Paul T Davies salutes the elder statesmen (and women) of British Theatre.
One of the hottest tickets in London at the moment is at the Bridge Theatre, where Dame Maggie Smith is performing A German Life. That life is of Brunhilde Pomsel, who lived through most of the twentieth century, born in 1911 and dying at the age of 106 in 2017. She witnessed at first hand the rise of the Nazis and the collapse of the Third Reich, and one of her jobs was the secretary to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. What is extraordinary about the play is that Maggie Smith delivers the 1-hour forty-five-minute monologue, (no interval), at the age of 84. Just last week, I was in the audience in Colchester witnessing Sir Ian McKellen celebrate his 80th year performing his one-man show, and raising thousands of pounds for local theatres as he tours throughout the UK.
They are outstanding actors and I feel privileged to have seen both, in their so-called “twilight years”, giving a master class on acting and holding an audience enthralled. Theatre is in their DNA, both coming from a time when the theatre was considered the main event for actors; they have years of experiences flowing through their veins. Whereas, arguably, in shattering the fourth wall and engaging directly with the audience, and talking about his life, Sir Ian can go “off-piste”, tell his story in any order and change things depending on the audience response. (with some delicious anecdotes about Dame Maggie!). Even so, the second half contains every Shakespeare play, and every line he performs is rendered fresh and vital. Dame Maggie has a script to stick to, cannot deviate, even though the script does allow Brunhilde/Smith to break off and say they forgot what they were saying. But in Smith, it’s the gestures, the pauses, the face of horror at Fascism, the denial of how much she really did know, the space between the words, is where true, naturalistic acting lies. She has provided the 900 seat Bridge Theatre with is first sold-out production, and she performs to every seat in that house. An audience is in awe of her. Every actor under the age of 80 has realised that Smith and McKellen have made it impossible for them to ever whinge about learning lines again.
Glenda Jackson, in her 80s, is currently taking Broadway by storm performing the title role of King Lear, and Dame Eileen Atkins, (also in her 80's), was superb in After the Storm last autumn. Of course, good health has blessed these actors. But I think what they are demonstrating is throwing the gauntlet down to themselves, to challenge their skills afresh, and to destroy the notion that life somehow ends at 60. I’m still hopeful that I will see Dame Judi Dench on stage at least one more time.
It’s a shame NT Live isn’t screening these performances, but I do hope they are being recorded in some way. It would be a valuable archive for any younger actor. Who would you like to see performing into their 80s?