I’ve enjoyed the various shows I’ve seen as part of the Shedinburgh Fringe this year. They have tended to be revived pieces that have been successful in Edinburgh in the past but as I’d not seen any of them before I was grateful for the opportunity to catch up. The latest piece is a bit of a coup however, as it’s a one man performance of a show that is probably still in development. It comes from none other than Simon Callow who has put together some reflections on his life and career and called it Being An Actor – 50 Years On; as his first professional engagement was at the Edinburgh Fringe this was an entirely appropriate way to premiere the show.
I’ve seen a couple of Callow’s other one man shows during the pandemic, Being Shakespeare and The Mystery of Charles Dickens and this new show is a long way from those. For a start the previous pair had carefully crafted scripts (Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate and Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd respectively) whereas this seems to be almost a random series of anecdotes albeit interesting ones. Callow doesn’t so much inhabit another character as reveal his own personality and often seems engagingly diffident about doing so – perhaps as he points out at the start actors are having to relearn the business of engaging with an audience after the lengthy pandemic layoff. Still, we get to learn about his early influences, his acting heroes and how he sets about creating a role by searching inside himself to find what he calls “the point of emotional connection”.
There is quite a bit of biography to get through before getting to the main essence of the show although the stories he tells are never less than interesting; I found it intriguing that becoming an actor was so far from his childhood ambitions. Discouraged by his mother and encouraged by one of his grandmothers (his father had left the family home to go and live in Africa) it was a calling that Callow only gradually found. He went to a succession of schools where drama did not even feature, and he had to rely on elocution lessons to provide anything like the sort of relevant outlet for his budding talents. He also, as a young man, worked in the box office of the Old Vic during the early years of the newly founded National Theatre. This gave him the chance to see and even mingle with the likes of Olivier, Gielgud, Redgrave, Ashcroft et al. After drama school, in 1973 he found himself in Edinburgh playing a horse in a production of Buchner’s Woyzeck.
The latter part of the piece takes us more firmly into the central premise of what it means to become someone else and inhabiting them completely and this proved to be particularly interesting. Callow admits to being a competent Richard III on the radio but even as he was playing the part realised there was no genuine point of connection with the character. He also demonstrates how the look and sound of a role can define an actor’s approach. We get a glimpse of his breakthrough part as he recreates Brecht’s Arturo Ui in a ridiculous wig and false nose – this led directly to him being offered the role of Mozart in the original production of Amadeus. It is perhaps a shame that there wasn’t more of this sort of thing in the show and perhaps if it does get worked up into a fuller production this might be the way to go. However, it’s not that long since Ian McKellen has done much the same thing.
As a show, Being An Actor is still, understandably, a little rough around the edges. Callow as ever is good value and has a wealth of interesting things to tell us about himself and his chosen profession. I was fascinated to discover that he has never got to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which would seem like a no brainer. I’m happy to say I’ve got one up on Simon there then!
Today’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece is The One With The Lockdown. Flatmates Ash and Charlie face lockdown together. But as they watch reruns of Friends on TV and eat pasta something happens that will change things forever. Mildly amusing piece by Meghan Tyler featuring Martin Donaghy and Oliver Bennett
Being An Actor – 50 Years On streamed live as part of the online Shedinburgh Festival – click here
Although Shedinburgh shows are one off live streams they have five of the earlier pieces available on demand for the next couple of days – click here
Scenes For Survival pieces are available from the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here
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