Two actors prepare
William Hurt and Robyn Nevin in rehearsal for STC's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Picture: Brett Boardman Source: Supplied
William Hurt and Robyn Nevin are tackling one of the great American plays, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.
ACTING may be pretending but it's not lying. when you are tempted by the charlatan within you, says William Hurt, you must turn away. "And then the truth-teller comes."
He and Robyn Nevin are three weeks into rehearsals for a new production by Sydney Theatre Company and Artists Repertory Theatre, in Portland, Oregon, of one of the greatest plays of the 20th century: Eugene O'Neill's harrowingly emotional autobiographical drama Long Day's Journey into Night. They are preparing to play James and Mary Tyrone, the troubled heads of a traumatised family, and, in a lunch break at the Wharf Restaurant overlooking Sydney Harbour, they are ready to talk about acting.
Hurt is a Hollywood star who won an Oscar for best actor for Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1985 and was nominated in the succeeding two years for Children of a Lesser God and Broadcast News, then in 2005 for best supporting actor for his role in David Cronenberg's crime thriller a History of Violence. but he is defensive about being called a star. ("I'm just me. I'm sorry about the star system, I think it's a hold-over of the reptilian mind.") in this production, he says, it's definitely James Tyrone he wants us to watch, not him.
Nevin has been one of Australia's finest actresses for 40 years and one of the most influential women in our theatre. she became artistic director of Queensland Theatre Company in 1996, then of STC. she stepped down from the STC post in 2007. is it liberating to leave management? "yes, it is. It's wonderful to be just an actress again. And I'm learning how to come back to it. I don't any more watch the room with a sense of responsibility, which I used to."
Both love being back in rehearsal preparing characters for the stage and have entered generously into a discussion about the mysterious process of doing so.
In 1830 French philosopher Denis Diderot published a pamphlet, the Paradox of Acting, in which he argued that actors who feel emotion in performance are not as good as actors who focus on craft skills. "it is we who feel," he wrote, "it is they who watch, study and give us the result." Diderot's polemic sparked a controversy that continues to this day.
In the recent century it has come to be summed up, a bit simplistically, in the difference between Constantin Stanislavsky, the great Russian director and acting teacher who introduced to the world what came to be known in the US as the Method, based in the emotional memory of the actor, and Bertolt Brecht, who wanted his actors to be detached observers, commenting on their characters as they perform them.
Long Day's Journey, directed by STC co-artistic director Andrew Upton, is partly about actors and acting. James Tyrone is a successful actor who has retreated for the summer to spend time with his wife Mary, a haunted morphine addict, and their two alcoholic sons, Edmund and Jamie. during the journey of the play their troubled past is dragged up as they confront each other in a series of violently emotional scenes.
There is an excess in the play, a style and tone that the production's movement consultant, John Bolton, calls "unfettered emotion". They perform for each other as much as for us. what is the balance, then, for an actor playing these extreme emotional states, between feeling and thinking, between inspiration and craft, art and artifice?
Hurt is expansive, talking vividly in metaphors that mostly involve comparing our need for art with our need for breath and food. to prepare, as an actor playing strong emotions, he says he uses a system.
"it is a reliable, brass tacks, scientific, farmer's kind of examination of the play which always comes up with at least a satisfactory way of asking the play who it is. It's a method and the method has been outlined by a number of great teachers. We tend to say that Stanislavsky did it best, but in fact the greatest teacher of acting that I know was Alvina Krause who taught at Northwestern [University], the only, in my view, American who taught what's called the Method accurately or distinctively."
Actors who have studied with her, he says, are always the ones who bring to the rehearsal room the solid, grounded approach he wants. "I was too scared to go on stage and have it be about temperament or personality or talent," he says. "it was too undependable for me. It's too whimsical, too capricious. And capricious is self-destructive and wasteful."
He keeps using words such as epiphany when talking about his work, speaking in almost spiritual terms. the emotions and the mind, he says, are all part of the same thing, coming together in the "organism" that is the actor. Separating them makes the organism "disharmonic".
I ask him if the Method is cool and studied in the way Diderot writes about. "well, it's not flaky. It's very grounded, but that doesn't mean that farmers aren't philosophers. it doesn't mean that anything that's real is avoided.
"Sophocles [the ancient Greek playwright and director] was so real that people had to be carried out of the plays on stretchers. I mean literally so, not faking it. They had recognised patterns in their own life in such a way that the chord was struck, catharsis took place and that moment of catharsis was a mighty event in their lives.
"And it shocked and rattled them, and when they were rattled, and after the purging of perverse amounts of self-pity and perverse amounts of fear, one was freed, to breathe again and discover life, and create solutions. And that's the purpose of theatre. to heal us. to free us to breathe, and think of better things."
He returns always to the specifics of the play, though, and so does Nevin, reflecting on the role of emotion in the process of the actor. she is fascinated by the problem. Actors need to find emotions in themselves to play their roles but then must shape those emotions in a way that is repeatable and won't put too much stress on them. she quotes Samuel Beckett: artists need to find "a form that accommodates the mess".
In rehearsal, she says, you need conjure the emotion imaginatively, but then, if you haven't got the technique, you "actually experience it physiologically. And you can't keep doing that. You'd just be carried off to the loony bin and someone would have to replace you who was able to do it better." Audiences, she adds, get put off by the sort of "out-of control emotional expression" that some actors wallow in.
Neither has explained the details of the method they use to shape the emotions required for their roles and Nevin, in fact, says she doesn't quite know how it works. Oddly, for all her talk of form and method, she says she can become quite subjective when preparing a character.
"in trying to reach for [the emotions of the character] and imagining what they are, I seem, through some sort of osmosis, to absorb and take [them] on, and I have to live with those for the time that I'm doing the bloody thing."
Mary is a guilt-ridden drug addict in a severely damaged family, so that must be difficult. "yes, it is difficult. it doesn't mean that my life outside the rehearsal room becomes infected but it's just that I take on, probably, more than I need to. It's just so much to do with feeling, understanding and remembering. It's so much to do with the deep history of the people in the play. that is enormously difficult to reach, in the time."
In the time. both keep harping on this. for this production STC has allotted six weeks of rehearsal, which is a luxury. Hurt seems to think that this is common in Sydney (it's not) and that this city is some sort of theatrical heaven compared with theatre in the US. in film you are lucky to get any rehearsal at all, he says, although he names a few good directors who will give you three weeks.
"six weeks, to me, is the standard gestation period for any actor. Forty-two days to have a character, nine months to have a baby. Anything less than six weeks is premature. what that means, of course, is that everything else is a write-off. I mean film and everything else. in film it's completely inadequate and you live with that. I live with it sorrowfully and to my regret."
There is still in acting that curious and paradoxical mixing of an artifice that is somehow true and a real life that somehow isn't. with the double presence of the actor — the performer and the character — what are we seeing?
Nevin turns to Hurt. "you know," she says to him, "I see James Tyrone. Because I don't know you." Hurt understands instantly and they become excited, talking about the process.
Working with someone new, Nevin says, there is no baggage brought into the rehearsal room and so you can start from scratch. she laughs. "I see James Tyrone! And then you [get] to the stage where it's James Tyrone who's your husband. And a husband who has all these problems with you, that you give to him. That's another huge journey."
They start enthusiastically discussing the play, which after all my "esoteric questions", as Hurt calls them, really is the thing. They say that for all its melodramatic excess, family dysfunction and psychological trauma, Long Day's Journey is, deep down, about love and forgiveness.
"the overall event is forgiveness. he wrote that letter to Carlotta," Hurt says. Carlotta Monterey was O'Neill's third wife, with whom, despite many temporary separations, he stayed until the end of his life. like his mother, she had drug problems, and so did he, and so did their children.
But he dedicated the play to her, on their 12th anniversary: "I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. I mean it in tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enables me to face my dead at last and write this play — write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones."
The emphasised "all" suggests O'Neill was including himself in the act of forgiveness. the son Edmund in the play is something like a portrait of the artist as a young man.
Hurt continues: "a lot of productions forget the forgiveness part. They just want to see this narrow treatise on dysfunction, that abandons responsibility for the formation of society, how some of these illnesses are part and parcel of who we are."
Nevin is gesturing, moving her hand back and forth. "Blame and fault, blame and fault," she exclaims. "I don't blame you, it's just my fault."
Mary is so strenuous in her efforts to convince people that it's her fault and that she's not blaming, and then we see her enacting some kind of behaviour that suggests blame.
"but I think that love, the love that we've talked about that's in the play, is terribly important. And I believe it. I can feel it."
I have been listening to two great actors talking enthusiastically but a bit dispassionately about their craft, and now suddenly I am hearing them speak with passion about their art, and about the play they are questioning and will soon be performing, in their no doubt methodically grounded way.
And about feeling it.
Long Day's Journey into Night, Sydney Theatre Company, July 3-August 1. Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, August 13-19.