Peter Eyre: Natural Eyre to the role

Peter Eyre is eerily convincing as the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in Smoking with Lulu. And so he should be - they were great friends, as Rhoda Koenig discovers
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Directors and playwrights are usually exasperated by an actor who says, "I really don't think my character would do that", but in Peter Eyre's case they bowed to authority. In Smoking With Lulu, Eyre (no relation to the director Richard) is in the unusual, perhaps unique, position of playing someone he knew. Eyre was not only a friend of Kenneth Tynan's; he was close to both of Tynan's wives and each of his three children. In the event, though, Eyre says, Janet Munsil's play gave him almost no opportunity to one-up her or the director, David Giles: "People think that my long speeches were taken from Tynan's writing, but they're completely invented."

Nor was Eyre cast because of his expertise. "I had no idea, until we were well into rehearsals," says Giles, "that he had known Tynan. I cast Peter because he's very intelligent, very sharp. He's someone you could believe would say the things Tynan did. He also has the quality of seeming to have a private eye – he's very observant, very watchful."

The last is a quality Tynan shared. "I think," says Eyre, "that people felt encouraged when Ken was around because he was such a good audience. [Unless, of course, they had been the subject of one of his horribly unforgettable reviews – Vivienne Leigh, say, whom he described as receiving the news that she would be violated on her husband's corpse as if she would have preferred foam rubber.] If performers know they're being watched by someone intelligent and attentive, they're stimulated to behave in a more exciting way." Eyre, however, who went to many of Tynan's famous parties, doesn't think that, on the whole, they deserve their glamorous reputation. There was always, he says, something a bit awkward about them. "Ken's idea of paradise would have been an orgy at which all the guests were famous people. You can't have that. You can have an orgy, or you can have famous people. Not both."

In his portrayal, which was praised by critics in Leeds last year as eerily convincing, Eyre wears a wig, keeps his shoulders tense the way Tynan did, stammers occasionally, and confines his gestures to an elegant few: "He was quite feminine, and very unphysical." Tynan's best-known mannerism, however, created some problems – not for Eyre, but for the audience. The play was inspired, he says, by the Canadian author's hearing, during the interval of a performance of Private Lives, two women complain about the fact that the actors were smoking. Thinking that she had never heard anything so boring, she vowed to write a play in which people smoked all the time. (The play was originally called Emphysema: A Love Story.)

Both Eyre and Thelma Barlow, who plays the aged Louise Brooks, puff away like there's no tomorrow, and patrons have been indignant at the bad example and the health hazard. Eyre, who gave up smoking more than 20 years ago, after a bout of pneumonia, says, "I love it". Holding the cigarettes between his third and fourth fingers, as Tynan did, he smokes nine a show – "that's 18 on matinee days," he points out, with gloomy relish. "Smoking on stage is fabulous – it gives you something to do with your hands, and if a line hasn't gone well, you can blow a lot of smoke about."

Kenneth Tynan and Louise Brooks have become unexpectedly timely since the play's run at Leeds. Last year, Tynan's diaries were published, as was the autobiography of his first wife, the novelist Elaine Dundy, and a season of films by the director G W Pabst has begun at the National Film Theatre. Pabst directed Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora's Box, two films that, in 1929, made Brooks, with her exquisite features and animal grace, into a goddess of wicked delight. In the latter she played Lulu, whom Frank Wedekind, the author of the play on which it was based, called "the personification of primitive sexuality". She was very convincing.

Tynan always adored Brooks. He even went, as her, to a fancy-dress party, in a black bob and Twenties evening gown. In 1979, he wrote a profile of her for The New Yorker that led to her rediscovery, an excellent biography by Barry Paris, and a memoir of her days in silent Hollywood and the Ziegfeld Follies, as mordantly phrased as one would expect from a showgirl who loved Proust.

Last year's books publicised the worst side of Tynan, such as his violence toward his first wife and his penchant for sexual sadism. (Both wives refused to be caned, so Tynan maintained a liaison for many years with a girl who would.) Eyre does not defend Tynan; nor is he surprised or squeamish at matters that were notorious in Tynan's lifetime (he died of emphysema in 1980). "The diaries are very depressing. But I hope they'll answer the critic who said he couldn't see Tynan as melancholy."

As he rightly says, though, they're irrelevant to the play, in which Tynan is seen at his most admirable – using not only his talent but his tenderness to revive the life and career of a woman who had thrown her gifts away. Eyre's only nervousness at taking the role was his worry that the Tynan children might find it in poor taste. But a letter to his younger daughter, Roxana, received the reply: "I love the idea of you being my father."

Tynan's personal flaws, Eyre says, are insignificant beside what will last – his criticism, which is "marvellous reportage. He evokes the performance very strongly, so that people in 100 or 200 years' time will know what it was like to watch Gielgud or Olivier on the stage. And he got people excited about the theatre. He responded to actors who were daring, to the physical rather than the cerebral type of acting. You got from his writing a tremendous feeling of acting as a competitive sport."

Eyre is the cerebral type, in his style and his choice of plays. He did a season many years ago for Jonathan Miller, playing the leading role not only in Hamlet but also in The Seagull and Ghosts. More recently, he was Gustave Flaubert to Irene Worth's George Sand in a play that he adapted from their letters, and Polonius to Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet. In New York, the latter won him a Tony award nomination as "Best Newcomer", which made for a gratifying homecoming.

"I also cast Peter because he's half American," says Giles. "It relates to Tynan's openness, his enthusiasm for all things American." The son of an English mother and an American banker, Eyre was born in New York and lived in several towns on the Eastern Seaboard. He was educated at home after his elderly, old-fashioned father was horrified at the disgusting language his son had picked up in the local school. "I came home saying 'tah-may-to'." At 12 years old, he was sent to public school in England. He has lived here ever since, acting in plays, films, and television programmes that call for a tall, lean-faced man with an air of detachment and quiet distinction, as well as a philosophical wit. He has played Jaques and Edgar twice, Lords Halifax and Hailsham, and Prince Myshkin, a cardinal, a doge, a Roman emperor and The Pope.

Despite his suavity, however, Eyre understands Tynan's vulnerability and emotional helplessness. "I think the author is very true to him. There are moments in the play when Louise Brooks asks him about himself, and he wants to say something, but he can't get it out. I always felt uncomfortable when I was alone with him – I think he was a very shy, nervous man who was only at ease with women." Eyre once saw Tynan express in another way what he couldn't put into words. One night, many years ago, he went to the Talk of the Town night-club to hear Ethel Merman, whose songs went right from her solar plexus to yours. "I saw Ken a few tables away, and when she sang 'This is It', the tears were streaming down his cheeks."

With softness instead of savagery, then, this play may present an atypical Tynan. But it offers the touching romance of a lover and his unattainable ideal. That love may not catch fire, but the air is thick with whispers, insinuation, ghosts. After all, as Franklin Pangborn so memorably observed, where there's smoke, there's... somebody smoking.

'Smoking with Lulu' opens 13 Feb at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7478 0100)

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