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Don't give up the day job: An Evening With Al Pacino at the London Palladium

The great actor can play any part except himself, on the evidence of this performance

Sunday night at the London Palladium used to be hosted by Bruce Forsyth or Jimmy Tarbuck. This Sunday, and for one night only, the great Al Pacino trod, or rather, slid across, the hallowed boards and talked about himself. Emma Freud was a tame, charming and rightly subservient interlocutor.

But, oh my goodness, how tedious and self-serving this was. Why should someone as brilliant as Pacino – the ultimate “real” actor, the most remarkable Lee Strasberg New York "method" actor since Marlon Brando (his hero), subject himself to this process? Not for a quick mega-buck, surely?  Or was it a renewed hallo?

I last saw Pacino on stage three years ago in New York as Shylock in a brilliant production of The Merchant of Venice – after being defeated in the courtroom, he was stripped of his faith, and his lands, in an interpolated scene of shocking violence, re-wired immediately into his great stage performances in the plays of the two New York Davids, Rabe and Mamet.

And this was his first appearance in London since a mesmerising performance in Mamet’s American Buffalo at the Duke of York’s in 1984, when he splattered the front stalls with a tirade of rhythmically fantastic and outrageous expletives

In a Palladium audience of fans, friends and devoted admirers – including Barbara Windsor, Steven Berkoff, Paul O’Grady, Beverley Knight and Mark Rylance – Pacino felt easy about saying that he didn’t envy the career of Robert De Niro and that he loved working on his film about looking for Richard III with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Spacey and John Gielgud.

“Whenever I get on stage I get the urge to act,” he said, like a kid with a problem, not thrown one jot even by Emma Freud’s submission that she would like to lick his face.

There’s a Pacino King Lear in pre-production, and he’s planning to play Iago quite soon. Obsessiveness is the key here. American Buffalo bugged him for ten years, and he mentioned all the off-Broadway groups like the Living Theatre who defined his career when he fetched up in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s

We applauded the chosen clips from Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Scarface and the rest, and we marvelled out how this ordinary guy, baby faced with a doe-eyed leaning to violence, has become a defining actor, and a great one, for our times. 

He sat back pleasantly in his chair as we watched the interview, and the clips, on the big screen above the stage. No way that we weren’t going to love this guy, and Emma wasn’t about to put a spanner in the works by asking, for instance, how was he changed by his mother walking out on him when he was three?

I imagine this must have made a big difference to his personality, and his acting, which is real beyond real, as natural as breathing. He pleased his fans mightily at the Palladium last night, but he retained his mystery, and his magic.

I once interviewed Pacino myself in Montreal, when he was chasing down Richard III at a Robert Lepage production of Coriolanus. He came through my row, trod on my foot and said he was ugh, sorry, hi, you know,  hello and goodbye,

It was the coolest interview ever, and so it was with Emma last night: he said an awful lot without giving anything away, which is probably the secret of great acting anyway. And nothing Pacino did or said last night would put you off wanting so see him on the stage again very soon, in a proper role more interesting than himself,  As soon as possible, please.