The ‘wrong’ casting can be so right
Published in the Guardian Theatre Blog, 26.04.2010
“Get the casting right,” the saying goes, “and the rest falls into place.” Last week Alexis Soloski celebrated the benefits of unconventional casting on this blog, quite rightly saying that casting decisions need not be constrained by age, gender or skin colour. She’s right, of course, but I wonder if there’s a finer point to be had, namely that casting need not be wilfully topsy-turvy to be unconventional.
Simon Russell Beale famously describes acting as “three-dimensional literary criticism”. The actor’s role, he says, is to construct an argument about his or her character and embody it through the choices made during the rehearsal process. However, an actor is not free to make any argument. For one thing, actors are constrained by physical realities. You suspect that Russell Beale – to provide an oversimplified example – would struggle to acquire a Men’s Health physique. And while appearance can be altered, it cannot be altogether evaded – and, like everything else on stage, it brings with it certain presumptions and connotations. Matthew MacFadyen begets different ideas and associations from Mackenzie Crook – despite their similarities in age, sex and colour.
Character is formed in a melting pot. It exists in the audience’s mind as a combination of the text (both words spoken and basic actions undertaken), the nature of such speech and action as chosen and embodied by the actor, and the actors themselves. It’s often said that there are as many Hamlets as there are actors. The result is that casting types exist, most probably reinforced by the cache of Hollywood cliches. To cast against these is a refined process. Its benefits are psychological rather than overtly political. Russell Beale’s Ariel for the RSC in 1993 succeeded in spite of his “far from sylph-like form”, as the Independent‘s Paul Taylor delicately put it. The actor must still construct a consistent argument from his constituent parts. He must work to reconcile himself with the text, to find his own route through, to give us his version. One of my favourite performances of the year so far is Rory Kinnear’s Angelo, in Measure for Measure at the Almeida, who became a sweaty-palmed nerdish clerk gradually growing slicker with his power. Kinnear was savvy enough to recognise and make full use of his traits. The result was a very particular Angelo, but an Angelo nonetheless.
Of course, it’s by no means failsafe. When Joseph Fiennes played the small-town sheriff in Anthony Weigh’s 2,000 Feet Away, his chiselled features and honed physique disobeyed references in the script to the character’s doughnut-guzzling and paunchiness. Yet that same handsomeness worked surprisingly well for his Cyrano, since it highlighted the destructive qualities of his baguette-like conk. Maybe this suggests different demands for new texts and familiar ones; conventions only exist, after all, when certain expectations have arisen.
Perhaps all this is simply to celebrate the individuality of actors; perhaps it is a demand for their self-awareness. I’d like to think, however, that it is a call for boldness in theatre: a plea that it take a gamble and set itself challenges that might not have solutions. So get the casting right, if you must. Let everything else fall neatly into place. Or get the casting wrong – defy our expectations and break the mould – and maybe, just maybe, you’ll surprise us.