Acting for Real

‘Oubliez théâtre’, the teacher encourages, directing her gaze left and right across the rows of assembled students: ‘trouvez vérité’. Forget theatre; find truth. On the zebra crossing, on the second bite of my gluten free camembert sandwich, on the word processor I opened a little too late to set about a far more urgent task: forget theatre; find truth. On the metro, in the small print of the poster outside the cosy cinema showing Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon at 9.40pm on a Friday night: forget theatre, find truth. 

Of course!  But, also…how? 

Like Al Pacino, who strides onto the screen, entrancing us with his beautiful, reactive, muscular acting? With such enviable ease he synthesises all the principals of our training. But is that it? Is that really where truth is - in a verisimilar representation of a real-world situation (the story of a bank robbery ripped from the headlines) and a mastery of naturalistic technique (Al Pacino)? Or is the ‘truth’ of theatre to be found in some other factor, unavailable to a film like Dog Day Afternoon, and which we ought to be careful not to forget?

Some Other Factor

A group of figures gather in silence around a shallow cauldron. One of them ignites a fire inside. The flaming bowl is raised slowly above their heads, coming to rest above the stage where it remains, throughout the first act, the interval, and the remainder of the performance. 

The Normal Heart, directed by Dominic Cooke at the National Theatre in Autumn 2021, was clearly not ‘just a play’, but - from its first action - a kind of vigil. The text by Larry Kramer is an autobiographical work based on the writer’s experience of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York, a tragedy of medical and governmental indifference which few of the play’s characters survive. In Cooke’s production, the men who took to the stage were palpably ghost-like presences. First, in their relation to real individuals; second, in the solemn portent of that flaming cauldron; third, in the always-spectral contract between an actor and a character. By emphasising this third factor, the actors reinforced the first and second: that is, by acting, they commemorated and they mourned. They invested their acting with a ritualistic importance, such that the adoption of character - the act of embodying and retelling this story - took on an unequivocal real-world significance.  In achieving this, their tools were simple. Changing their accents on stage was a precise instrument for switching between here (London, 2021) and there (New York, 1981) whilst keeping here always in mind. In their native British voices, the actors announced the time and place of each scene to the auditorium, before crossing a threshold into the other world, slipping into their characters’ vocal and physical cadences. We never forgot we were watching actors. This was something they themselves were doing, something real.

The precision of these switches and the undiminished strength of the represented characters testified to the actors’ technique. But it was neither the technique nor the factual basis of the story that gave The Normal Heart such a sensation of ‘truth’ - one which radiates with me even now a year later. It was the dedication with which these actors set about ‘the act’ of acting. And something also about the action of staging a vigil in the midst of a very, very present pandemic - a pandemic which had coincided with the horrific murder of George Floyd and statistically exposed the extents of medical inequality in British society. The performance brought now and then together, and so also (somehow) all nows and all thens came together. Something ancient and archetypal took place: a mourning of all mournings. I was a sobbing wreck by the end. 

In this sense, the production’s truth was not its similitude to reality, but the reality of its action. The fact that something had changed through the play’s performance. It had made a difference in the present world. The cast were not ‘just acting’; they were acting for real. Drawn back to a Q&A later in the show’s run, I discovered that the company had dedicated each night of the performance to a different victim of AIDs.

Forget Theatre, Find Truth

My teacher’s advice recurs again, a useful and pithy reminder to abandon cliche for the close observation of life. But how to square it with my memories of a play whose insistence on being theatre of the most straightforward kind - he is pretending to be someone else in front of you - constituted the foundation of its truth? Perhaps, it is not so simple as forgetting theatre - although we might often want to - but not forgetting the reality of theatre. Maybe that is how we might find truth.

Dominic Cooke’s 2022 follow up production at the National, a staging of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green, was, in this sense, fascinatingly forgetful. The performance opens with an actor playing the playwright Emlyn Williams typing on his typewriter before ‘directing’ the other actors into his imagined scene. The staging of this fake creative process only severs the actors’ actual (and secreted) creative process ever-further from the real. It achieves the exact opposite of The Normal Heart’s smouldering cauldron and accent-switching actors. Instead of inviting us to participate in the silence of a vigil - present with the actors in their world - the play suggests we would be better off as passive spectators - separated from that world and deprived of any agency we might have in it. As the character Morgan Evans (Williams’ fictional self portrait) develops in linguistic and intellectual fluency so does the play’s naturalistic sophistication. Starting out as a bare stage, the scenography gradually evolves into an all bells and whistles drawing room set, complete with tea sets, a twee grandfather clock, and painted doors. The nail in the coffin is the closure of the flats, which had formerly allowed a view of the ‘off-stage’ actors, so that we are presented with a ‘complete theatrical image’: a doll’s house set. Evans/Williams’ arrival at intellectual maturity is drawn in parallel with the notionally greater expressivity of naturalism. It is entirely fitting that the play’s writing deteriorates - and farcical plot mechanics increase - completely in tandem with this scenographic gesture. It loses reality the further it invests in naturalism.

For certain, all acting is real, whether or not it acknowledges it. However, The Corn Is Green raises the case of the reality that elides its own constitution as reality - or employs sleight-of-hand technique to brush that constructedness underneath the carpet. Maybe this is when naturalism starts and realism ends, when the image takes precedence over reality, when we mistake one perspective for an absolute statement, when we say there are no alternatives. For a playtext that mythologizes meritocracy (Welshman liberated by going to Oxford), this was either a suspicious or a lazy dramaturgical choice. If Cooke had critical intentions for his revival, the production did not make their case.

Instead, it followed over-simply my teacher’s advice. It sought to forget theatre in a search for truth, when all it really forgot was the truth of theatre - that theatre is present, that theatre takes place in the real world, that theatre, like all reality, is not yet real.


The National Theatre in London, home to The Normal Heart  (Olivier, 2021) and The Corn is Green (Lyttleton, 2022).

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