Paraphrase Paradise: Bertie Carvel Masterclass at Theatre Royal Haymarket, Halloween 2017

November 30, 2017

I’m so late writing about this, but I thought maybe someone may like to hear my ramble.  Now, having written it I am sure nobody will because as always I should have been succinct, but once I begin, on I go until you despise my existence.  Oh well, sorry! I can only say, the fact that this has been secret a month does show if you ever have a secret you need to tell anyone but you need to know it’ll be kept secret, I can keep all secrets – be they yours or my own. I may have no other value whatsoever, but I can be the secret keeper, never fear.

Anyway, Bertie Carvel’s Masterclass at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was so lovely that I am unable to keep my promise to myself to keep the presence of idiot-me there secret as I’d like others to be able to share in a little of the warmth of what was expressed, so I hope in my rambling I am able to convey at least a fragment of the afternoon’s essence even though this is very belated. I nearly didn’t go to it.  I was so scared for manifold reasons, but looming large I felt (rightly) it was for actors and I am just an irrelevant being so felt like such a fraudulent potato I have no idea how I forced my feet through the door, but nobody threw me out and I am so happy I did attend that I don’t really care if I shouldn’t have gone (sorry!) Mr Carvel spoke openly and honestly about acting and was so supportive & encouraging towards young actors & everyone in the industry. I want to express how beautiful I found this and it made me want to exclaim my love of theatre too.

Bertie championed the imagination & spoke of theatre & art as a collaborative experience the audience want to engage in. It was just Mr Carvel on the stage talking to the audience. I imagine it may well have been rather scary for him to do something called a “Masterclass”, particularly given that there was nobody else there guiding it – just him on stage talking and answering any questions from the audience.  Bertie kept asking everyone to raise hands if he was still making sense as though he wasn’t engaging in intelligent thoughts ranging from his own experience to the philosophy of Plato – Plato’s Cave if you’re interested.  Linked as I may make a hash of Mr Carvel’s thoughts as I try to recollect, but let us spare you from my interpretation of Plato! (I did read something about the Platonic bicycle pump in a programme for something recently though and it is annoying me that I can’t recall where I read it..?)

This will not be in any order or logical form…

I loved a small moment when Bertie spoke along the lines of something that can be really empowering for an actor is that people are paying to see your imagination.  He spoke of how a performance on stage will always have a uniqueness to it specifically from you & how that is something beyond the play’s text, beyond the most intellectual academic analysis, different to even a real person or what a documentary could articulate.  What a wonderful gift to an actor I think – to say the most important aspect is simply your imagination.  And it is totally true: why would we go to theatre if you could get the same thing from reading the play/book/about the play/about real people?  The unique aspect is every part of the transient performance you experience.

It is really hard to articulate everything Bertie spoke of as I am struggling both with memory and to find ways to put what I do recall it into words.  Lets see – he spoke of forming a character and how if you strive to completely *become* that character – be it a real person or some idealised notion of the perfect fictional character, you can only fail.  You will only ever be striving to reach the ideal.  You can do things to change how you look, or alter your voice for example, but you’ll never look or sound as like a real person as the real person looks like themself! And you’ll never reach the ideal notion of a fictional person due to the fact that it is a subjective thing (he didn’t say that – I just said it right now, TADA!)

So, the jist is that art offers something different and sometimes/hopefully something beyond even the real or, say documentary footage: sometimes it can express truths about people and the world that you can’t get from plain facts, or perhaps that even real people might not know about themselves.  I guess this is because, in essence, art deals with who we are inside which is not a thing you usually get to know about many people in life. Many people don’t know it even of themselves.

So, if you stop striving to reach the perfect character and instead just use what you have in your imagination and inside you to respond… AAAARRRRGGGHHHHH.  I know what I mean but how do I say it?  Anyway, it was all totally true and, I would imagine that the ideas expressed for an actor would be really liberating.  I hope you can get an idea of where that thought was going even though I stopped in the middle of it… uhm…

Bertie also said he does very much enjoy altering himself physically too on the counter side (as you may imagine, since Bertie is currently portraying Rupert Murdoch in Ink a lot of the questions and discussion involved what it is like to portray a real person) – he spoke of how he shaves his hair and wears false eyebrows and contacts for Ink but he said altering your appearance is only valid to the extent you feel it is adding something to the performance.  It isn’t what the performance is ever about. And if you start to feel what you’re altering is no longer adding anything… well then you’re just walking around for months on end with a daft haircut.  Bertie definitely did not use the word “daft”.

Bertie spoke about the purity of art & I can’t for the life of me recall his context but digression-alert therefore I shall talk about the purity of art because literally nobody wants to hear that but I’m doing it anyway! I am just a rubbish good for nothing snail, but I do love theatre. And I love all art. And the one thing that offends me above all else is when something (in my opinion) taints the purity of art. The play I hated most of the plays I have seen I felt sullied the purity of art.  I’ve felt it of films too.  I think the purity of art can express and convey the complexity of life, people & humanity and the complexity of the artist can articulate the purity of art. I can’t really explain it because it is a feeling.  But there is a purity of truth I think in what plays (or art in general) can express that is way more muddied in reality. In a way I suppose I’d call it an emotional purity or perhaps something even deeper – about things we know deep within us to be true about being human (though I confess, in recent months I have begun to realise just how different we all are deep down in many ways – a concept I find pretty terrifying…) Oh, I wish I had the words to explain the meaning of this feeling further.  I suppose theatre/dramatic art allows you to make connections: actions have consequences; emotions have reasons and roots.  Theatre can get at what it is to be human, but in a more comforting way than reality because in real life so much happens with no reason at all. Real life tends towards chaos.  Not a thing my tiny mind enjoys for sure. I think probably one of the conflicts within us all as humans stems from the fact we seek order and reason in our existence where in truth there is none.  But stories, I think, help shape truths into an order that you can understand and recognise.  Theatre and stories get to real truths but they can do so in ways where you can understand people and events.  Whereas in real life it isn’t always so possible, for many reasons.  Well, I don’t have the words to explain it.  But I was thinking this week on a related note – I am sure stories must be a large part of how we first come to experience empathy and truly relate to beings other than ourselves when we’re tiny new humans to this world?  Anyway… end-of-digression…

Back to how encouraging Bertie was, and before I get into that, might I add, he really listened both when anyone asked a question or made a comment and thought about what they said before responding.  Bertie spoke of how it can be difficult to go on stage to act as you can imagine the audience are sat there having spent lots of money for the privilege and they’re all judging you, thinking perhaps the worst, which would be what? Maybe that what you’re doing is a deceit.  He addressed the fear an actor may have that every audience member is sat there, ready to criticise, to regret the money they spent and perhaps to actively look for things to dislike.  However, Bertie said the truth is that while there will always be someone out there who has been dragged along against their will, in the most part, people go to the theatre wanting to love a show.  They want to be caught up in the world on stage.  They know you’re pretending and that this isn’t reality and they want to be a part of this imaginative journey.  They want you to succeed. And they don’t want a perfect depiction of reality, but something that feels true and that they can feel and imagine too.  Bertie said that if you go onto the stage with this idea that the audience are in this with you, already you’ll feel more confident and will & be freer and your work will be better.  He kind of opened himself up as he said this as if to suggest you can go out there standing proud because the audience is there with you.  And of course you’d feel better.  So, if you have done your research and know your lines, then you let your imagination fully fill out your character, people will go with you.  And I agree.

As a person who loves theatre I can 100% say that I always want to love every play. Sometimes I may have high expectations, sometimes I may have no expectations, but I always want to love your work. I am completely always in the audience, hoping this will be art I will fall in love with: that’s why I love art!  That’s why I spent money on a ticket.  I’ve even very occasionally revisited art (like maybe a film) I didn’t love and even then when I have not adored something and have watched again, I have done so with that hope that this time I may see or feel something new and I might love it!  I am always hoping the thing to love will strike me.  Art is subjective, so there is no art every person will love: but people visit art for it to connect with them in whatever way & every person I am sure is always hoping that will happen. We all want to love your work, always.

I know what I love in the work of an actor whether it be on stage or on screen. It is utterly simple. I love to feel. And from the actor’s perspective I think probably that translates to mean their work has to have some kind of meaning. Style doesn’t matter.  Bertie spoke of when he first stated working and was auditioning for TV commercials: Directors would say a performance was “too theatrical” and for a long time he thought this meant you have to be small on screen with what you do.  Now he doesn’t think this.  I can’t remember the detail enough to explain it all, so instead I’ll just say that from my perspective, when I think about work I have loved on stage and screen I’ve loved work done by folk who have completely transformed themselves and I love work by those who are naturalistic to the point of mumble.  Personally, I think that what matters for me is that what an actor does starts from (or includes) the internal: as in the truth I need to feel in acting is that what a character does starts from somewhere deep within them.  You’d have to ask each of the actors whose work I’ve loved to have any idea of what they’d done though.  How would I know.  But my absolute favourite thing is to feel the internal world of a character.  For me, this is what acting is about and it is the only thing that really matters.

I mean, it is all weird isn’t it – trying to put words into things that are maybe beyond words.  I was really interested in the talk of work in a theatre and how you make a performance work on stage as it is one thing I find fascinating.  I love to watch plays when I am close to the actors so I can see and feel and think about nuances of expression.  I know other people who prefer to be further away.  But I always find it interesting to see a play from right at the back of a theatre when you can’t see actors’ faces anymore.  Because some actors can totally carry what they do so it works both on the front row and at the very back of a giant theatre and others are doing brilliant work that has such impact when you’re close, but it doesn’t necessarily reach the back rows.  Bertie said once you have the emotion, you can rely on others to give advice as to how much to turn it up or down.  But that does not divulge the magic of it!  (I know you can feel Bertie’s work on a back row.)  I suppose the inexplicable things are the joys of life so I’ll just pretend it is magic, though I guess it is craft!

Someone asked a question about being an understudy and how you can give a performance of your own when you’re taking over someone else’s role in which they have already made and fixed so many artistic decisions.  Bertie spoke of such things as how impressed he is by dance which can be so artistically expressive even though every step and even (for example) the speed dancers must move is already fixed.  He said that if what you can physically do is constrained and not up to you, then what you are left with is the true essence of acting really – what you have inside.  And can I add here that I have been so impressed by the work of understudies several times (not that I have seen a huge amount of performances by understudies – but you know – at least 2 or 3 times!) but recently I gained a new appreciation of their work when during a performance of The Ferryman an actor was taken ill and had to leave the stage in the middle of a line.  The understudy had to get ready, come on and begin the play in the middle at what was for this character the absolute climax of his story.  Blew me away.  So impressive.  Did it matter whatsoever that it was a different person playing the character mid-play or a different performance in whatever way?  Not at all.  All that matters is that I felt it.

So, Bertie spoke of truth in acting too… Hmm… (oh no – digression-alert) in my view, truth is an easily misinterpreted word. You start to talk of truth and at the end of the line you get to conclusions such as the idea that if you haven’t felt or experienced something in real life, can you understand it in art (be it as creator or consumer.) I don’t think you need to have experienced anything to feel, convey or understand it in art. To suggest you do in the first place is insulting towards children before even going further… I can feel my digression… stop it, me!  But yes, there was lots of talk about truth and the fact that acting is by definition lying, yet it is also all about conveying something true and I think everyone can understand that, yes? Yes, so, Bertie’s talk was inspiring & moving. Basically he was telling actors: use your imagination & be free. And as Godspeed You! Black Emperor tell us: “What does anyone want but to feel a little more free.”

You know what I’d love to know from actors? I’d love to know whether acting feels creative. I mean, it must be wildly creative to form & shape a character & a play in rehearsals and in your mind for stage or for whatever other medium. But once that’s done, does it feel creative to perform the same play on stage for weeks or months, 8 times a week? I’m so curious how that feels.

For anyone interested in discussion of Mr Carvel’s own work more specifically, someone asked whether Bertie thought Leo Frank was innocent or guilty & whether he had to make that decision as a performer playing the role. Mild spoilers I suppose if you don’t know Parade. (Please watch a version of it if you ever can if you don’t know it!) I was doubly interested in this as I saw an absolutely beautiful production of Parade last year at Hope Mill Theatre which made me sob my little heart out. I have not seen Bertie’s Parade, but have listened to it & even just the audio is deeply moving.  I had wondered, particularly after the version I watched how the entirety of the interpretation and implication in the Donmar’s version when fully experiencing it had been. Bertie said that we can obviously never know the truth but that speaking about the real situation the trial was almost certainly unjust, which doesn’t mean Frank was innocent, but that he thought it likely Frank was innocent. But also, Bertie spoke of how a lot of seemingly fairly unbiased folk were happy to consider Frank guilty, so there must be reasons for this. Bertie said audiences would come to a play on the topic expecting Frank to be portrayed as innocent, so he had some amount of fun playing with this expectation & suggesting it wasn’t definitely true, but that he tried to play Frank as innocent of the crime he was accused of, but as as much of a horrible person as he could other than this.

Oh and someone asked about Strife & what it was like Directing. I’ve never made it explicit before, but Agave in Bakkhai, though so small a role is the thing that’s moved me most that I’ve seen Mr Carvel perform thus far on stage still… but of his stage work entire, I have to say, Strife broke me & I loved it so very much.  It made me feel I love John Galsworthy.  Not that I can have that opinion as I only know a few more things of his work/the man still.  Ho hum. Yet I do!  Anyway, I hope Bertie will direct again in the future.  I haven’t written Mr Carvel’s response when asked about Strife and I come to mention this last so I would be too much inventing it to write words.  He was generally very complimentary of the actors he worked with and talked about learning a lot I think.  I love theatre. There are many plays I love & when you love theatre of course you also see plays that are average or that you hate, but for me the best of plays you may eventually forget the details, but there is some feeling they gave you that you can recall forever inside. I can recall it of Strife with ease. And other of Bertie’s (& others’) work too.

If you’re an artist, I thank you for your art. I was always more of a theoretical person than a real human being, so what I’m afraid of in life, Art enables me to experience & feel. Real life is painful in bad ways is what life has taught me: in ways where avoidance or escape are best (of course it is also glorious in ways too!)  But art makes pain beautiful.  Essentially, as artists, you bring life to me. What more could you give? I am eternally grateful.


Here are my notes from the afternoon:

• Actors don’t talk about the empowering aspect that it’s your imagination people are paying to see – it is not the read/written Hamlet, but your unique Hamlet.*

• Plato’s cave – truth cannot ever be reached – art is about conveying a truth that even facts cannot

• Purity of art 🙂

• Acting is the outward expression of an inner life

Yeah, loads of notes, eh!  I should’ve just posted that list & been done with it shouldn’t I. Idiot me.

So anything else I have written is just entirely my fallible memory rather than being the words or thoughts of Mr Carvel in any way.  Sorry: no misinterpretation was intended though obviously there is loads of misinterpretation.  Bertie might not have said any of this.  And I am all too keenly aware of how many of my own thoughts I have unapologetically showed in here as well as if I were a broken dam, spewing out rubbish. Sorry!  I can’t imagine anyone got this far anyway!  I really hope at least some of these words were actually Bertie Carvel’s thoughts at least sort of…!

( * Bertie spoke a lot about Hamlet in fact which I have neglected to mention once. I want to see the Hamlet where the actor thinks he’s a bit of an idiot and plays him as such too!  As, well, he easily can be, eh! I’d say that’s why I personally think Hamlet works as a late teen/early 20’s – he just makes sense that way to me.  He spoke of Hamlet so much as there was talk of playing real versus not real people and so he used Hamlet as the fictional example in all of these instances. [The impression Bertie gave was that portraying a real or fictional character is in most respects the same kind of the same task.])

Alright, well, maybe I was wrong in my idea anyone might want to read this.  It was a month ago, but I am so happy I went to this talk.  Thank you Theatre Royal Haymarket, thank you Bertie Carvel. Thank you all artists whose work has ever made me feel.


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