Rhoda Koenig: Where are the stage's great voices?

Dame Judi is right: young actors are less willing to study and serve

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In her youth she was the greatest Lady Macbeth of her generation. Now, at 74, Dame Judi Dench puts one in mind of the name part in The Taming of the Shrew. Earlier this year she berated a reviewer for disliking her in Madame de Sade, saying, "I'm only sorry I didn't get a chance to kick you."

She has now denounced young actors as ignorant of the "fantastic heritage of theatre" in this country, uninterested in learning from their elders and caring only about quick success, in films rather than theatre.

Rupert Goold, 37, who recently directed the best Macbeth since the Trevor Nunn production in which Dench appeared in 1976, accused Dench of "a caution that strangles theatre". He says actors and directors are frustrated because "most of the audience is middle-aged, the critics are middle-aged." Young actors are also "physically better" than actors of the past.

Is this, then, a question of an old lioness resentfully snapping at a vigorous young cub? Some may think so, but those in a position to compare the work and attitudes of generations will not be impressed with Goold's case.

For one thing, youth is not often as youthful as it thinks. Last year Goold staged The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a play about Christianity full of profanity and comic anachronisms that took this middle-aged critic back to the old days when young audiences first squealed with excitement at such daring. The play was as silly and self-indulgent as its forebears, and Goold, like the directors busting a gut to be new decades ago, also came across as smug rather than shocking.

For another, Goold's actors may be fit, but he knows we come to the theatre to hear them speak, and he is old enough, even at his age, to know that standards have slipped. Rich, full voices are heard less and less on the stage, and many actors do not know their native tongue well enough to keep from mispronouncing words or speaking them with incomprehension. (When was the last time you heard a Romeo who knew that his beloved's name had two syllables, not three?) They do not know the history of their own country, much less of the theatre, and they are often puzzled and resentful when knowledge is expected of them. A director friend told me a few years ago that a young, talented actor, about to speak a line in which his character referred to Proust, asked, "Who's Proust?" What struck us was not just the actor's ignorance but his lack of any fear that he might be embarrassing himself by confessing it.

Young actors may have the ability of actors of the past, but they are less willing to study and serve. Yet, as Herr Klesmer tells the pretentious heroine of Daniel Deronda, greatness on the stage is possible only for those who are "framed to love perfection and to labour for it; ready, like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say, I am not yet worthy, but she – Art, my mistress – is worthy, and I will live to merit her." Such humility is not cultivated in our world of self-esteem and quick success – a success determined by money and fame. Dame Judi may be old, but her ideals are ageless.

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