Should an actor playing a famous person look like that person? We all know that what really counts is conveying the truth of a character and all that, but...
I’ve been pondering this since seeing the picture in the press of the four young actors playing The Beatles in the forthcoming West End musical Let It Be. The actor playing Paul McCartney is pictured with his guitar. I’ve no doubt he will convey McCartney’s inner truth. The only problem is that he will convey a right-handed inner truth, for he is clearly right-handed, whereas McCartney was and is, quite famously, left-handed.
In the history of theatre, this will hardly be counted a cardinal sin. And yet anyone with a passing acquaintance with The Beatles or McCartney knows that he plays his instrument with his left hand. Does it matter? They’re not meant to be lookalikes, after all. Yet, the actor playing John Lennon wears dark glasses in some scenes, as Lennon indeed did on stage, so clearly the producers want some sort of attempt at verisimilitude. “But come on,” some will say, “they can hardly insist at the auditions that only left-handers need apply.”
“Come on yourself,” I might reply, “students of pop history and hard-core Beatles fans, who presumably will make up much of the audience, will be unable to resist a pompous little snigger when they see a right-hander delivering ‘Eleanor Rigby’.”
It’s a tricky thing, this verisimilitude on stage. The most notable example of reaching it without being an actual lookalike is that fine actor Michael Sheen. He has played both David Frost and Kenneth Williams on stage, and Tony Blair on screen. He is not the image of any of them, yet watching him you felt you were watching them, because he conveyed their characters – and, to be fair, got their voices. Sheen has gone out of his way to say he is an actor not an impersonator, and we don’t care that he doesn’t look exactly like the people he is playing.
But then again, up to a point we do care. We may not mind if he is shorter or taller than they are, or if he has a fuller face, but we would mind if he had red hair to play David Frost, because we know this simply wasn’t the case. And that’s why the audiences at Let It Be might well do a double take at the right-handed bass-guitar player.
It’s a tricky thing, indeed, this verisimilitude. Audiences can be more literal than producers like to think.
Some statues are more equal than others
Reports have it that Mark Thompson, the outgoing director-general of the BBC, has vetoed the idea of a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House, deciding Orwell was “too left-wing.” As Thompson hasn’t denied the reports, I will assume there is some truth in them. Without even going into the argument that the writer and BBC broadcaster appeals to all parts of the political spectrum, and without even bothering to argue that, if he is left-wing, then so what, I would simply urge Mark Thompson to reconsider.
I’ve been impressed with his record as DG, but if he wants to leave a lasting impression, he could go down in history as the DG who put a statue of one of Britain’s greatest writers and thinkers outside Broadcasting House. He would be remembered for that long after his other achievements in the post were forgotten. Go on, Mark, make it your parting gift.
Keira condenses Karenina in just five simple words
Keira Knightley is playing Anna Karenina in Joe Wright’s soon-to-be-released film adaptation of Tolstoy’s book. Although Wright appears inclined to cast Keira in every film he directs, this is a piece of casting that could work rather well. I was intrigued to read in The Independent this week that, after re-reading the novel in preparation for the film, Knightley declared of its author: “My God he hates her.” This seems a very direct and accusatory piece of literary criticism. It’s at moments like this that one wishes one could do what Woody Allen did in the cinema queue in Annie Hall, and summon up the author to answer the criticism. “Actually, I hoped I was doing something rather more complex than simply hating her, Miss Knightley.” “No you hated her, Leo!” That’s a literary debate that I’d buy tickets for.