“Is there something London can boast of that’s arguably better than anywhere else in the world?” Pertie was clearly taunting me. The word ‘boast’ was a dead giveaway. But if he intended his question as a challenge he was mistaken. It was, in fact, a cinch.
Not only did I have the answer at my fingertips, I was able to assert it with force and confidence. The theatre in London — in fact, both in the West End as well as the London fringe — is undoubtedly the best in the world. Broadway is a pale imitation with an unfortunate accent to boot. Proof of this is that when Hollywood stars wish to show they can also act it’s a London play they invariably choose.
From Kevin Spacey to Elizabeth Taylor, from Lauren Bacall to Christopher Reeve, from Dustin Hoffman to Nicole Kidman they’ve all crossed ‘the pond’ to appear on the London stage. Los Angeles may be where they make their name and wealth but London is where they come to prove they can actually act. I’m tempted to add QED!
That, in fact, brings me to the point I want to make today. Acting on stage is very different to acting on screen. And it’s really when you have seen and admired an actor at the theatre that you can accept he or she has true talent. His or her performance on screen is not just assisted and enhanced by special effects and possibly innumerable re-takes, it can also often be deceptive and misleading.
To carry a two- or three-hour play, live in front of an audience reacting in real time — who can be merciless in their judgement and even boo if they don’t like you — without special effects and graphics, without re-takes and clever editing and without the drama of computerised sound and lights requires not just confidence but remarkable talent. Tom Cruise and George Clooney couldn’t do it. Nor — and I’m pretty sure of this — could Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir.
Hollywood and Bollywood produce stars. The theatre creates actors. And I have no doubt which is the greater and more admirable entity. Sadly, stars are better paid and better known. Actors, however, are the real McCoy.
I can only think of two directors who’ve produced great plays in Delhi though Bombay, I’m told, has a creditable tradition of Marathi and Gujarati theatre. Alas, it’s decades since the last Ibrahim Elkazi production and many years since the last Feroz Abbas Khan play. But if you were lucky enough to see Tumhari Amrita, Inspector Ramlal, Saalgira or Gandhi vs. Gandhi I have no doubt you’ll remember them as vividly as I do.
Anupam Kher, Shabana Azmi, Nadira Babbar, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Shaikh on stage is a thrilling experience. Not for a moment would you realise the greatness of their talent if you’ve only seen them on screen.
So the next time you visit London make a point of seeing a play. Actually, two or even three. It won’t be inexpensive but it’s money well spent and you’ll remember it for years to come.
I always do. Last month I saw ‘People, Places and Things’ at the Wyndham’s. Denise Gough, the lead actress, put on a spell-binding performance that more than made up for the inadequacies of the play. It left her visibly drained. But it was exhilarating for the audience. We gave her a standing ovation although, paradoxically, Denise could barely stand by then!