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Critic's Notebook: Why are England's actresses so fantastic?

Kristin Scott Thomas, Eve Best and more: What makes them so fascinating to watch? Perhaps it's a willingness to bury the star power and instead inhabit the playwright's world with bracing immediacy.

July 17, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Eve Best (Beatrice) and Charles Edwards (Benedick) in Shakespear's Globe's production of "Much Ado About Nothing."
Eve Best (Beatrice) and Charles Edwards (Benedick) in Shakespear's… (Manuel Harlan / Shakespear's…)

Reporting from London —

What sets English actresses apart? Is it their dexterity with a turn of phrase, unerring literary poise, or could it be that enviable sang-froid, which comes off as sexy even well into middle age?

These qualities were all in evidence during my recent trip to London, where some of Britain's finest actresses have turned their attention to the classics this summer. But I made note of another distinguishing attribute after seeing Eve Best in "Much Ado About Nothing" at Shakespeare's Globe, the American-born Zoë Wanamaker in "The Cherry Orchard" at the National Theatre, Kristin Scott Thomas in "Betrayal" at the Comedy Theatre in the West End, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton in "A Delicate Balance" at the Almeida Theatre and relative newcomer Felicity Jones in "Luise Miller" at the Donmar Warehouse — a willingness to wholly submit to the unique demands of a playwright's vision.

These performers weren't trying to seduce us with their star power. In fact, there was nothing self-aggrandizing about their work. It was the style of their particular author, as interpreted by their director, that was their primary concern. Their own cachet appeared to be a distant second.

Is there anything really so distinctive about this, you might ask? Are our actresses, by comparison, such egomaniacal monsters? Hardly, but there is a noticeable difference in orientation. Americans are first and foremost realists, and their training, even when not strictly Method, encourages them to look for their characters within themselves.

There are rewards to this kind of intensive internal examination, but there are also limitations. Beyond homogenizing all writing into a vehicle for self-exploration, an overly psychological approach can put a drag on the production, which begins to revolve around the laggard tempo of an actor's introspective process.

London offered an alternative more befitting of a concert hall than an analyst's couch. The gifted actresses I saw treated their plays as scores, and they adjusted their playing as a musician must when switching from Mozart to Bach. The tears that were shed may not have always seemed as moist as they would have on our home stages, but this was a relatively small price to pay for such a large gain in artistic flexibility, which is precisely what performers steeped in a wide-ranging theatrical repertoire need to stay afloat.

On the afternoon I caught Eve Best's Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" at the outdoor Globe Theatre, it rained through much of the first half of the play. This wasn't a light mist but a torrential downpour. The galleries and the stage are covered, but the standing area that lies between them is unprotected, and the "groundlings" were getting soaked. Best, as alert as Shakespeare's sharp-witted heroine, sympathetically took in the plight of the drenched theatergoers without once breaking character.

How did she do it? She registered the inclement weather with a wide-eyed expression of camaraderie that suggested the ironical thought, "Isn't it something the way life goes?" At one point, she moved to the lip of the stage to feel the wet on her own face. And as the thunder roared, her eye darted heavenward in wry acknowledgement of who's in charge.

Her handling of the situation was in keeping with Jeremy Herrin's insouciant staging, which maintained a free and easy accord with the spectators. This was a production that didn't take itself too seriously yet never lost sight of the play's deeper shades of meaning. Beatrice herself acknowledges that she "was born to speak all mirth and no matter," but when accused of being "born in a merry hour," she answers, "No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born...." A sorrowful shadow fell briefly on Best's countenance with these lines, hinting at the hidden somber source of her character's compulsive levity. And just as quickly the lightheartedness returned. This is a woman who would never choose to weep when there was an opportunity to laugh — just don't mistake her for being frivolous.

Best has found welcome in the States on Broadway (where she's been nominated for two Tony Awards) and with the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," and it's easy to understand why. This Oxford-educated actress has the British polish that Anglophiles can't get enough of, but she also has an emotional accessibility. Her crisp diction doesn't glide over what she's saying. There's a heartfelt weight to her words.

"Much Ado," of course, requires a Benedick who can go toe to toe with Beatrice, and the Globe has found just the right man in Charles Edwards, who like Best can play the clown without being dismissed as one. Their battle of the sexes, pitched somewhere between jollity and bitterness (there's no question that these two have romantic history), captures both the light and dark sides of Shakespeare's ever-sparkling comedy.

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