Classic Ellis: On Acting, 2001

‘Dreaming to order’ was how Ralph Richardson described acting, and that’s about right I think. To be, once a night, for an hour or so, someone else. To have his gait and voice and priorities, to dance or twitch to his inner music, to share his fate, his fall, his last grim howls before witnessing strangers and, worse, old friends. To filter that other person through your veins and larynx, to know him often better than yourself and to ‘give’ – the verb that actors use – your Hamlet, your Willy Loman, your Homer Simpson, or whatever, to the world. To do that is to be seized, possessed, self-mesmerised, channelling, and yet at play, and giving delight. There’s nothing like it. It’s as good, some nights, as being suddenly in love.

This all came back to me when I was asked to play the role of Puck, this week, by the Bell Shakespeare Company. ‘But isn’t Puck a kind of…grasshopper?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t leap about at my age and weight.’ ‘No, no, no,’ said the implacable German lady director, ‘This Puck is fat and somnolent, and always enters dragging his chair behind him. Then he sits on it.’ This convinced me, and voicing certain calendar constraints, I said I’d audition.

And then I realised it was forty years ago, to the week, when I first saw John Bell on stage, at the Wallace Theatre, at Sydney University. He was in the spry young Robert Hughes’ portentous verse play Dead Men Walking (‘Hamlet meets 1984,’ sneered Clive James in honi soit), and I witnessed a thin pale nervous boy I knew from tutorials transformed into this arresting heroic presence, and I felt, even then, history moving. And it was only three weeks ago, I realised, that I saw his James Tyrone – a grandiose, proud (‘I never missed a performance’), pound-foolish old actor-manager – in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and the continuity was amazing from the one to the other (and his Coriolanuses – Coriolani? – of 1964 and 1996, for I saw both) and of course I said yes to Puck. It will cost me money, but there’s nothing like it.

I was last in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1956 and ‘gave’ in the school assembly hall a good loud blustery Bottom I am told – the character is himself a incompetent ham – and acted last with Bell in 1961 in the play that opened what is now the Footbridge Theatre, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, a production also starring Richard Walsh, Mungo McCallum, Arthur Dignam, Bruce Beresford, John Gaden, and a young law student called Brian Donovan, whom I so terrified with my (scripted) bayonet lunge at him that he hurled himself off the stage and ran from the theatre screaming. ‘It was the look in your eyes,’ he said later, over coffee. I was the Fool in a Lear to Bell’s Gloucester, and in Twelfth Night watched as the Second Officer (Bruce Beresford, erect and clear-hearted, was the First Officer, and plainly outshone me) John Bell’s astonishing Malvolio in 1960. His face nearly purple, his neck veins throbbing, his voice shredding, he bayed in his final anguish, ‘I’ll be revenged…on the whole p-p-pack of you!’ This was my first appearance on the Sydney stage. I later appeared as a blue-eyed negro slave in South, an emaciated Egyptian slave in a verse play by Fry about Moses (my thinness and wide shoulders, my wife said, made me look exactly like a hieroglyph), a shrewd old butler in Travellers Without Luggage (by Anouilh, with Arthur Dignam), the wise old Petey in The Birthday Party, the first Australian sighting of Pinter, the third Tempter in Murder in the Cathedral, and so on. And several roles in a revue that Clive James wrote and directed, one of them a send-up of Louis Fiander, whom I first met only a year ago, and he complimented me on my imitation of him thirty-six years before, his tone pretty icy, I thought.

I love these continuities, the way real actors do. I acted first with Arthur Dignam in 1960 and last in 1998 and directed him on film in 1960 and 1991 and am writing him now a one man show on Phillip Larkin. I co-wrote, and Bell directed, The Legend of King O’Malley, that in 1970 powered the coming of the Nimrod Theatre, whose building I and my wife bought and ran for ten years. In its cast was Robyn Nevin, who starred in my Goodbye Paradise and will direct (I hope) a musical, City Lights, that Chris Neal, Denny Lawrence and I have lately written for the STC. Elsewhere in its cast were Kate Fitzpatrick, John Hargreaves, Sandy Gore, Penne Hackforth-Jones Garry McDonald, Nick Lathouris and Gillian Jones whom I have written other parts for, not all of them consummated on film. Penny Cook began her career in our theatre and my wife wrote for her in Country Practice. Mel Gibson sang and danced in it once, and Max Cullen and Anne Tenney and Robert Menzies played in it, wonderfully, and Away opened in it, and so it goes. We meet again in different places, in Green Rooms, at political events, in coffee houses in other cities, with all this memory behind us, enmeshing us in past and future ache and delight and we know each other better than other workmates and talk therefore more intimately. It is no surprise to me that sexual connections can begin with rehearsal and end on closing night. It is like that, a dream, a midsummer night that ends in early sunrise. Play-mating I suppose you might call it. It happens. ‘Darling,’ we say in the aftertime, and we mean it.

Love-making on stage and film is a funny thing, and not always with great gusto enacted. I have directed more young naked women in beds in movies than perhaps I should have. One of them, Michele Fawdon, was in bed the large, shy, hairy John Clayton, whom she had only just met, and clearly uneasy, and so was he. I, the director, determined to soothe them through it. I sat on the end of the bed, and in the clear loud voice of Frank Thring said, ‘NOW I WANT YOU TO IMAGINE I’M NOT HERE.’ They fell about hugging and laughing and were fine after that and were nominated as best actors at the AFI and narrowly missed, and so it goes.

Under similar stress in a Bill Bennett film I was dressed as a tramp in a soup queue and suddenly asked to improvise a thirty-eight second soliloquy in character beginning now. I got through it, but I meet Bill now with murder in my eyes. You shouldn’t do that to an actor. He should always, as he does on stage, have weeks to think it through.

Some roles are there to be Everest-conquered, like Hamlet (the only actor born to the role, I think, was Nicol Williamson), and there are some that seem made for you alone, precast genetically, like Rumpole for McKern and Marlowe for Mitchum and Stacey for Barrett in Goodbye Paradise. If an actor has luck he (or she) gets that role early, as Garry McDonald did Gunston, and Judy My Brilliant Career. Robert Menzies, a great actor, lacks the luck of his grandfather, and so did not play the young Norman Lindsay I wrote for him. And so it goes. All actors need this luck and all I think would fly to stardom with it, and very few get it, like Sacha Horler in Praise, or Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I. You can be lucky. Or chosen.

I was off the stage for twenty-four years, and though playing on film and television various tramps, drunks, pornographers, editors, pederasts, thieves, conmen, a fairly good perverted South African psychiatrist in Man of Flowers and a excellent castrated bloodhound in Down Rusty Down did not really think of myself as an actor, even a part-time, until I was asked to play Brendan Behan in The Human Behan in Newcastle in 1995. It was the lead, it had more words than Hamlet, I had to sing, dance, smoke cigars, sodomise a shop dummy, have delirium tremens, betray the IRA and die of diabetes, things I have not thus far done in life. I thought I would not even get the lines down, but I did. And what followed showed me why it is most actors would work for nothing in a lead role anywhere, so great is the rush of oxygen it brings.

Some call the best night of theatre they had seen, one of them a federal cabinet minister. Irish fiddlers jumped on stage unbidden to accompany my awful singing. A female producer eight months pregnant saw it three times. For once in my life, as the song goes, I caught the lightning in the bucket, and I knew I had.

Some nights, though, I was really bad. One was the opening night at the Bondi Pavillion, when our musicians’ car broke down and held up the opening curtain for twenty minutes, and I had one Guinness and forgot – and groped for – the second sentence of my opening speech, and Doug Anderson decided I was no good, and said so in the Herald. And these are the breaks. I was proud of the accent, but some Dubliners lately told me it was nothing like Behan or any Irishman of any county but it had, like the voice of Yoda in Star Wars, an integrity of its own.

And so it goes. I’ve had many offers to do it again, from the Brendan Behan Hotel in particular, but my wife fearing life on an actor’s wages won’t let me. It will be, perhaps, a riotous memory, like the opening night of O’Malley. And so it goes.

Richard Burton used to say of his life as an actor, ‘My name is writ upon water,’ in that thrilling voice, quoting Keats. And it’s like that for all actors but the few, the very few, who manage greatness on the screen, like Branagh and Hopkins and Streep and Davis and Wenham and Neeson. I would give up a lot of Diehards, though, to see Judy Davis’s STC Hedda Gabler up on screen and I know I will not.

And the wind and the dust blow past the stars and soon we are nothing, unremembered. And it’s a pity.

I’m going to record Shakespeare’s sonnets on audio-cassette, I think, in my off-Richard Burton voice. Or is that a good idea. A one-man show as John Donne perhaps. Or a Micawber In Australia. Or Fred Daly Tonight. Or a Les and Bob Do Scotland. Or whatever. Or Bob Ellis Tonight.

You get infected, you see. And it’s lifelong.

  1. “Love-making on stage and film is a funny thing”

    … and sometimes hilarious off-stage/camera as well. But I digress.

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