Treading the Boards: Big Names in the Theatre

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I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. – Oscar Wilde

Whilst this quotation could easily be dismissed as Wilde just being incredibly pretentious, there is something distinctly special about acting in the theatre when compared to television and film. In the theatre, especially one as big as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, actors have a duty to perform to everybody, even those who paid £25 for the balcony seats. There are no Tom Hooper-style close-ups on the stage, so facial expressions must be visible from everywhere in the auditorium, without being so extreme as to break away from character. There is never a guarantee that microphones will be present as with screen acting, so actors must learn to project without damaging their vocal chords. These are just a few of the ways in which acting in the theatre is a fine art, and though acting in film and television should not be thought of as inferior, it is understandable why big names on screen often appear in the theatre in order to prove themselves as capable actors.

It is interesting to note that many actors who are well-known only in theatre circles often feel like they are beginning to ‘make it big’ when they are cast in a television series or film, even if the role they are cast in is Townsperson #5. On the other hand, it would be far more newsworthy for someone like Benedict Cumberbatch to make a return to the West End than it would be for him to appear in another Star Trek film. I suppose this is because we tend to pigeon-hole actors into where we see them most. Whilst in the theatre we expect to see relatively unknown actors who spent three years training at a top drama school before competing tirelessly to make their way up to a main role against depressing odds. We expect to see famous television and film actors appearing in the latest dramas and blockbusters. I suspect that some big-name actors need only mention a vague interest in undertaking a theatre stint and they could pretty much walk onto a stage, but it most certainly isn’t the case the other way around.

I have no issue with well-trained actors who now happen to be film or television stars returning to their roots and performing in the theatre. Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), one of the leading drama schools in England. There is in fact an expectation that British actors have received outstanding training at UK drama schools, which are considered some of the best in the world, and graduates are therefore highly sought after in the US as well as in Britain. Dame Judi Dench and Sir Kenneth Branagh, who graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) respectively, made names for themselves in the theatre, and have since worked extensively in theatre, film and television. Even outside of the UK many major actors have their roots in the theatre; Hugh Jackman, having trained at the Western Academy of Performing Arts, spent his early career performing in the theatre. In Australia, Jackman starred in several shows including Melbourne’s production of Beauty and the Beast in 1996, in which he played Gaston, and in 1998 he came to London as Curly in the National Theatre’s production of Oklahoma!, for which he received an Olivier Award. The calibre of training that these actors have undertaken alongside many others really makes the difference. In 2016, Matthew Perry, of Friends fame, brought his play The End of Longing to the West End. I saw the production myself, and though everyone in the audience was there to see Perry, he was far outshone in terms of vocal technique by his fellow actors.

Is it fair that big-name actors should walk into theatrical roles, potentially over talented actors who are desperately trying to make a living doing what they love? Probably not. Is that the way theatre is and probably always will be? Unfortunately, yes. It is the nature of acting as a profession that only a select number will rise to fame and fortune; not everyone can be the next Sir Ian McKellen. Famous actors appearing in the theatre both works for them in improving or maintaining their acting skills, and it works for the producers of the shows they appear in, bringing in bigger audiences by plastering a big name on the posters. Most crucially, whilst I mostly prefer to see unknown yet talented actors on a stage over film and television stars, they definitely beat the dreadful mob of reality television ‘stars’ who are somehow enjoying an acting career despite not having a shred of talent. Hopefully this trend of casting such ‘celebrities’ will soon die, but for legitimate actors, performing in the theatre should be a rite of passage. The best screen talent undoubtedly comes from those who are also able to tread the boards.

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Literature Executive 2018/19. Third year English and History student. Lover of Hobbits, theatre and tea.

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