A couple of weeks ago when I was in Vienna, attending a congress celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Burgtheater’s current home, an utterly over-the-top theatre palace and one of the reputed hallowed sites of German-language performance arts, I picked up a substantial, glossy volume published by a theatre scholar in collaboration with the Burgtheater. The book portrays six actors it identifies as the “New Generation” of Burg stars — a group widely regarded as the newly established leading performers in the ensemble, and therefore by (self-)definition, among the most accomplished actors anywhere in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland. The oldest of this group of actors was 38 when the book came out; the youngest, 29. All six were a member of a major ensemble by the time they were 23. All six had played a major dramatic lead in a high-profile venue by the time they were 25.
That’s not unusual at all in German theatre, of course. The Romeo and Juliet that premiered at the Schaubuehne in Berlin last season had a Juliet who was finishing up theatre school. The Juliet in the production of the play I saw in Frankfurt this past summer, by contrast, already had a full five years of experience under her belt when the staging premiered. But that’s the paradise that is German theatre. Right?
Not so much. In London this year, I saw an actor two years out of theatre school in Gorky’s Children of the Sun at the National Theatre; a Desdemona in the NT’s Othello who, at 25, played that female lead in her first appearance in an NT production; and a 25-year-old Cassio with a long list of previous theatrical credits to his name (including at the RSC and in the West End). And the older actors in the casts had started at least as young. Justine Mitchell in Children of the Sun, for instance, was playing award-winning leading roles at the Gate and Abbey Theatres in Dublin by the time she was 24.
The UK, helpfully, has a major prize dedicated to rewarding “the best classical stage performances in Britain by actors aged under 30,” the Ian Charleson Award. The list of past winners and nominees is a fascinating and enlightening read. To cherry-pick a few examples:
– Rory Kinnear, 26 when was nominated for Laertes in 2004 (his second nomination). By the time he was 29, he was playing multiple leads at the National Theatre
– Rupert Penry-Jones, 29, in the title-role in Schiller’s Don Carlos at the RSC
– Hattie Morahan, Iphigenia at the National Theatre at 26
– Tom Hiddleston, playing both Cloten and Posthumous in Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline at 26
Those are the older ones! How about…
– Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Romeo at the National Theatre, at 23
– Ben Whishaw, as Hamlet at the Old Vic, at 24
– Hayley Atwell, playing Bianca in Women Beware Women at the RSC at 24 and the title role in Major Barbara at the NT at 26
– Rebecca Hall, Vivie in Mrs Warren’s Profession when she was 20, and Rosalind in As You Like It, among other major roles, the next year — though admittedly both productions were directed by her father
It’s not just Germany and Austria — the major British theatres are just as likely to entrust major parts, even title roles, to actors barely out of training. By the time performers reach their 30s, they are unquestionable leading men and women, in the prime of their range (Kinnear has played both Hamlet and Iago on the biggest stages — he’s 35. Hiddleston’s about to tackle Coriolanus, at 32; 34-year-old Morahan has been collecting awards for her Nora at the Young Vic; Ejiofor was a celebrated Othello at the Donmar at 30).
Romeo and Juliet makes for an interesting test case. Romeos tend to be older than Juliets, but it’s rare for either of them to be in their 30s, for obvious reasons: it’s a play about immature people, not about characters getting ready to settle down into their impending middle age. The RSC’s most recent version from 2010 is an outlier with its 33-year-old Romeo and a 30-year-old Juliet (Sam Troughton, a three time Charleson nominee in 2000, 2001, and 2002; and Mariah Gale, the 2005 Charleson winner). Before that, here’s how old Royal Shakespeare Company star-crossed lovers have been over the past 30 years or so:
2008: Romeo 26, Juliet 22
2006: Romeo 29, Juliet 27
2000: Romeo 29, Juliet 31 (Alexandra Gilbreath, a Charleson-winning Hedda Gabler four years earlier at 27)
1995: Romeo 25, Juliet 23
1989: Romeo 29, Juliet 23
1986: Romeo 27, Juliet 27
One more: the Globe’s 2009 production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, featuring 25-year old Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo (who played Macbeth in a stripped-down version at the National Theatre that same year) and the 19-year old Ellie Kendrick, pre-Game of Thrones and about to start her English BA at Cambridge at the time.
And then there’s this. Romeo and Juliet, Stratford Festival, 2013: Romeo: 28; Juliet: 37.
As far as I can tell — and I didn’t do an exhaustive search — the number of actors younger than 30 in the non-musical-theatre company at Stratford last season could be counted on the fingers of two hands; and that’s being generous. Daniele Briere’s Romeo was easily the biggest role one of those actors got to play, with Bethany Jillard’s Desdemona close on his heels. Sara Farb was allowed to be a 26-year-old Jessica in Merchant. But that’s pretty much it for reasonably weighty roles.
And next season is even worse. It’s the announcement of major casting decision that came out the other day that prompted this post. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the youngest of the four lovers is pushing 30. Lysander may imagine that his sudden love for Helena is a sign of his new-found maturity, but I wonder if Shakespeare had quite such a late bloom in mind.
Let me be quick to qualify all that: can I imagine a production of Dream with a quartet of lovers approaching middle-age? Of course — I even think such a production might be interesting. But it’s a huge departure from the text. What would be interesting about such a production is just how radically it would have to reimagine the play to accommodate its cast. With all due respect for the good work that’s been happening at Stratford lately, I find it hard to believe the company’s ready for this sort of radicalism, and there’s nothing in the press release to suggest that that’s what they had in mind in casting the play as they did.
Secondly, none of my objections have anything to do with the actors as such. To the extent that I’m familiar with their work, I admire many of them. That doesn’t mean, though, that I understand why people my age are being cast as characters in their early twenties, or even as teenagers. Not that I want to insist on a facile naturalist paradigm — obviously. Of course there is pleasure to be found in seeing an older actor play a young character. To my mind, that pleasure kind of depends on an acting style not generally favoured around here, but in principle, I don’t think a character’s and an actor’s age need to correspond. But that cuts both ways: if an actor older than 40 can play a young girl, a young girl should also be allowed to try her hand at Cleopatra, or at Queen Margaret. If theatricality can justify one kind of mismatched age, it can just as easily justify the other. (Historically, after all, Burbage may have played King Lear and Hamlet at the same time, but Cleopatra was also played by a youth.)
Thirdly, this isn’t about Stratford in the end. It’s about all of our major theatres. And it’s about a mindset.
That mindset is most obvious in reviews. Richard Ouzounian is kind of its poster child. There is nothing that Ouzounian feels as entitled to destroy, with great panache and frankly disturbing brutality, as a “young” actor; and nothing he loves quite as much as an actor who reliably delivers the same kind of performance he’s treasured for decades. His review of the Stratford Romeo and Juliet is a perfect illustration. Youth is inherently suspect. And it lasts for a very long time. It seems to take forever for our critics to file actors as established figures, as no longer in the beginning stages of their careers. Here’s Robert Cushman, writing about two of Toronto’s most prolific and omnipresent actors of recent years: “[Maev] Beaty and [Michelle] Monteith have been the two most exciting young actresses in Toronto for some years now, and it’s good to see them being widely recognized.” I don’t disagree with Cushman’s praise or his appreciation. These are wonderful actors. But they’re also well-established stalwarts of the Toronto theatre scene — or at least that’s how they should be seen. And frankly, they’re mid-career actors, not the newcomers that Cushman’s description makes them resemble. Michelle Monteith played Ophelia almost a decade ago.
My point is not that it’s inappropriate to describe actors in their mid-30s as “young.” I suspect they wouldn’t mind the epithet. It’s that the sense of long-lasting emergence into public recognition bespeaks a much bigger problem. Neither of these performers is in any reasonable sense an “emerging artist” anymore. At this stage of their careers, both of them, or any actor of similar standing, ought to be cast in grown-up leading roles. These are the performers about whom German theatre scholars would be writing books. In Britain, they’d be headlining productions at the NT, the RSC, and the Donmar. (That Maev Beaty is playing Goneril at Stratford next season is good to hear. For my money, I would have loved to see her and Michelle Monteith as Elizabeth and Mary in last season’s Maria Stuart instead — or someone like Trish Lindström, for that matter, which would free up the parts of girls such as Miranda or Alice [in Wonderland] for actors closer in age to, well, girls.)
Instead, what seems to be happening at almost all of our major theatres is that no actors get cast in any roles of any substance before their mid-twenties. And virtually nobody gets to play marquee roles before their late thirties. And that is a huge problem. It’s a massive ethical problem: we’re basically asking young actors to bide their time for a decade or more, and if they somehow manage to survive, artistically and financially, we’ll reward them with a minor Shakespeare part, or a part ten to fifteen years out of their range. It’s an even bigger problem in terms of training, as younger actors are taught over and again to play minor roles, to integrate themselves into the company, to make safe and conformist choices, to produce something already established and recognized as quality work rather than to develop and reimagine their craft in new and unexpected ways.
Most troublingly, it’s an enormous problem for our theatre as a progressive art form. For one thing, our casting practices bespeak the central weakness of Canadian theatre: the preference for safety, for respectability, for reliability over exciting, challenging, demanding, and yes, unfinished, provisional, and ground-breaking work. Casting an established, experienced, and well-known actor in his 30s in the part of a teenager may be wrong in all sorts of ways, but it’s a safe choice: you know what you’re going to get from that actor (and Richard Ouzounian won’t be mean to him). Casting a guy straight out of theatre school, a guy with one or two shows to his name and who’s never performed on a big stage before as Hamlet may be a gigantic gamble, but if that someone turns out to be Ben Whishaw or Chiwetel Ejiofor — well, then you not only have a big hit on your hands, you’ve also set a young actor up for a great career, and a career that doesn’t only begin in earnest, if at all, in the actor’s 30s. More importantly, the success of such a show will depend on precisely the raw, unpredictable, uncertain quality of the inexperienced actor. It will have to embrace risk as a core principle. That may be scary, but it’s also totally unavoidable if you’re after fresh and revelatory work. And most importantly, giving young actors key roles in plays with major young characters is the only way to establish a company that doesn’t simply reaffirm a paternalistic tradition.
Theatre is an art that depends, almost uniquely, on the past and the present, tradition and innovation, convention and revolution, age and youth, in more or less equal measure. So my cri de coeur on behalf of youth here isn’t meant as an ageist attack on older actors. Far from it. Any functioning ensemble needs older, even seriously old actors and the experience, wisdom, or recalcitrance they bring to their work. You need a central generation of actors in whose work knowledge and innocence find a balance. But you absolutely need a young generation that’s allowed to do more than carry spears or play one-scene parts. Hamlet is a very different play if the lead is so green that he has no idea what the “proper” way of doing things is — and that innocent impropriety, that raw energy, may just pull the rest of the cast with it, persuade or force them to depart from their accustomed choices. It may force the director’s hand in all sorts of interesting — or at least unpredictable — ways. But if our theatre is to succeed in negotiating the conflicts between conventionality and innovation, between then and now, between one way of thinking about text and character and movement and another, well, then both sides of that productive struggle need to share authority and access. Theatre needs the young, the middle aged, and the old; and sometimes, theatre needs to let the young take charge. And that’s not just true for a particular show. That’s true for the entire system. Because if young actors don’t learn that it pays to be adventurous, that it’s not just exciting but necessary to take risks, then they won’t be able to carry that mildly revolutionary ethos forward, in tempered form, into their middle years; and then “the way things are done” won’t just be a nostalgic fantasy in their old age, but a depressing reality.
Theatre needs youth, on stage and in the audience. Not instead of middle and old age, but as well as those. Theatre is an art of the now, and an art that constantly has to reinvent itself. Speaking as a middle aged person, the now isn’t quite as present for me as it was ten years ago, and my desire to reinvent myself is severely mitigated by my desire for stability. Which is to say, if I’m even vaguely representative of people my age, you can’t — theatre can’t — rely on actors and directors in their 40s and 50s for impulses. Theatre needs the spark of youth. It needs youth to deliver reliably rebellious buttkicks. It needs the irritant of youth and its ability to shift perspectives. It must take the young seriously, and it must sometimes put them in power. Otherwise, it’s doomed to stability. And stability, in the theatre, is death.
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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
- Three Sisters (Chekhov/Stone; dir. Simon Stone) Theater Basel/Theatertreffen, May 2017
- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Robert Icke) Almeida, London; Mar. 2017
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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