Hollywood and the Difficulties of Being English

By Fiona Shaw

Vertigo has made a regular feature of asking all those who contribute to TV and cinema to write about their profession. In this issue Fiona Shaw writes about acting.

It was my great pleasure to wander around the countryside outside Arezzo to meet the reclusive Dame Muriel Spark. She turned 80 recently and her writing has aged as well as her. She writes using shards of her own life shot through with terror and death, so, in her presence one feels the flicker of tension between the real and the possible. I am about to play one of her characters so I wanted her blessing as well as to pump her for information. As she saw me to the door she commented that I should not be too literal with the Edinburgh accent lest the audience do not understand and added that, “Nothing should be too real in the theatre...” Deflated, I left. It is precisely to get at the ‘real’ that I was there in first place: to avoid approximation; to capture the spin on reality that bypasses the learned; to allow for the possibility that I might create something that communicates, through detail, a ‘poetic truth’.

I realise that I am speaking resoundingly in the voice of a stage actor. We are the tribe that mime language and fling our own personalities against cultural icons. We fibulate between the aspiration of the great and the detail of the low. This antithesis potentially allows performance to have significance beyond our efforts but everywhere chasms of failure and bungled attempts call to many to give up on the theatre. Failure occurs in the theatre when the achievement doesn’t go beyond ordinary life, when the actor attempts only to ‘be’ on stage. Our job is listening for the extraordinary in the ordinary and trying to map it. I know no good actor who is ever really at ease. It is this addiction to the hit of heightened reality that releases actors from the mundane and lets them transcend class and childhood and the arc of a day that sends normal people home at six for a pint. In the course of an evening an entire tragedy can be experienced and communicated, and so this addiction is hard to reconcile with ordinary life. This may be why, when we jump into a film – and I am not experienced enough to know a lot about this – we seem odd, larger than life or overemphatic and... lost. Recently, I went to Russia to play a countess in a film and in preparation I soaked up St Petersburg and read 19th century novels. On the day of my big scene I was taken to the country, to my palace, which was a beautiful mansion with long rooms and polished floors where all the servants wore dusters on their feet and it seemed as if nothing had changed in a hundred years. Full of my own personality detail I was led to the camera, which was placed rather boringly in front of a table and two chairs – a stock tea scene. No one had even asked me about the context and choice of position of the table. All my dreams of the potential of this moment, its umpteen possibilities, were irrelevant.

So, why is it that American actors relish such prescription? Unburdened by the need to absorb, digest and defecate the history of Western civilisation, they sit down in front of the camera and their being seems full of meaning. I marvel at the seemingly effortless beauty and humanity of Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now or Brando, James Dean and Monroe in everything I remember from childhood – Jack Nicholson is still riveting. “The energy must be in the eyes”, all the buffs say, as if it isn’t on the stage. What is this energy of being that can carry so much detail and not be laden with ‘knowledge”? Do we all carry the spirit of our culture with us? Is it possible that Americans are in tune with the unspecified anxiety of their continent, the lurking violence that underlies their lives? So much of their behaviour is homogenised and suggested to them by the very medium that then reflects it back to them. They now share a vast communal rhythm as one observes from their greeting and parting, the “Hi”, “Have a nice day” and “Give me five” all shot through with inherited Jewish shrugs, Protestant zeal and Afro-American ease. This is their language of pacifism. Their film culture often celebrates this and the tension between generalised calm and individual terror, the move from long shot to close up mirroring this. The medium suits the people.

Our continent dominates us in a different way. The Renaissance has finished, the Empire has collapsed and we are dwarfed by previous achievement. We have all these ‘parishes’, tiny worlds of idiosyncrasy that have to be reflected. In England the fireworks of eccentricity in the individual stretch from King Lear to Mike Leigh. All this, a lingering class system, as well as our gloweringly introverted landscape – are our words too jaded with crossreference? Are our films the descendants of frescoes...?

The film actor in England is often the blacksmith at the moment cars were invented. If he is not careful he will be an expert in an obsolete field and need to become a chauffeur, quick! In what circumstances can the British actor trip between stage and film? How can we close the gap between a distilled history and the blank sheet of possibility the viewer endows? Light comedy is one way out. The universal gag of self deprecation which plays into our ability to hide and overlay. We have had a rash of these in the last few years. Certainly, for the film actor in England, he must be freed from his class type or he will never develop. We are living at the end of a time that praised the inauthentic transposition of accent and the lie of the middle class which had no reality. The surrealism of America has always allowed for the rags to riches possibility which means actors are never accent bound. Their roots, however humble, are integrated into their performances. Few have succeeded on this side of the Atlantic. Gary Oldman, despairing of a classical career in this country, has transcended the barriers in the US, Anthony Hopkins has brought a Celtic totality that is international to his work, and both have managed to bring an American panache to British films.

To ask ourselves what is ‘being’ in a film? is too hard a question. I think it lies somewhere near inheritance. What is going on in our heads? Can we be at ease being looked at? In England if the text has the power to counter the gaze, ‘being’ is text. But on film, text is ‘being’. The Americans trust in the belief that ‘You are enough’, and they tend not to put on a mantle but to take one off. I could conclude crudely by saying that Americans have sex and their ability to call with a shameless gaze. In Britain we have historic shame and perform with a tension between who we are and what we say. For us ‘being’ is discomfort, and until we relax class, stop looking at ourselves and enjoy stillness we will always be pursuing the theatrical high. After I left Dame Muriel I went to see the great Cimabue Crucifix in St Dominico in Arezzo – a revolution in sculpture and painting, his head lolling and the effect totally emotional. Within a few years Giotto became all the rage... plus ça change.

Fiona Shaw is appearing in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the National Theatre.