Critical Comment: Small is big

We live in a star-gazing society. We worship celebrity. We zealously seek the opinions of the famous. And virtually the only way for a straight play to succeed in the West End is for it to come encrusted with big names. But while I accept this as a reality, I should like to put in a plea for supporting players: for the actors who get relegated to the foot of the reviews, if they are mentioned at all, and yet who are often the key to a production’s success.
“There are no small parts, there are only small actors.” That was one of the aphorisms coined by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko when they were setting up the Moscow Art Theatre. What they meant was clear: that every role demands attention and that plays should be conceived and cast democratically rather than hierarchically. They were fortunate in having Anton Chekhov as their virtual house-dramatist. In his plays – as in his short stories – every single character fulfils a vital function.

It was Ian Rickson’s Royal Court production of The Seagull that recently highlighted for me the strength and depth of British acting. Kristin Scott Thomas, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Crook dominated the reviews. Yet I’d argue that it was the rich-textured work of the supporting cast that made the production work. You saw this in the opening moments when Katherine Parkinson’s Masha scooped up Konstantin’s discarded notes as if they were holy relics. So besotted was she that Pearce Quigley as Medvedenko was even interrupted in his delivery of the famous first line, “Why do you always wear black?” Here was superb acting from two relatively young players.

Peter Wight and Paul Jesson, playing Sorin and Shamrayev, have been around much longer, and what is conspicuous is the weight they bring to their roles. Wight exposed the rage and desolation of a sixtysomething who feels he has never lived. Jesson was equally remarkable. I’d never seen so clearly Shamrayev’s oscillations between the provincial theatre-nut avid for all the latest green-room gossip and the bullying estate manager who lords it over Arkadina. This was the kind of acting one associates with the Moscow Art Theatre at its peak.

But what is a supporting role? Every year I help to judge the Clarence Derwent Awards which Equity gives to the best male and female supporting performances. Annually the judges are faced with the same dilemma: do an outstanding Judge Brack or Ophelia, let’s say, qualify for the award? I was thinking of this recently while watching another brilliant Chekhov performance: that of Philip Voss as the professor in a revival of Uncle Vanya at Wilton’s Music Hall. Technically, Vanya and Astrov are the lead roles. But Voss, in showing how a life of academic fame can end in querulous impotence, made Serebryakov the play’s most compelling figure. There was a moment at the end, when Voss’ professor urged the fatigue-broken figures on the estate to work, that brought tears to my eyes.

Between them Equity, the Oliviers and’s Theatregoers’ Choice, awards acknowledge supporting players. Yet I still have a nagging feeling that not enough attention is paid to the actors who never get the star curtain-call and yet who are decisive in determining a show’s success or sometimes compensating for its defects.

I seem to be a minority of one in finding Nicholas Hytner’s updated Man of Mode at the National trendily superficial, but I was cheered by a handful of performances: not just Rory Kinnear as the show-stealing Sir Fopling Flutter but by Bertie Carvel as the kind of camp parasite lotharios often attract and by Madhav Sharma as a portly speculator unable to keep his roving hands off his son’s lover.

In Shakespeare too, intelligent actors are constantly illuminating once supposedly minor roles. Amanda Harris, in Dominic Cooke’s RSC As You Like It, suddenly made me aware that Celia is just as smitten with Orlando as Rosalind and spends much of the rest of play in a state of simmering resentment. Richard Cordery in the current Stratford Richard III also suggests that Buckingham is not just Gloucester’s sidekick but a man with his own ambitious agenda. And, wonderful as Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter were in the recent Antony and Cleopatra, I was struck by John Hopkins’ re-invention of Octavius as a quivering psychological wreck incestuously fixated on his sister.

I am not denying the magnetism of star performers. But, as critics and theatregoers, we too often ignore the vitality and skill of actors whose names may not appear above the title. If memory serves, there’s a moment in My Little Chicadee when WC Fields as a railway-car attendant strolls through the compartment announcing “Next stop Hollywood. Home to the stars – and also featured players.” It’s high time we paid tribute to our own band of non-star players who are the key to our theatre’s quality.

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