The Good, the Bad and the Unknown: Why Top Actors are Not Always the Best Choice
Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), with internationally acclaimed actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings, 300, The Proposition) in the lead role. With a mostly stellar cast, and an intriguing and deceptively intricate set design, I was unsurprised by the few seats that remained empty throughout the show. Adhering to tradition, the play was performed in the time of 1692-93, with relevant costuming and language. However, when the performance ended after 3 hours of running time, I departed with more questions than when I entered. Wenham’s performance, one which usually knocks me out, was distressingly underwhelming. What happened? Such a big name star, especially for Australian audiences, was sure to attract innumerable patrons, and indeed he had – but did every one of those consumers leave utterly satisfied? I struggle to believe that they did, which is unfortunate, because it is obvious that Wenham has the talent and dedication to perfect such a role as John Proctor. To his credit, he achieved some excellent moments, points of light and shade within Proctor, often moments that were pivotal to the narrative, but overall, he gave too little and was given too much.
On some occasions, this is the outcome of having a globally famous actor attached to a smaller-scale project. To young jobbing performers and drama school students in Victoria, the Melbourne Theatre Company is a big deal. To David Wenham, probably a little less. In no way does that mean that he sacrificed any of his capabilities or committed anything less than his whole self, but it does almost certainly mean that audiences expect greater and more stirring things. Even if you take into account that he may be a film and television actor, an artist of that level of versatility should be able to deliver a moving and thought-provoking performance. Sorry Dave, don’t take it personally. Of course, this extends far beyond Mr. Wenham. No matter the amount of fame or level of adaptability, some actors may not just fit right for a particular part. Talent and appropriateness are not synonymous with each other. Some roles are meant to be played by certain performers (see Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man) whereas some characters should be passed on to more caring (and better suited) owners. Additionally, there are always extra reasons as to why a famous actor in a lesser-scale piece may not always be agreeable. They might be taking it on for the wrong reasons, such as for more fame or money (when they’re not in need of it). Their stage presence, or in fact, their ego, may dwarf the other performers and leave them stranded to watch their part in a show slip by. In these cases, the allure of a big-name performer in a locally consumed live project may not be so alluring after all.
Like (almost) always, there are two sides to this argument. Fortunately, I have borne witness to some excellent portrayals by famous actors in live performance pieces. James McAvoy in Macbeth. David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing. Robyn Nevin in every production in Australia this year. Mostly, these actors have been trained in both film and live theatre, so perhaps this is why they excel. Plus, Shakespeare’s titles often attract the masses, due to the never-ending yet still fascinating interpretations that are developed across the globe. The actor’s name works to lure in huge audiences, and their talent and presence ensures a terrific performance. Although The Crucible has been titled ‘a masterpiece of 20th century theatre’, Wenham’s extensive credentials and reputation within the Australian and New Zealand theatre industry surely aided ticket sales. I overheard a man in the foyer ask his wife whether this play “had any magic spells” in it. Another pronounced it “The Croosh-able”. It became evident that not every person in that audience knew the background of the show, let alone had read the original playtext (I envy them). Wenham’s presence was clearly invaluable. I don’t doubt that some patrons came to see the show purely for him, and while that means that the remaining ensemble of actors and core text may have been overlooked, that still means another ticket sold, another seat filled and another thoughtful review. Theatre is as much its audience as it is the individuals involved, and sometimes a dash of star quality is necessary to ensure a sizeable audience and thus a financially successful show.
Usually, famous actors are hired for theatrical performances because they are GOOD, that much is obvious. They have achieved this level of recognition through at least one astounding work and more often than not, this guarantees some level of excellence in future projects. I had desperately hoped this for Wenham. And perhaps he did deliver… just maybe not in the way that I had expected. Despite this, his face across MTC’s advertising clearly attracted several excited audience members to a live production that may have been foreign to them before. They might have even loved it. This, in itself, is delightful. The consumption of theatre, whether one’s presence can be attributed to Kristin Chenoweth’s beautiful visage stamped across billboards, or their simple love of the arts, is to be celebrated and encouraged. While employing famous actors in lesser-scale productions may lead to a few problematic encounters, they also have the power to put people in theatre stalls and evoke enough excitement in them to tell their friends. If globally recognised performers can share something utterly unknown or, even better, completely familiar with an audience, and they still leave with a smile, I’ll drink to that. I might even invite David around for a few.
What do you think? Leave a comment.