurse; a tangled, tension-riddled, inflected travesty of a simple woman. The stage was a mess when she was on it. Lady Capulet I couldn’t hear. She made noise but didn’t breathe. A brilliant female Peter. She listened; every action was a reaction. Where are the leads for this actress? I would like to see her Juliet.

Casting Derek Jacobi as Mercutio was not innovative or courageous, just daft. What needed to be testosterone-filled was instead 77 and camp. It made a nonsense of the exposition. Romeo and Benvolio, young lads up for anything, get into their best pulling gear and head off to a party on Saturday night – and take this old bloke with them?

He should have played the Friar, who was bizarrely cast as a young, anxious man. But … who cares? I suspect Jacobi, who fills every moment and makes it look simple, has never missed a performance due to a slight injury or a worse one.

Did he take the role because he felt his reputation needed adding to, or did he need the money? Why put his old bones through the stress?

I suggest he might just love acting…

His text is interpreted in a way that suits him, but it is an object lesson nevertheless. The talent is greater than the ego, though the latter may be large. When the reverse applies – perhaps to Richard Madden, who seems happy with the absurd justification for his absence, and perhaps also to Lily James, too precious to play a good scene honestly – chaos reigns.

To take a non-publicly funded Shakespeare into the West End is a marvellous, courageous thing. For nearly 50 years the State – by its financial policy – has decreed that only one company should be subsidised to produce Shakespeare and, indeed, uses this justification to refuse funding to others. As a result that company has become complacent and stale. If Romeo and Juliet is a challenge to the status quo then it is to be celebrated. I hope there is more to come.

Monday 01 August, 2016


I hardly ever pay to watch Shakespeare. For decades productions – by the subsidised companies at any rate – have done everything they can to escape from the text, to “interpret” or “modernise” (whatever that is). What they need to do is tell the story. For that they don’t need much set or costume, just a generousity of spirit and a love of the text. I am seeing Kenneth Branagh’s ROMEO AND JULIET this week. Branagh’s HAMLET is the best filmed Shakespeare I have seen so I have some hope. Report coming.

Romeo is one of the hardest plays to do. It is the worst tragedy; it relies, as the text endlessly acknowledges, on bad luck and coincidence rather than inevitability. There are three great scenes: Mercutio’s death, the Friar’s sudden rage at Romeo, and Juliet during and after her final meeting with the Nurse.

Anyone want to know what a great scene is?

Tuesday 21 June, 2016

Children of Beslan

Although the subject matter of this documentary is harrowing I find it uplifting to watch. It is also an opportunity for actors to study the behaviour of people recalling trauma. Amongst many breathtaking moments the boy entering the room where his father was killed and then thrown out of the window is to me the most astonishing. Set aside an hour and turn your phone off.

Thursday 09 June, 2016

Wayne Will Move His Lips

Every two years the England football team try to win something and for half a century they have failed. I can’t bring myself to predict more of the same in Euro 2016, starting tomorrow.

Preceding each match are the national anthems of both sides.

God Save The Queen is the song you sing when you play for England. The rugby team exemplify this; they use it motivationally, as a declaration of togetherness. One doesn’t need to be a royalist to join in.



Every England football match begins with a statement of disunity. As the camera pans down the players there are those who sing, those who join in sort of, and others with mouths clamped shut; a defiant refusal to be involved. The latter are often castigated by the press in the aftermath of another defeat, or goalless draw at home to a below strength Estonia.

Wayne Rooney used to be a confirmed non-singer, now he has graduated to gently mouthing the words. I doubt any noise emits. There will be the usual complaints from the press.

No-one will state the obvious. It is that there are several million people in Britain – all qualified by various means to play for England  – who trace their descent to Ireland. For any such person God Save The Queen is uniquely a song which they cannot in any conscience sing. It is a jingoistic hymn in praise of the English monarch. Wayne Rooney and others quite legitimately refuse because to do so would betray their grandfathers.



I have no complaint against them. I dislike the inability of the press and others to admit the truth.

There are two solutions. Change the song. Wayne could manage Jerusalem without too much trouble (it has in any case a sentiment which transcends nationalism). Or get footballers to play for the nation to which they owe allegiance. The chances of the latter are zero of course.

Patriotism expressed through sport can be a beautiful thing. Euro 2016 will be won by a team who sing. I hope that’s wrong.

Friday 03 June, 2016


I have been asked several times, anecdotally, why there is so little bureaucracy at the school. The implication is that this is some kind of oversight. On the contrary. Here is our statement of intent.

A student who completes two years training at The Poor School will do so without being asked to sign a single document. They will have filled in one form online, which requires a name, email address, mobile phone number and age. There are a couple of non-essential fields. That’s it. We are possibly the only school in Europe to do this and there is a hard purpose, which I will come to.

We don’t ask for an essay statement of intent or for a summary of professional aims. I already know everything that matters when you apply. You want to become an actor, or think you do, and your aim is to have a training and a career. Whilst there are many good actors who are also academically intelligent and well capable of expressing themselves in written form, there are many who would struggle. There is also the temptation to write what you think the school wants to hear.

Acting is a practice, not a theory. I cannot think of any situation before or during an audition (or during the training that may follow) where an essay would become relevant or be referred to, provide insight or solve a problem.

We don’t ask your ethnicity because such is irrelevant to the success or otherwise of your audition. When you answer such a question you are not contributing information relevant to your acting but participating in a racially based survey. At best the information will be used to prove that the institution concerned is attracting the correct number of applicants from various categories. At worst it will be the basis for decisions, and a less talented person may be favoured over another on the grounds of race.

I am occasionally contacted and asked for an ethnic breakdown of students attending the school. I am happy to answer truthfully that I don’t know.

The Poor School doesn’t ask applicants if English is their second language. What matters, actually, is whether a potential student sounds as though English is his mother tongue. If an actor can sound authentically British, or if it is reasonable to feel that at the end of a training he will have that ability, then this has a positive impact on commercial casting once the training is over.

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But all relevant information is available in practice – at the audition. Ticking a box on a form serves no purpose.

At the school we treat everyone the same. That is, differently. Here is what I mean.

Everyone is different. If every nose on every human being is different then imagine how unique each individual is when the contents of their mind, soul and body are taken into account. Thus each student will have different attributes and shortcomings, relish different texts and classes. It is our job to respond, as well as we can and based on our judgement, to each individual. We do this to the best of our ability. Thus we treat everyone the same. That is, differently.

Therefore it is irrelevant to us, to the training, to a potential career, whether an individual applicant, for example, considers themselves disabled. We don’t ask. We have no special department to refer them to. We are going to respond to their specific needs in any case. All that concerns us is acting potential. If a disability may restrict a commercial career then it manifests at audition and we point it out. The same is true when a young person is overweight. We point it out. What we care about is acting.

Finally, the hard purpose.

When we train an actor we are asking them to be open, vulnerable, to dare go to places in their imagination that may be frightening. We ask them to physically and emotionally commit to every class, every rehearsal. We can be challenging and direct. What we are not is distant or invulnerable ourselves. Every ounce of bureaucracy creates distance and a sense of “us and them”, the powerful and the weak. No member of staff at the school sits behind a large desk whilst someone else is exposed. It is a specific decision, a matter of policy, to be ourselves as open and knowable as we ask the students to be.

Therefore you will not be asked to fill in forms at The Poor School.


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