Patrick Stewart reconciled these two facets with aplomb recently in a West End production of Ibsen's The Master Builder, a play almost cruelly designed to get the best notices for the actress playing the girl who disastrously enters the life of the eponymous architect. The actress concerned won a Most Promising Newcomer award, and it was great to see Stewart cheering her on from the stalls at the ceremony.
In a similar situation, Stewart is wonderful now in Lindsay Posner's adroit and engaging production of David Mamet's tricky play, A Life in the Theatre. He plays Robert - an elderly actor who is teamed on stage and off with Joshua Jackson's beautifully relaxed and funny John. Robert is an extraordinarily difficult role. The actor has to communicate technical excellence at the same time as communicating the feeling that excellence in acting has ceased to be enough for Robert. Without submitting to sucking up to John, he has to suggest that Robert is a lonely individual. The one-upmanship in a beautifully written early scene is actually a way of saying, "I don't have anyone with whom to go out to dinner tonight. It would be in your interest and mine if we could somehow get it together to go out with one another...".
Stewart's performance is so skilled - at once so needy and so unsentimental - that it kept reminding me of something that Barbra Streisand once recounted. In 1963, she was the guest star on a Judy Garland special, and she couldn't work out why Judy's hand was shaking like a leaf. Of course, once she got to the age that Garland was at the time, Streisand had no difficulty at all in understanding Garland's nerves. Patrick Stewart brilliantly puts one in touch with that kind of problem.
Unfortunately, neither the excellence of the directing, nor the slow- burn drollness of Joshua Jackson's performance can disguise the anorexic, Eighties, nouvelle cuisine-style dramaturgy that is on offer here. The play feels too abstract, not rooted enough in any felt reality. It is hard to know where we are. The speech rhythms are American, but we seem to be in a world of British repertory theatre of a few decades back.
When the play was premiered here in 1989, Denholm Elliott played Robert with a very English air of aggrieved queeniness. Stewart plays him as 100 per cent male, and that works better with the text. But there's still a sense of being in a kind of hypothetical no-man's-land. You leave the theatre thinking: well, that's a very nice curtain-raiser, where's the show?
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