David Lister: Is Dench 'better' than Olivier? How can you even ask?

The Week in Arts
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The Independent Online

Comparisons, as Mrs Malaprop said, are odorous. But that does not stop a league table of "greatest ever" something or other from being published or broadcast every week.

The latest league table is for actors. Some of the great and the good of British theatre have got together to draw up a list of the 10 best stage actors, male and female, for The Stage newspaper to put to its readers.

The readers will then vote on the "greatest stage actor of all time". As a first step, a group of highly estimable theatricals, including the former head of the National Theatre, Sir Richard Eyre, West End producer Thelma Holt and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, have named their top 10. They are: Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellen, Michael Gambon and Mark Rylance.

I have a few problems with the list. First, I think that comparing actors with actresses is nigh impossible. Judi Dench simply has not had the chance to play Hamlet or Othello, so I find it hard to decide how she would match up to Olivier or Gielgud in the roles. And then, of course, there are the errors and omissions. Laurence Olivier, who would be my first choice, had amazing stage presence. One of the few stage actors I have seen with stage presence to mention in the same breath is Simon Russell Beale. Yet he does not even make the cut. The omission of the late Peggy Ashcroft must also have been a clerical error.

Then there is the problem which afflicts all "greatest ever" exercises. We tend, not unnaturally, to go for what we can remember. There are many theatregoers who can recall seeing Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud on stage, but none who was alive to see Garrick, Irving or Burbage. Greatest ever is never actually greatest ever. It is "greatest that I have seen". Be it best actor, best TV programmes or best band, greatest of all time always ends up meaning greatest of my time.

But there is a bigger problem in playing the game of "greatest of all time". How do you compare performers from different eras? Sir Peter Hall tells a story of how he had always thought Garbo the most understated actress. Then recently he saw an old film of hers, Queen Christina, on TV, and to his amazement she was suddenly overacting. Styles of acting change with each generation, so much so that Garbo can indeed appear to have changed her own style once we have become accustomed to far more understated performances than she ever gave.

It is because styles of acting change that comparing actors from different eras is a little pointless. Trying to decide whether Mark Rylance would have upstaged John Gielgud is as fraught an exercise as wondering whether Roger Federer would have beaten Rod Laver, or George Best would have outplayed Lionel Messi. We will never know.

A lesson in dreadful film marketing

Why do some of the greatest films have the most awful tag lines? Those supposedly titillating one-liners on the film posters often bear no relation to the tone or even theme of the movie. Yet producers or distributors continue to feel it necessary to market a movie with an utterly inappropriate line. This week I saw the wonderful film Winter's Bone, an intense and enthralling story set in the American Midwest with a mesmerising performance from 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, which is a cert for an Oscar nomination. It has elements of a thriller, but is just as much a study in rural life among the poor and dispossessed.

The next morning I saw a poster for Winter's Bone with the tag line "Talking Just Causes Witnesses". Who on earth was responsible for this clunky, barely grammatical teaser, unlikely to tease anyone into a cinema? I suspect it wasn't anyone who had actually seen the film.

Stick to the day job, Mr Wallinger

I'm not a fan of the arts community opposing the spending cuts by simply opposing the spending cuts. It is more productive to come up with some constructive ways in which money can be raised and the arts run more efficiently.

But I did enjoy artist Mark Wallinger's way of drawing attention to the cuts this week. He took a version of Turner's famous painting The Fighting Temeraire, slashed a quarter of the canvas and pasted over it the words "25% cut".

I liked that. But then Wallinger tried his luck as a comedian, adding: "I describe the cuts as a reckless adventure. In fact, téméraire means reckless in French, and by removing the obsolete ship from the scene I am rendering the painting wreckless."

Wallinger is a fascinating artist, but he shouldn't give up the day job.