RADA The Magazine (The Blue Room)

Saturday, June 19, 1999

VIEW FROM THE BLUE ROOM.

Lloyd Trott:
It was good to see you back on stage in The Blue Room (David Hare’s new version of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde in which Nicole Kidman played all the female roles and Iain all the males) at the Donmar Warehouse. It was highly effective theatre and a glamorous event, not least because of your stunning execution of a full cartwheel in a state of complete dishabille!

Questions have been raised as to whether our largest stages like the RST at Stratford-upon-Avon will be operable in the future without microphones, or at all, although this season’s Othello was a triumph. How did you find playing Henry V on that stage in 1994?

Iain Glen:
We were warned from the first day of rehearsal of the difficulties. Of course the play’s language, summoning up huge armies requires a heightened force, and in many ways lends itself to a large house.

But generally directors and actors should be careful of larger spaces. It can encourage a lack of detail. Initially I always imagine the performance in a studio space because it is the ever-changing detail that keeps an audience watching and listening. Once psychologically detailed, our job is to expand it vocally and physically to suit the space. There is a related problem: we are losing the ability to adapt to new spaces. The flexibility that came from the extensive touring of large-scale pieces is no longer a regular experience for younger actors. I was excited by the prospect of transferring The Blue Room from the small Donmar Warehouse to New York’s Court theatre, a 1,000 seat turn of the century theatre. The space was very congenial, but despite what I have said, it was impossible to recreate the intimacy at the Donmar. That sense of the audience being in the same room as us, being party to the private act of love making. But hopefully the detail remained and perhaps the production gained a clarity from the proscenium arch.

LT:
Did it improve during the run? Could have continued for longer?

IG:
The pre-bookings broke records, so we could have run for a very long time, but I think we had both had enough. It was a really special experience for Nic and I and we didn’t want it to spoil. Better leaving with a feeling of wishing you could do more.

LT:
I remember you had begun a professional career before coming to RADA, with at least one television play being broadcast during your training.

IG:
I acted while at University in Edinburgh. Performing in ‘Bent’ by Martin Sherman. I was noticed by an agent who managed to get me an Equity card, but I craved the substantial training that RADA offered.

LT:
What was the most significant component of your experience at RADA?

IG:
The opportunity to perform in 15 to 20 productions across the two and a half years, much much more than was provided by other drama schools. You were permanently employed as an actor. It also made so much more sense of the other classes within the training. All class work could be specifically related to the play on which you were working.

LT:
Is there anything you would have changed about your time at RADA?

IG:
I wish there had been more training for working with cameras.

LT:
We are planning much more – there is even a Media Working Party. You are maintaining a good balance between stage and screen; to what extent does the one inform the other?

IG:
Film begs spontaneity, freshness and relaxation. Being comfortable with yourself. It needs a different kind of concentration. Film gifts you this reality: You don’t have to imagine a lake, it is right there in front of you. This feeling grows with the intensity or abnormality of a role. For instance, when playing a prisoner (Larry Winters in Silent Scream) I had to be on my own when not filming through the day to maintain the appropriate level of isolation. It’s obvious really. It just helps your imagination towards the right place. Spontaneity and freshness are good things to take back into theatre, which can become stale through repetition. And theatre rehearsal, where you structure a role with a sense of the whole, is good to take to film, which often has no rehearsal and is always shot out of sequence.

LT:
Has the combination of your RADA training and subsequent performing experiences made you director-proof?

IG:
I’ve been lucky to work with really good directors. I shudder to think where some performances might have ended up without them. But I’ve worked with the odd crap one too. Nothing seems to provide an antidote to the depressing early days of rehearsal for a play when you lose faith in the director’s taste, followed by the creeping sense that these doubts are shared by your fellow actors. Then you are on to survival tactics.

If the material is less than good – and a lot of TV writing is less than good – you have to try and compensate. A common fault in weaker writing is to highlight the subtext. Instead of leaving the actor to reveal buried history, it over- states it on the surface. Characters inhabiting a context will reveal that context early so the story moves forward. Unconfident writers feel the need to state the context early so the audience understands why characters behave as they do. Chekhov was the master of buried exposition.

And of course I have fucked up a sweetly written script! In The Blue Room, where I desperately needed the guidance of both David Hare and Sam Mendes I would have been up shit creek within a week without them. Acting with Nicole was very comfortable. When rehearsals are going well, I can relax and go for indirectness. People become more and more indirect the more familiar the situation. ‘I love you’ expressed in a new relationship is probably direct, but four years later maybe while yawning and making a cup of tea. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it is less meant.

LT:
David Hare has spoken recently of the importance of rhythm in plays, which he has been made all the more aware of in translating Brecht, Chekhov and Pirandello. Colleagues at RADA concur. Yet it seems to elude many contemporary directors, which is frightening when you consider it’s the equivalent of a conductor forcing musicians to play out of tune. To what extent were you aware of the rhythm of The Blue Room?

IG:
I was all the more aware of the play’s musicology because the writing is so sparse. It was wonderful how open David was to changes that developed his intentions and Sam is never a director who settles early and rigidly, but goes on listening to the text through runs and rehearsals. Not a single sound cue that was in place for the opening night had been there in the previews.

Sam wrestled to find a concept that would reflect the quality of the sex that occurs between each new combination of man and woman in every scene of the play. Productions of La Ronde have usually either suspended the action or used a straight black out during the coitus. Sam hit upon the idea of projecting on the backdrop the running time of each coupling. This stark device conveyed surprisingly a whole range of information, comedic and sad, about the quality of the lovemaking.

But Sam wanted to support this with sounds. Initially white noise was used but in the first previews this sounded cold. Sam replaced this with individual cues for each scene, so there was Indian music for the actor and the model, lapping water for the politician and his wife in Venice, and so on. This seemed too cute. The final choice of crackling electricity conveying both temporary interruption of the visible action and the excitement of sex was very insistent but did not push the audience away.

LT:
Were there any textual alterations at the same stage to accommodate audience reaction? In La Ronde the successive sexual encounters seem to take place in a relatively short space of time, but in The Blue Room quite clearly a year has passed between the first and final episodes. I loved the fact that unlike La Ronde, where the characters only know the partner they encounter, some of The Blue Room characters know about or, as in the case of the student and the politician, have known each other for a very long time. This adds such resonance to the action.

IG:
What you are describing was developed further in previews. For instance the opening scene of perfunctory, grabbed sex between the girl and the cab driver, where he wants a quick lay but she is reaching out for more, used to end with her shouting after him “Fucking Wanker”. Sensing the preview audiences immediately warming to Nicole’s portrayal, David thought the line too harsh and changed it to “I’ll be here tomorrow”, which has a forward energy, ultimately picked up in the final scene when she tells the aristocrat that she has been seeing the cabbie for a year.

LT:
The exposure of The Blue Room in New York can only increase your visibility to film producers in America. How do you feel about this, especially if it led to more work there? How would it affect your family life?

IG:
Susannah and I have pretty much got the measure of each other now, and our relationship withstands short separations. It is difficult for our son (Finlay, 5). I hate being away from him for more than a week, and that is certainly a contributing factor to why I have never wanted to spend long speculative periods in L.A. However, I would like to make more movies.

LT:
Well, you will have packed a healthy number of U.K. screen projects into 1999: a TV classic serial (Elizabeth Gaskill’s Wives and Daughters, screened by BBC1 last Autumn/Winter): The Wyvern Mystery, a BBC film co-starring with Derek Jacobi; a feature film, Paranoia; a Granada drama, Anchor Me, with you playing a family man; and finishing the year with a Scottish film, Beautiful Creatures. Did you enjoy working with Derek Jacobi?

IG:
Yes, he was a treat. Jack Davenport and I couldn’t resist being irreverent, I told him my autobiography would be entitled My Days with the Knight. He’s very playful as an actor, but very focused. His speed of thought is phenomenal. Any actor who wants to see how you engage by swift-changing thought and emotion should have a look at Jacobi.

LT:
I have caught you in London during a week’s rehearsal for Anchor Me in which you play a father with a nearly grown up son. Did the luxury of a week’s rehearsal for a TV piece help acclimatise you to this advanced parenting?

IG:
Of course it’s a fine script by Ashley Pharoh and good writing demands rehearsal, it needs investigating. Sadly, it’s a mark of how barren some TV and film writing can be that no rehearsal time is scheduled. To be honest you would not know what to do with it because there’s bugger all to think about. If you have the luxury to pick work, make your first priority the writing, not the medium, the pay, or the venue.

– Lloyd Trott