Theatre Critic and Journalist

Exploring the Bigger Issue: Toby Jones

Exploring the Bigger Issue: Toby Jones

Published in The Stage, 08.05.2008

“When people take the piss out of actors, they think that we’re just playing games. But when they’re playing, actors play really seriously, just as Arsenal play really seriously. Acting is serious fun.”

Toby Jones is the personification of this oxymoron. He has the air of a child perched at the bar – a mischievous twinkle, accepted into the world of adults observing its quirks and foibles from afar, equally likely to engage in philosophical debate as to shower himself in cashew nuts. You get the feeling that he has seen through the Emperor’s new clothes with a silent smirk of surveillance.

“I’m paranoid about getting older as an actor, about getting old, full stop. I’m very aware of keeping a sense of play, of curiosity that’s keenest when you’re young and you spend the rest of your life trying to preserve.”

Yet with his recent work turning focus on the war on terror – he is following Newsnight’s Countdown to War and Mark Ravenhill’s Birth of a Nation, part of the Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat sequence, with the role of Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s biopic of George Bush, the feature film W – some might accuse Jones of having grown up. This influx of politics is not, he insists, the result of conscious decision.

“A lot of the best writing at the moment is trying to address being in a war – it’s trying to make people remember that we’re in a war. It’s unavoidable.

“It’s impossible to ignore these key issues – the environment, the war in the Middle East. There’s a certain sense of apocalypticism in the air. We are constantly being told that things are on the edge of absolute disaster, which is why people forget we’re in a war.”

This writing, says Jones, is unlike that on other wars, the bulk of which is retrospective. Theatre and the media are tackling the war head on, while, far off, the fighting continues.

“The form of the war is quite interesting because we’re not quite sure who it is that we’re fighting. It seems to be shifting. Are we defending? Who are we trying to beat? When will we know it’s successful enough? Where does this war on terror move on to? It feels such a disastrous decision because there is no end in sight. It’s kind of endless now.”

Insightful and articulate to the point of poeticism, Jones’s keen eye and sharp mind scour the world far beyond the major events that grace the newspapers. “I was taught to believe that all drama is political. It may be philosophically political or it may be reactively political. It may declare its policies directly or not.”

This thorough and inquisitive approach to work is what makes Jones a commendable character actor, achieving credibility where others would stray into caricature. It also stands as an insignia to his training under the critical eye of Jacques Lecoq in Paris. “Lecoq gives you the tools to be interested in many different things, to try and work out how many different things can be turned into theatre – how anything can be turned into theatre.”

Following a degree in drama at Manchester University, where he was repeatedly told that “theatre was dying a long, protracted death”, his two years in Paris were truly formative. Jones talks of Lecoq in religious and spiritual terms, as a true disciple, rarely referring to him by name. “There are so many things you didn’t understand. Theatre magi are supposed to say, “You won’t understand until you’re ninety.” They’re supposed to talk mystically.

“He tried to teach something no one else had ever taught: How do actors move space? Why do certain actors have presence? Can you teach presence? You’d never learn that anywhere else in the world.”

In contrast to his views of his own training, Jones reserves an element of apocalyticism towards today’s drama schools. Is training losing sight of theatre in the face of industry? “Its a big challenge for drama schools to know what to teach this endless flow of people wanting to become actors. I don’t know that you can teach people when they want to be trained for everything. There’s been such a focus on two specific areas of drama, realism and naturalism, that young actors have become very skilled at a certain type of observational acting. The audience doesn’t want to be acted at, it wants to look at. Great acting for a lot of people is film acting, not theatre acting, and those are the kind of actors people want to be.”

All of which begs the question as to what kind of actor does he want to be himself? Jones creases his face and concentrates hard. “I want to open up more things I can do with acting. How can I make my being an actor mean as many things as possible?

“In a way, your job is to write an article and to make sense, coherence, out of everything we’ve talked about. I don’t have to do that. Until I’m with my therapist or in a rocking chair on my porch in my seventies, I don’t have to make sense of it.”

In such terms, Jones’s gets to the heart of his paranoia about growing older: he is far more comfortable at play, where meaning is in flux, than in an unequivocal world of rigid forms and ideas. “There will always be some game,” he chips in with a cheeky confidence.

Photograph: still from Captain America

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