Should beautiful actors be allowed to play those with plain faces?

Sometimes I Think About Dying is one of those titles you want to shout back at – what? Only sometimes? It is co-produced by, and stars, Daisy Ridley from the Star Wars franchise who, in going from a blockbuster to an interesting independent film, is taking the opposite of the usual career trajectory. Perhaps you can only fight the Dark Lords of the Sith for so long? But it has paid off, as this is an understated little gem. It is directed by Rachel Lambert and written by Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Katy Wright-Mead and Kevin Armento. It’s hard to say what it is exactly. A dour, deadpan romantic comedy probably

The tumultuous story behind Caravaggio’s last painting

For centuries no one knew who it was by or even what it was of. The picture that had hung unnoticed in a succession of noble palazzi in the Italian province of Salerno, with its deep chiaroscuro and close-cropped composition, looked like a Caravaggio – but after Caravaggio almost every painting in Naples did. When it entered the collection of the Banca Commerciale Italiana in 1973 it was attributed to Mattia Preti, a Calabrian Caravaggista of the next generation who had caught the tenebrist bug. But in 1980, a letter discovered in the Naples State Archive changed the picture. Written on 11 May 1610 by Lanfranco Massa – the Naples

The bald truth about Patrick Stewart

When you think that David Niven, James Mason, Ronnie Barker, Arthur Lowe and Powell and Pressburger among many others failed to receive state honours, you’ll concede that a knighthood was wasted on Patrick Stewart, even if for 12 years he was chancellor of Huddersfield University. I mean no disparagement by this. I’m happy for him. But why not Sir Timothy Spall or Sir Timothy West? Stewart, whose grandmother was Stan Laurel’s babysitter, is a middle-ranking mime with a gurgling bass-baritone. He is chiefly famous for the X-Men franchise and for playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard in 178 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, plus the numerous feature film spin-offs in

Just how much lower can the Conservatives sink?

This is the year in which Michael Gambon died, so by definition a grim one for theatre. Of all the tributes, one of the most acute was by Tom Hollander, who recalled how expressive Gambon’s voice was after 30 years on stage. He could reach hundreds of people while seeming to address only one or two. That’s essential theatre acting. When Gambon turned to cinema, his voice had become supple and mellow. It set me to thinking of other great cinema voices. Simone Signoret came first to mind. Then Jeanne Moreau, James Mason, and above all, Henry Fonda. These actors have you at hello. I would have added Marlene Dietrich,

A cherry orchard, three sisters and a summer romance: Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett, reviewed

Two plays guide the reader through Tom Lake, Ann Patchett’s ninth novel: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the story of ordinary lives in a small New Hampshire community in the early years of the 20th century, which, with its radically stripped-back staging, sets time and place in the context of all time and place, and enjoins its audience to ponder what is truly valuable in human life; and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the story of the battle for an estate that throbs with conflict, violence and, ultimately, destruction. Patchett’s mind is on the twin forces of preservation and entropy: our desperate attempts to cling to the local and the familiar

In defence of Shakespeare’s Globe

Off to my old manor, the Globe theatre, to join a celebratory gathering of thems and theys for I, Joan, a non-binary telling of the Joan of Arc story. The show has caused no shortage of outrage in various communities on the left, centre and right, and has had the Globe labelled as misogynist by feminists of a certain generation. It is a great compliment to the Globe that even though it only opened in 1997, it is already held so dear that whatever happens there is quickly amplified into a broader debate. In my time as artistic director, we had one Sun front page ridiculing our engagement with foreigners;

Michael Palin isn’t a ‘national treasure’

It’s a well-known fact that Michael Palin is a ‘national treasure’. Or so you are told just about every single time the travel presenter and writer appears on television or features in a newspaper interview. So it was with grim inevitably that a few days before the first instalment of his latest expedition, Michael Palin: Into Iraq, aired on Channel 5 on Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times both felt it imperative to describe him with this phrase. Never mind that he’s no doubt utterly sick of this lazy cliché – objectively, it’s a misleading misnomer. ‘National treasure’ is patronising, twee and demeaning, and distracts from the fact that

In praise of character actors

The star system is a false hierarchy: the best rarely make it to the top. I thought of this recently when it was announced that David Warner had died. Few outside acting could name him, though you may have seen his head flying off in The Omen, a film in which heads are cheap. Warner was a Manchester-born jobbing actor: a character actor, better defined by what he is not, which was a star. I could write pages about why a star is a star, and a character actor remains a character actor, but the most significant reason is simple. Warner was brilliant but he was not handsome. Yet he

An actor’s recipe for insanity

I’m on the road, a very proper place for an actor to be. Never mind all those jokes about some people having tours de force and others being forced to tour – a tour gets the stuff out to the people. If they can’t come to us, we must go to them, each actor on his ass, as Hamlet smuttily tells Polonius. I fancy that my generation of actors was the last to assume that we would take our wares around the country. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed discovering all the different playhouses, with their different challenges and opportunities – a chance to rethink the thing. Standing in the same place,

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities

Could today’s Hollywood stars have made it in ancient Greece?

The Oscar frenzy spent, it is worth reflecting on how easy writers and actors have it these days. The ancient Greeks invented our idea of acted drama, and the conventions were tough. Here are the main ones. In myth-based tragedies, for example, all the speaking parts – young and old, male and female – were played, and occasionally sung too, by only three fully masked male actors (one play had 11 speaking parts – work that out!). There was also a ‘chorus’ – 12 or 15 actors, all masked, singing and dancing in unison between episodes, though the leader could converse with the main characters. Of low social status, they

Lasting infamy: Booth, by Karen Joy Fowler, reviewed

Were it not for an event on the night of 14 April 1865, John Wilkes Booth would be remembered, if at all, as an actor; brother of the more famous Edwin, and son of Junius Brutus – a footnote to the history of American theatre. But that night Booth leaped on to the stage of Ford’s theatre, Washington D.C., shouting ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’ before fleeing. He had just shot Abraham Lincoln. Five days earlier the Civil War had officially ended. Booth, a Confederate sympathiser, feared Lincoln would overthrow the constitution – he was already promising votes to freed slaves. The assassination was Booth’s way to ‘avenge the South’. Karen Joy

My thoughts on Helen Mirren’s casting

On Monday, I had a whinge-walk with Lizzie, my friend of 47 years. We met at breathing classes for our first babies and we gave birth on the same day in the now defunct Avenue Clinic in St John’s Wood. Our children grew up joined at the hip. Today my daughter Amy is a playwright in NW3 and Lizzie’s is a Buddhist monk in Nepal. Amy is with me at least twice a week, though her mother’s ability to make off-the-cuff remarks which generate front-page headlines makes her wish she was the one in a Nepalese monastery. I faced my daughter’s embarrassment and near cultural cancellation last week after I

All successful spies need to be good actors

On 2 October last year, when he became chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6, if you prefer), Richard Moore tweeted (tweeted!): ‘#Bond or #Smiley need not apply. They’re (splendid) fiction but actually we’re #secretlyjustlikeyou.’ The gesture’s novelty disguised, at the time, its appalling real-world implications. Bond was, after all, competent and Smiley had integrity. Stars and Spies, by the veteran intelligence historian Christopher Andrew and the theatre director and circus producer Julius Green, is a thoroughly entertaining read, but not at all a reassuring one. ‘The adoption of a fictional persona, the learning of scripts and the ability to improvise’ are central to career progression in both theatre

‘You should see some of the other scripts that come through’: Robert Carlyle interviewed

‘I always feel slightly sick when I hear actors talking politics,’ says Robert Carlyle — that polished Glaswegian burr sounding no less arresting over a slightly patchy Zoom connection. ‘I mean we’re all entitled to an opinion,’ he continues, sounding for a second as though he might be about to opt for a more diplomatic track. ‘I just find that too many actors find it difficult to get theirs across without sounding like a twat.’ It’s a fair point, you might think. But for Carlyle, it’s also been a good professional move. Reflecting on his career, he credits this aversion to mouthing off with inspiring his long-term commitment to keeping

Why should we care whether an actor is gay?

In this woke age, we seem to have incredibly short memories. We feel the need to damn people today for holding views that were completely acceptable yesterday. But the memory of Russell T. Davies, the acclaimed British screenwriter, seems to be particularly short. In an interview for the Radio Times — promoting his new Channel 4 series, It’s A Sin, about young gay men in 1980s London — Davies has criticised the practice of giving gay roles to straight actors. ‘I’m not being woke about this’, he said. ‘It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020. You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone

Fascinatingly weird – but not satisfyingly weird: Herzog’s Family Romance LLC reviewed

In the past Werner Herzog has given us a man pushing a ship up a mountain, a 16th-century conquistador going mad in Peru, Timothy Treadwell being eaten by a bear (who isn’t still recovering from that one?) and the 3-D documentary on cave paintings that ended with albino alligators, so there is never any saying what his next film will be about. Only that it’s likely to be quite weird. And Family Romance is quite weird. It’s real but fake (or vice versa) and filmed on the fly in the Japanese language even though Herzog doesn’t speak Japanese. And there’s more, so much more. It’s fascinatingly weird for sure. Even

What are the new rules on race and performance?

What are the new rules on race and performance? In the world of TV, everyone is busy apologising, self-censoring and denouncing their previous work. Ant and Dec have deleted routines in which they imitated Japanese girls and people of colour. The comedian Leigh Francis has expressed contrition for satirising Craig David in Bo’ Selecta! (which was nominated for a Best Comedy Bafta in 2004). Matt Lucas and David Walliams have withdrawn sketches featuring dark-skinned characters. A new order is being created. A new hierarchy of privileges and prohibitions based on ethnicity is taking root. We are strengthening the vice we sought to eliminate. The new rule appears to forbid actors from

‘I’ve started talking to myself’: Tamsin Greig interviewed

C4’s Friday Night Dinner was the nation’s stop off point for feeling a bit better about ourselves. It featured the Goodman family. Every week the Goodman’s two sons returned to their parents’ home for Shabbat dinner. Every week, things didn’t go to plan. Of course, the chaotic Goodmans stand in for all our chaotic families in these times. It is good to know that it isn’t only our own family that is a shambles. The guiding force, the everyday matriarch of that family, is Jackie Goodman – long-suffering mum, played by Tamsin Greig. ‘It is charming because it is all about coming home. I think that’s why people love it. The

The revenge of the oldies

Entering my 54th day of quarantine, I recall how much I was looking forward to this spring in England. There were so many exciting events and celebrations planned. Several friends were throwing big birthday bashes; I was picking up a couple of awards, performing my one-woman show, going to Cannes, and most exciting of all, participating in a plethora of events surrounding the VE Day celebrations. All of the above have gone with the proverbial wind, except for, in a small way, the latter. The Queen’s Pageant Master, Bruno Peek, asked me if I could lead the nation’s toast to our heroes and heroines of the second world war. VE