Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Redemptive Power Of The Theater: Simon Russell Beale, Ethan Hawke, Rebecca Hall and Sinead Cusack Bring Us To Life

By Lars Trodson

Here was, on the stage, a genuine movie star, or at least as close of an approximation of one gets to a movie star these days, and his name was Ethan Hawke. Hawke barely seems to register on the screen, his performances at their best and worst are banal, which is a miserable fate for a screen actor. Hawke also causes paroxysms of fury by writing novels; the condemnation comes streaming down from the ranks of those who believe that kind of thing is best left to the professionals, whoever those professionals may be.

But there he was, surrounded by the artfully decrepit interior of the Harvey Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, barefoot and strumming a guitar. This was in Shakespeare’s extravaganza known as “The Winter’s Tale”, which, if records were kept of such things, must have been written in haste or on a bet. Shakespeare threw everything into this weird play except character development, but there are plenty of jokes.

Some of these jokes are said by Autolycus, played by Hawke, in a fey, lovely, and easy-going turn in the Sam Mendes production of this play which just closed on March 8 in Brooklyn.

If Hawke’s performance is a cobbling together of mannerisms, that is not his fault. It is faint criticism to call an actor in “The Winter’s Tale” unfocused, because the same criticism that Ezra Pound leveled at James Joyce’s “Ulysses” -- that there was no need for a new style for each chapter -- could be used to describe each act of this vaudeville. It’s a tragedy and then a comedy and then a fantasy and then a ghost story. “Oh, what the hell,” Shakespeare probably said when writing it. “I’m being paid good money and I need a new bed!”

So Hawke, strumming a guitar with authority and grace, comes strolling out on the Harvey's beautiful wood stage and one might think that New York theater audiences would apply the same snobbishness to Hawke being on the stage as literary critics did to Hawke writing his books. But no. He had them right away, and as well he should. He was acting Shakespeare, and he was great.

This was in the second half. In the first, we had been introduced to Simon Russell Beale, as Leontes, King of Sicilia and the radiant Sinead Cusack as Paulina.

Sinead Cusack should easily command the same concoction of worldwide respect and sensual appeal that her contemporary Helen Mirren receives, but Cusack has not had the same kind of commercial movie success that Mirren has had. You may know her as Naomi Watts’ mother in “Eastern Promises”, and a few of us were lucky enough to have caught her in John Boorman’s Irish mystery “The Tiger’s Tale” at the New Hampshire Film Festival last October, which as far as I know was not released in this country. But she is an inspiring actor, a great actor, and she brought to the stage the kind of grace and loveliness that only the truly great can bring. You can imagine that Sinead Cusack would invite audience fervor no matter what age she happened to appear in.

This production of "The Winter's Tale" is part of a project called "The Bridge Project", which is providing an opportunity for audiences to see the stage work of both American and English actors. So this production, which was lyrical but minor, was playing in repertory with Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" and the actors were able to play parts in both plays that demonstrated their range. The project is a co-production of The Old Vic (headed up by Kevin Spacey), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Neal Street Productions. The two plays were directed by Mendes and the Chekhov play was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard, who added his contrarian flair to the English translation of Chekhov's lines.

There is a scene in "The Cherry Orchard" when Simon Russell Beale is attempting to express his affection for Ranevskaya (played by Cusack), the eternally grieving owner of the cherry orchard that soon must be sold to pay off old debts. Cusack, as Ranevskaya, looks so deeply and understandingly into Beale's eyes that I wondered if they were in love in real life. (Cusack is married to Jeremy Irons.) It was heartbreaking to watch, and I was later moved when she talked about the memories she had of the house they would soon have to abandon.

My friend Mike Keating, who wrote so well about Joe Strummer here on Roundtable Pictures last year, has been talking about Simon Russell Beale for years. He kept saying I needed to see him, and when I witnessed Beale's fussy, fuzzed, and fritzed out Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" I had that rare reaction that I was watching an actor trying to figure out his way through a part. What this means is that I thought I saw someone who was truly confused, as opposed to someone who was playing someone who was confused. It was laugh-out loud funny. And I loved Beale's head-scratchy, hand-gesturing interpretation precisely because it seemed so un-king-like. It may not have been what Shakespeare wanted, but it suits these modern times.

What Mike and I marveled at were seeing actors able to memorize and then embody two different characters in utterly different plays just hours apart. We saw "The Winter's Tale" at a 2 p.m. matinee and then "The Cherry Orchard" later at 7:30 p.m. I'm not saying that Beale was stretched too much between his interpretation of Leontes and Lopakhin, the successful businessman in the Chekhov play. But what was evident was the depth of feeling that he brought to the stage, and how he, and Cusack, and Hawke and all the other actors in "The Cherry Orchard" were able to bring the play to its undeniably emotional conclusion.

One other actor deserves mention here, and that is Rebecca Hall. She was the Vicky in "Vicky Christina Barcelona." Her power is undeniable. There is a scene in "The Winter's Tale" when she defends herself against the charges of adultery that have been lodged against her by Leontes that is unbearable to watch because you are watching a tortured human being expose her soul.

Imagine an actor speaking the lines of Shakespeare that makes you forget you are hearing the measured beats of poetry and convince you that are hearing the thoughts of a tortured human being. That was Rebecca Hall. And then she was the dedicated and unwanted Varya in "The Cherry Orchard." She was transformed from the sexually desired queen Hermione to the homely, unprepossessing housekeeper in Chekhov's play in just hours. And she was beautiful as both.

The redemptive power of the theater is in full swing. Actors dissatisfied with the emptiness of film scripts are returning to the stage. Stage actors like Beale seem content not to make the leap to movie screen. We seem to have entered a new age when actors can once again claim the moniker of "Broadway actor" or "stage actor." Think Kristin Chenoweth, or Nathan Lane or Patti LuPone or Norbert Leo Butz -- or Simon Russell Beale.

The entertainment business landscape is also changing. Tentpole movies thrive because they appeal to the movie geek who appreciates only the spectacle and none of the nuance that film used to provide.

And independent movies fail because they rarely -- really quite rarely -- capture the delicacy and revelatory power of human emotion that is ostensibly their reason for existing in the first place. Instead we get quirkiness that is supposed to be translatable to our everyday lives. Instead we see movies that have nothing to offer except the underdeveloped sensibility of the moviemaker, and that has increasingly felt utterly unsatisfying.

Just as we are trying to return to the produce of the family farm, or the hospitality of the local store, or the charms of the low-powered FM radio station in our neighborhoods, the theater may reveal to us the charms of just why we wanted to be entertained in the first place.

Entertainment is meant to deliver us from our daily travails, but it is also meant to make our imaginations percolate. The movies, to a very large extant, have made us stop thinking, and their influence islimited almost exclusively to the two hours we spend watching the movie in the theater or in front of the DVD. They have no life almost at all beyond that.


Mike Keating and I, as well as the other theater-goers who left the Harvey Theater on that unseasonably warm late winter night, continued to talk about the plays, and the actors. I was thinking about Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke, and of course Rebecca Hall, and I remembered that at the end of "The Cherry Orchard" a bubble of sadness leapt up out of my chest and into my throat because I felt slightly wounded, just as the very real human beings before me had meant me to feel.