I’ve just finished reading Brian Cox’s delightful memoir, subtitled Putting the Rabbit in the Hat.
Cox is an actor currently famous for his role as the powerful father Logan Roy, in the tv series Succession, although you might know him for films such as Troy, Adaptation, the Jason Bourne films, or Rushmore, to name but a few.
Cox has now twice had the dubious honor of appearing in the other versions of a famous character, whose portrayal won someone else an Academy Award. In 2017 it was Cox’s Churchill that was largely ignored in the same year as Gary Oldman’s award-winning take. Before that he was Dr. Lecktor in Manhunter (1986), before Silence of the Lambs (1991) gave Anthony Hopkins his Oscar.
Partway through Cox’s book, I came across a bit of pure gold. At one point he’s telling us about an experience from more than ten years ago, captured on film that has supposedly gone viral via YouTube.
He’s teaching a 30-month old toddler named Theo to deliver a Shakespeare soliloquy. Line by line, we hear “to be or not to be”, first from Cox, then from the charming little fellow beside him. Perhaps you saw it long ago, but it’s new to me.
Cox is having a great time with the little fellow. Of course, it’s wonderful fun.
But it’s also a fascinating study of the whole process of theatre, of learning a part and of how we perceive a performance.
I don’t think the little fellow understands what he’s saying, not in the sense of the full import of the speech. How could he possibly? It’s amazing how well he delivers lines, but I doubt he understands much of what he’s saying. The video is charming, lots of fun.
In a sense it functions as a kind of parody of Shakespeare. Instead of a tormented Hamlet we watch the little boy.
For me it deconstructs the experience of theatre. As an opera fan I regularly watch singers perform. Most operas I see are in languages other than English, which means that I’m not usually able to understand unless they offer subtitles, or if it’s one of those operas that I’ve seen and studied so many times that I know every word.
Ideally the singer makes their words sound as smooth as conversation, fluent and convincing. But in practice we sometimes hear singing that isn’t quite believable because it’s been learned syllable by syllable, sung with a phonetic accuracy that might still be lacking genuine fluency. I can sing “che ge li da ma ni na”, one syllable at a time, or “che gelida manina”, making the syllables flow as words. If a singer is learning the words and sings with conviction, the phrases come across as genuine.
Alas that’s the image that comes back to me, thanks to the performance by this charming toddler. The virtuoso magic of someone delivering complex lines of iambic pentameter isn’t something one encounters very often. It’s a bit like a magic trick or a feat we’d see at the Olympics like ski jump or luge. “How do they manage to go so quickly without falling off the sled” you might ask, just as I also question “how do they manage to get through those lines without forgetting”? The delivery of this young lad reminds me of so many bad performances. I wish those moments were somehow redeemed by the cuteness of the person onstage, the way we excuse singers going off key, when they’re adorable kids in a church or school performance. The framework for performance is fascinating in the way context changes the way we listen. I’m sure, yes this is adorable, yes this is cute. Yes Brian Cox knows that his young charge is more or less going through the motions, not really understanding the complexities of what it is saying.
But it reminds me of so many things I have heard spoken and/or sung, especially when we consider the world of opera. When the audience sits, staring up at the titles that explain the foreign words, translating for us “che gelida manina” or “non piu andrai“ or “un bel di”, I listen to the way the words are delivered. I sometimes am enraptured at delivery that sounds like a native speaker. The chorus singing on one of my LesTroyens recordings is a Montreal ensemble, all French speakers. I noticed how different they sound from the Metropolitan Opera chorus, whose sound is bigger but whose phonetics sometimes seem to lurch from syllable to syllable, at least compared to the Montreal chorus, singing Berlioz’s lines as genuine sentences and full thoughts rather than a series of single notes.
There are several passages in his book where Brian Cox undertakes theoretical explanations of what an actor does, how acting works, as a teacher and as a critic. I think he’s a natural teacher, largely because his style is so straight-forward, so unaffected and direct.
This “masterclass” puts me in mind of Maurice Maeterlinck, who famously said this:
“The day we see Hamlet die in the theatre, something of him dies for us. He is dethroned by the spectre of an actor, and we shall never be able to keep the usurper out of our dreams.”
While I have felt uneasy with Maeterlinck’s preference for the page over the stage, this video does remind me of the way the Shakespeare of our inner ear lurks in the background, especially when we’re hearing a performance that fails to persuade. This video is the most extreme case of this I have ever seen, as it calls to mind the entire process of actors learning words that they would never normally utter, drilled into them by rote. It’s not making a compelling case for live theatre.
I need to see a “real” show sometime soon. Isn’t that weird? What is real, after all, in this context, but superior artifice.
I believe that in a classroom the one we call “the teacher” is also learning, sometimes as much or more than the one we’d call “the student”. Who is the teacher and who is the student in this masterclass?