Jonathan Cecil

Anxieties on and off the stage

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Telling Some Tales

Anna Massey

Hutchinson, pp. 259, £

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On the face of it the actress Anna Massey’s life would seem to have been a charmed one. The child of distinguished theatrical parents — Raymond Massey, the powerful Canadian actor, and Adrienne Allen, the original Sybil in Private Lives — Miss Massey was steeped in the world of the stage and made her first professional appearance in a West End starring role. Hers was the title part in The Reluctant Debutante, working with the greatest light comedienne of her time, Celia Johnson, and a fine supporting cast. Anna Massey more than held her own in their company.

Ever since, her career has been as interesting and varied as most players could wish: she did not stick with drawing-room comedy — a dying art form by the 1960s — but has appeared in all manner of genres, from classics at the National to Royal Court plays such as David Hare’s Slag. On film she has worked with Hitchcock, Ford and Michael Powell; on television she played the crypto-lesbian Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and, in an especially fine performance, Gwen John. She is also a familiar voice on radio and audio-books.

And yet until fairly recently her off-stage life has been fraught with insecurity and sometimes real unhappiness. Her early marriage to Jeremy Brett ended with his admission of homosexuality. She became the lone parent of their son, David, fortunately a great comfort. All the while she knew that she herself had had unsatisfactory parents: Raymond, an inhibited man, had left her mother the year Anna was born and was never like a true father; Adrienne, a witty and entertaining hostess, was generous but unmaternal. Only a beloved nanny and a wise stepfather brought some stability. Her brother Dan, whom I knew as an entertaining colleague, was in fact a chronic neurotic who ceased to speak to Anna for some years, though they were reconciled towards the cruel, cancerous end of his life.

Although devotion to acting was a merciful escape from real life it also brought Massey real anxiety. I have noticed that child actors — she was almost one at her debut — often lose confidence as they begin to analyse what originally came naturally. She has suffered from stage fright, a horrible sensation worlds away from nerves. The latter are probably a necessary rush of adrenalin in advance of a performance. That stalwart National Theatre player Michael Bryant once said on a first night, ‘Nerves are vanity’, a remark reported to Massey. To my mind he was either being very clever or very obtuse. If nerves are an essential for most actors, so is vanity, however undesirable off-stage. Anyway Anna’s addition to Bryant’s remark was, ‘But fear is f***ing human.’ Perhaps lack of nerves accounted for Bryant’s just missing out on star quality.

Interesting and amusing as is Massey’s account of childhood, domestic life and her many friendships, what engages most is her analysis of her artistic odyssey — its setbacks and, although modestly understated, its triumphs.

My own achievements as an actor have been in no way comparable to Massey’s, but most of us players can identify with her interests and worries. She and I did share two teachers: the voice coach Iris Warren and the teacher-director Vivian Matalon. Miss Warren I found inspiring but over-mystical, always urging me to find ‘the centre of my being’, a biologically dubious spot which I had difficulty in locating. From Matalon I learned to seek truth and economy of means — something I also learned from Gielgud as a director. Massey was devoted to Gielgud, but not as a teacher.

One of the strengths of this book is that it sets one thinking and occasionally arguing. Is it necessary for an actor, method-wise, to create a lifetime’s background for his or her role? Are discussions about on-stage relationships with other actors fruitful? Having watched instinctive actors at work as well as Stanislavsky-style ones like Anna Massey, I would say that any way one arrives at a good performance must be valid. Yet both approaches require hard grind and some agonising.

Massey is generous in her admiration for her colleagues, to me excessively so in the case of the imposing, over-artificial Irene Worth; but knowing something of Massey’s sharp wit I was gladdened by her occasional harshness about the cold, humourless Edward Bond and the cruel Otto Preminger. She has an amusing line in self-deprecation, as when her dinner party for Anita Brookner, after the television version of Hotel du Lac, proves a comically damp squib.

The end of her story is happy. She meets and marries her perfect man, a clever Russian scientist with no theatre connections. After years of psychoanalysis, self-doubt and sad bereavements she has found tranquillity.

At first I thought her title Telling Some Tales a trifle arch. Having read the book, I found her narrative style, with its plain short sentences, childlike in a complimentary sense. I recommend it especially to all theatre enthusiasts.