What makes a great actor? There are theories – Stanislavski and the method, Brechtian alienation, classical acting or know-your-lines-and-don’t-bump-into-the-furniture (Spencer Tracy). Unlike other aspects of theatre – script, design, lighting and sound – it’s hard to define superb acting. Maybe the best guide is by illustration. You know it when you see it. And feel it.
I’ve watched 3 performances recently, each a stellar example of astoundingly good acting.
Multiple award winning actress Jodie Comer
Prima Facie is a new play by Suzie Miller. It ran at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London and was live-streamed to cinemas globally in July. I saw a recording of that screening, via NTLive, at the Grosvenor Picture House, Glasgow in August.
Jodie Comer’s interpretation is the most powerful one-person show I’ve ever seen. Technically it’s a marathon of control, energy, focus and stamina for 100 unbroken minutes. She creates a host of people – cocky witnesses, legal colleagues and students, friends, posh lawyers, jurors, police officers, a barrister who becomes a rape victim, her mum and brother – switching coolly and swiftly from one to another.
But a one-person show doesn’t do it justice. Her use of body and voice to inhabit each different character as they interact is so adept, you forget there’s just one woman on stage. We know from her Villanelle in Killing Eve that Comer is a versatile mimic. Here she goes deeper, peopling the story with layers of distinctive attitudes and perspectives. It’s a brilliant performance. NTLive may well show it again so catch it if you can.
Sean Bean; protector of Hobbits, and Napoleonic nemesis
Another bout of acting brilliance comes from Sean Bean – early career at the Citizens’, in the BBC four-parter, Marriage. I hesitate to praise the programme since I recommended it to a friend who says she’ll lock me in a cupboard for four hours as payback for the time she wasted watching nothing happen.
True, Marriage is a bit like one of those French movies – long, dialogue-free shots of people standing still or doing mundane tasks, with no music. If you played a drinking game of a swig each time the dishwasher gets silently loaded, you’d soon be loaded too.
In fact, quite a lot happens over the piece, but it’s not big on narrative thrust. It’s mostly a tender yet piercing observation of human beings desperately clinging on to life and each other. Within this, Bean’s portrayal of a broken, bewildered husband is exquisitely sad.
He uses his incredible hulk of a body to convey his confusion and upset. He hovers awkwardly, not knowing what to do or say, his lined face a contortion of pain and love.
It’s a remarkable spell of taut, measured acting that cuts through to your soul. I can see how it might all seem unbearable, but that’s the point.
Cannes Film Festival and Academy Award winner Bette Davis
My third instance of a heart-wrenching depiction of a character comes from the recent BBC2 showings of Bette Davis films, specifically her performance as Charlotte Vale in Now Voyager.
Again, it’s neither fast nor cheerful. Yet it cuts through like a knife, thanks to Davis’ flawless possession of the role: a woman, abused, fights to emerge into the world to find love and happiness. Like all great actors, her technical abilities – utter command of body, voice and facial expression, a limitless grasp of character and plot – are at their peak.
But she gives something more – not just inhabiting the role, but knowing, instinctively or otherwise, how to connect with the audience to make us feel every iota of pain, longing and joy. I’m intrigued, ignorant of how exactly she does it, but by the time she utters the final words – “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” – she’s reduced me, at least, to a sobbing wreck!
Honourable mentions for the smaller screen
Finally, a couple of other gems of fantastic screen performances currently available – both stronger for being a double-act between two great actors. Marriage writer/director Stefan Golaszewski also created Mum (available on BBC iPlayer), a comedy about a widow and her family. As Cathy, Lesley Manville is sensational; a beautifully underplayed depiction of an older woman beset by son, brother, their partners and hilariously eccentric parents-in-law. But it goes to a higher level when Manville is joined by Peter Mullan – Scottish accent used to great comic effect – as her would-be new partner. The will they/won’t they tension is unbearably poignant thanks to their stunningly smart performances, mostly unspoken, as they play off each other – heart-breaking and funny at the same time.
The other fabulous pairing is in Endeavour (ITV3 is currently working its way through past episodes and a final, ninth series is being filmed right now), the prequel to Inspector Morse. The rapport between young brainbox Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) and hardened warhorse, Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) is magnificent. It’s as much a reason to watch as the operatic plots. Once more, the relationship is enriched by a tacit synergy; Evans’s muted show of Endeavour’s unrequited love for Thursday’s absent daughter is echoed by Allam’s subtle rock of a desolate father, doomed to keep quiet and soldier on.
What makes some actors great is not just their own abilities, but also the capacity to engage with the audience. Selflessly – instinctively perhaps – they show us that the whole thing – performing and watching – is a shared experience.
[ed: This article was originally published on Stage West and is reprinted with permission of the author]