Overpaid, underdressed and over here

The London stage is awash with scantily-clad Hollywood actors in search of credibility. Movie stars are box-office gold - but are they killing our theatre?
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The Independent Culture

You thought theatre was dreary? Wrong. It's dynamite. Take a look at the West End. Hollywood legend Tippi Hedren is bouncing back with her real-life daughter Melanie Griffiths in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. There's even a rumour that Melanie's husband Antonio Banderas will join them. Better yet, Keanu Reeves has signed for the new musical of Huckleberry Finn. Best of all, Cameron Diaz is to make her stage début as St Joan and, what's more, we'll get to see her in the flesh. It's completely integral to the plot because getting her kit off before putting on the armour to go into battle will absolutely reveal her character's true vulnerability.

You thought theatre was dreary? Wrong. It's dynamite. Take a look at the West End. Hollywood legend Tippi Hedren is bouncing back with her real-life daughter Melanie Griffiths in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. There's even a rumour that Melanie's husband Antonio Banderas will join them. Better yet, Keanu Reeves has signed for the new musical of Huckleberry Finn. Best of all, Cameron Diaz is to make her stage début as St Joan and, what's more, we'll get to see her in the flesh. It's completely integral to the plot because getting her kit off before putting on the armour to go into battle will absolutely reveal her character's true vulnerability.

Now, before you all start yelling for the box-office number, I feel it is only fair to point out that all of the above is actually a pile of porky pies. But, of course, you knew that. Readers of The Independent are far too savvy to swallow preposterous ideas such as, say, a revival of The Seven Year Itch with Daryl Hannah, a woman who went from being the washed-up mermaid in Splash! to having a washed-up movie career. You sophisticates wouldn't believe me for a second if I suggested the new Richard Nelson play would boast Swiss miss and Kieslowski favourite Irene Jacob and ageing has-been Macaulay Culkin. Or that the National Theatre would give the Julie Andrews role in My Fair Lady to Martine McCutcheon. OK, that's just silly. Theatreland would never stoop that low...

Actually, those last three are true. Honest. Ask Jack Straw. Somewhere along the line, someone must have signed work permits for most of them and I think it's high time we put an end to all this governmental shilly-shallying and demanded a full public enquiry. I'm prepared to go with Martine - after all, we'll spend the whole night wondering if she'll pull off being posh, which is exactly what we should be thinking. But the others? How did it all happen?

Jack's defence will be clear. Actors dream of neon, seeing their names blazing away above the title, shedding stardust up Shaftesbury Avenue. Producers, meanwhile, know full well that the only ones to be accorded this illuminating honour are stars, glittering personalities whose names alone betoken crowd-pulling glamour. Which is how, in days gone by, lucky Londoners wound up watching Ingrid Bergman radiating away in The Constant Wife, Lauren Bacall dripping disdain in Sweet Bird of Youth or Stefania Federkiewicz - sorry, Stephanie Hart to Hart Powers - in Matador, a rather short-lived musical memorably gored by members of the press who tried (unsuccessfully) to resist lines such as "a load of bull".

So "name" casting is nothing new and it isn't hard to see why. While one might wish that producers were put on this earth to raise standards in popular entertainment by making thrillingly artistic decisions at all times, they're not. They're putting up money to put on shows and the majority of them would like to pay back their investors, thank you very much. The motto of these money men (and, very occasionally, women) is certainly not "nothing ventured, nothing gained". In such a high-risk business - and short of casting Cliff Richard there are no guarantees - it's more like "safety first". Which leads the less scrupulous to abandon Equity's finest for the greener pastures of Hello!

This practice has been honed nationwide in the annual bonanza that was once the great British panto. Never find the quality, feel the cast lists positively pulsating with former sporting greats, soap actors and "personalities" - a term used for people who often mysteriously seem to have none. A Christmas treat is now deemed incomplete without Frank Bruno, Britt Ekland, a Gladiator, a Neighbour and a Nolan sister.

The West End hasn't quite sunk that low. Yet. Mind you, what possessed producer Bill Kenwright to cast small-screen legends Jenny Seagrove and Christopher Cazenove in that British treasure trove that is Brief Encounter? Possibly the fact that he sees Seagrove across the breakfast table every morning.

Partnership deals aside, stars have been the biggest news in theatreland over the last few years, and not just in the commercial sector. I suspect that even Trappist monks are aware that Nicole Kidman didn't overspend the costume budget for The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse, or that Kevin Spacey electrified Almeida audiences in The Iceman Cometh.

Those choices may have looked cynical, but both projects were conceived and cast by directors who utterly understood the medium and what they were demanding of their leading actors. Howard Davies had known Spacey's stage work for more than a decade and knew that his controlled energy was perfect for O'Neill's theatrical marathon. Sam Mendes's decision to hire Kidman was riskier, but her layered leading role in To Die For had attracted reviews that were, well, to die for. Mendes also knew that he wasn't asking her to wow Wembley Stadium. The 260-seat Donmar Warehouse is about as close to acting in close-up as theatre gets.

The trouble is that such matching of expertise and experience is rare. Daryl Hannah, we're told, has no theatre experience outside of workshops and, judging from the publicity material, the same applies to her director Michael Radford. He helmed the films Another Time, Another Place, 1984 and Il Postino, but although theatre directing may look like the same job, it isn't.

Not that their producers seem to care. They took one look at the hysteria whipped up by heterosexual media men salivating over the prospect of a (tastefully) nude Jerry Hall in The Graduate and announced that their similarly tall, slim, blonde American ex-model and actress might also be taking her clothes off. This came as news to Hannah who, to her credit, promptly quashed the suggestion.

What this is really all about is that theatre now seems to aspire to the condition of cinema. I know that The Seven Year Itch began life on Broadway, but do we imagine for one second that the producers are attempting to expunge memories of Marilyn Monroe and the movie? This is not so much a crisis of confidence as an overwhelmingly depressing failure of nerve. And guess what: movies do movies better than theatre does.

Equity, the actors' union, believes star casting adds to the health of the West End. "It may well bring a new audience from cinema. Then they might return to see something without a star," says a spokesman. A fine theory, but attending shows with Hall or Hannah isn't theatre-going, it's star-gazing. It's about creating an event in a theatre, not developing an audience with an appetite for the unique possibilities of live drama.

At the risk of a gross generalisation, movie stars don't act, they react. A film director only has to persuade an actor to communicate the essence of a shot or a scene once, and you can save a weak performance in the editing. But a stage actor has to hold a role together night after night, and a lead actor has to hold the entire show together. And that's a wholly different skill. Some film actors have it, but it's rare.

No matter how strong the script, theatrical success ultimately rests on the abilities of actors to deliver energy to an audience. The more we are presented with inappropriate performances, the less likely it is anyone will be back for more. If producers don't stop dreaming of short-term gain, theatre will die.

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