Acting style is a bit like plate glass. Look directly through it and it's almost colourless. Look sideways at a slant though, or back in time at the acting style of another period, and you see that it isn't transparent at all. The effect is so pronounced, in fact, that it can be hard to work out what it was that past generations saw in an actor's performance, because we can't see through the medium to the object on the other side. Olivier's finest hour becomes stock material and parody and Garrick's (if we had any means to see it) might well strike us as beyond parody.
Looking aslant it isn't difficult to identify the distinctive colour, either, like the deep green that plate glass will reveal if seen from the right angle. Forties acting appears to us as distinctively florid and rhetorical, even in film, which will usually bend theatrical styles towards greater naturalism. And the acting of earlier periods would seem almost intolerably hammy and forced.
When you see a page of illustrations detailing the arm positions to be adopted to suit certain emotional states you know that the semaphoring of human feeling has undergone pretty substantial evolutionary change in just a few century.
That raises a question, though. What is it that's invisible to us about contemporary acting styles that will look unmissably odd to people in a hundred years time? That this will happen is surely undeniable. To believe otherwise would be to claim exemption from a process that has spared no previous generation, all of them steadily carried away from normality by the conveyor belt of history. And I'm not talking about the kinds of things that we can see now, those little flecks in the glass that mark out the styles of individual actors or particular approaches. What I'm curious about is the assumptions we make about the plausible that will appear anything but obvious to the audiences that follow us. Plausibility, I'd just note, is not necessarily the same thing as truth, just an assembly of affects that persuades us that it's true. And I think one strong candidate would be the affectless, underplayed style of much modern acting.
It's a branch of minimalism I guess, the belief that less is more being confirmed, as film technology and clarity improves, by the fact that less really is. Gestures and expressions needed to be pretty broad in the silent era to register on the film stock at all. Little chance then of catching a vein pulsing on a temple or a jaw muscle clenching imperceptibly, even if directors were adept at finding ways to make small gestures read large.
But now actors can expend a lot of their energies on concealing emotions, with a reasonable degree of confidence that they'll escape anyway. Watch Olivia Colman's wonderful performance in Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur (not an affect-less kind of acting in any sense) and you will find yourself watching a woman trying desperately not to give too much away, whether it's fear or pain. In an earlier age it might have looked bizarrely restrained, given the narrative of the film. But now it just looks truthful to us, in part because we've been tutored to look a little more closely.
The knowledge that we have, as well as that in a certain type of film (I'm not talking about Hollywood blockbusters) the audience will be projecting parts of the film along with the projector, means that it's increasingly likely that an actor will turn down the volume to make us lean in. So Will Ferrell, playing an alcoholic salesman having the worst day of his life in Everything Must Go, does almost nothing, putting up a façade behind which we're convinced the despair is hiding. And Tilda Swinton, in We Need To Talk About Kevin, never screams or wails or "acts out", as the phrase has it. She acts in, not quite the mask of grief from Greek theatre, but something more numb and more anaesthetised, as if the expressive muscles have been exhausted by how much she's been through. She's beyond even the acting we all do every day, slapping on a quick social smile or grimacing conspiratorially with fellow workers.
And this dovetails perfectly with our current notion of what good acting is, which is an ostentatious terror of being caught acting at all. Seen from this angle it looks a lot like truth right now, but I'm willing to bet it won't always.
Ironing-board dramas were a step too far
After watching Edward Bond's Saved the other night I found myself wondering why it was that the kitchen sink got the job of epitomising the domestic realism of the early Sixties. After all, it was the ironing board that really startled Look Back in Anger's first audience at the Royal Court and there was another ironing board here, a very manageable prop for any writer seeking to get away from french-window, drawing room theatre. So why not Ironing Board Theatre? The answer turns out to be straightforward – the art critic David Sylvester really started things off with a 1954 essay about British painting called "The Kitchen Sink" (a reference to a John Bratby painting) so plumbing already had a following wind when it came to the symbolism of squalid realism (along with grit, of course, which had been associated with hard facts since at least the late 19th century). I think there may be two other explanations though. The first would be that kitchen sinks already had a proverbial role in the language (as in "everything but the kitchen sink") so a psycho-linguistic path had already been traced out. The second would be that ironing-boards were just a step too far. I got very excited, when trying to find out whether Bratby had ever painted an ironing board, to find this question in a search return: "In what year did John Bratby paint Lord Goodman naked on an ironing board?". Sadly, it turned out to be a brilliant Craig Brown conceit. If only Bratby had, though. One of our cultural cliches could so easily have been different.
Tacita explores a different path
Talking about her new Unilever installation at Tate Modern recently, Tacita Dean told a journalist that analogue film was as important a medium to her as certain kinds of canvas and paint would be for a painter. Her installation Film is a rear-guard action against the stealthy advance of digital film-making, but she accepts that she's probably in a losing battle, given the commercial realities. And if analogue film does finally go, she said, "I might go back to oil-painting. Or write a novel." Reading this remark I don't think I felt what I was supposed to. I didn't think "Goodness... that would be a tragedy... as if they'd run out of marble before Michelangelo got round to producing David". I thought, a little greedily, "That would be interesting". Not entirely sure about the novel, actually, since there's not much in the way of previous track record. But judging from Dean's earlier works, in particular a series called "The Roaring Forties" (seven chalk-drawings on blackboard) she might do something wonderful in oils. There are good reasons for the working assumption that artists always know what is best for them (and by extension art). And when you read Dean's essay about her Tate installation she makes a decent case for the virtues of film. But might there not be times when a roadblock on your chosen path leads to a more interesting detour?