Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Playing an unsympathetic role

In an article by Luaine Lee on actor Peter Mensah in the freebie paper that comes with the ODT on a Tuesday, I was interested to read the following quote:

Mensah admits it takes daring to be an actor. "Becuse the job requires that I put myself out there and just lay it open. It is a courageous thing to do for a living because you are emotionally bare at times..."

I'm not in the least taking the mickey out of Mensah here - he plays an in-your-face gladiator in the TV series, Spartacus. I agree that there's an element for actors in which they have to take risks, even in the most 'ordinary' roles. I'm still getting used to those first days of rehearsal when you're exploring the character you're playing and having to say and do things that don't necessarily come naturally to you. You have to get over 'yourself' and become something/someone else.

Curiously enough this can be even harder with a role that isn't particularly over-the-top, when you're playing someone 'ordinary.' The ordinary character can be harder to play because he requires less extrovertness. The person I've been playing in Shadowlands, over the last week or so, isn't particularly unusual, doesn't seem to stand out in a crowd (in fact, in the first act of the play he says less than ten lines all up) and seems difficult to play in any way but 'straight.' There are no quirks or peculiarities to him.

So it seems. However, it came to me during rehearsals that he's shallow in his Christianity, and is a surprising person for C S Lewis to have as a friend, because his narrow view of Christianity is quite at odds with Lewis'. I'm not sure how you play 'shallow.' Just speaking the lines doesn't cut it, and you have to find postures, gestures, and facial expressions that portray what he's thinking inside.

On Saturday night, after the performance, a friend who'd been in the audience said she didn't like him: "he's so unsympathetic." And while I hadn't thought consciously about this, I'd obviously brought this to the acting of the part. He is unsympathetic, and thinking about this since confirms that I'm getting hold of what's in the character.

Why I quoted Mensah at the beginning is because Rev Harrington (the role I play) isn't liked by the audience - and I was very aware of it once we actually had audiences. While other characters get audible response from the audience (and that's been the case with most parts I've played in recent years), Harrington doesn't. People will be thinking about how they react to him, no doubt, but you can't hear this, and it's rather isolating for the actor playing him. You have to trust your acting instincts and hope that what you're doing with the part is actually communicating to the audience - and that you're not making an absolute ninny of yourself in doing so. I think that's what Mensah is getting at.

By way of an afterthought: when I first started working on Harrington as a role, I was playing him sympathetically, as it happens. It's my natural default approach to a part, to find the good in a character, and 'enjoy being him.' And this isn't an impossible reading of the role, by any means. I was thinking through the lines again on the way home from the performance last night, and the part could be played this way, as someone who's a step behind the other characters he interacts with, and who's Christianity is still in a stage where he needs to learn some more depth.

But this would leave C S Lewis as something of a bully, because in a couple of scenes in the second act, instead of us having something of an argy-bargy about the issues, as we do now, Lewis would be trampling over the sensitivities of a lesser soul. And I don't think that would put him in a very good light.

Of course, Lewis himself could be played differently. In an early scene, Joy Gresham accuses him of using his intellect to undermine an argument she's making, and in the second act she talks of him being an 'intellectual bully.' This line isn't pursued in this particular production, but in an entirely different one it could easily be.

The fascinations of what you can do with words on a page....

Mensah on the left putting everything out there, and on the right in everyday mode.
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