Where new writing finds its voice

One Man & His Stage

Henrietta Bredin


Simon Callow talks to Henrietta Bredin about how he got closer to Dickens, Shakespeare and Wilde through the intense and complex medium of the one-man play

One way to get to know a writer’s work and life with rare intimacy, a way unfortunately not open to many of us, is to perform a one-man play about that writer. 

This is something that Simon Callow has undertaken on a number of occasions. He has delved into the works of Juvenal (‘The show was called Juvenalia, needless to say’), Rousseau, Oscar Wilde and Dickens. And currently in preparation is a collaboration with the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate on a new piece, Being Shakespeare. Callow has also, with great success, performed all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and recited monologues by Dickens.

So what does this particular form have to offer? It clearly has a strong appeal and other actors have followed a similar route: Michael Pennington with Shakespeare and Chekhov, Roy Dotrice with John Aubrey, Vanessa Redgrave with Joan Didion.

For Callow a crucial element is that the life should be as interesting as the writing: ‘That’s not the case in many instances. The genre of the one-man play, something that only has one character but is nonetheless a play, with action and a clear narrative thread, was invented in my view by Micheál MacLíammóir, who wrote, and performed, The Importance of Being Oscar. It’s a biographical divertissement in which he talks about Wilde, becomes the characters, occasionally becomes Wilde, but is always present as narrator – the seanchaí or storyteller. It’s incredibly cleverly written; there’s a masterly five-minute digest of The Picture of Dorian Gray within it, never directly quoting from the original but woven in as a sort of homage to the Victorian theatre.’

MacLíammóir first performed his play at the Gate Theatre, Dublin in 1960 and then took it to Broadway and all over the world. Callow worked on the show as his dresser for a time and following so literally in his footsteps to perform it himself was daunting. ‘I had to find my own voice, and it took a while, but I got there in the end. I think I found that voice to a much greater extent when I did The Mystery of Charles Dickens.’

Callow likes to work closely with writers and his collaboration with Peter Ackroyd on the Dickens play was a rewarding one. ‘It needed to be someone who was deeply versed in Dickens, and Peter was extraordinarily well qualified on that score. His biography is highly theatrical in the way that Dickens’s own writing is theatrical. When I first proposed the idea we went out for supper and talked and talked, and after we’d drunk about nineteen bottles of wine I poured him into a cab and by the end of the week he’d sent me the first draft. It was all wrong, he hadn’t got the idea at all and had gone off at a wild tangent, so he said right, we’d better meet again.

‘I went to his house this time and after another nineteen bottles of red wine he said OK, I know what you’re after now. Three days later he sent me a completely new draft, which still wasn’t quite right, but definitely getting there. 

‘The third time we discussed it he sent me a new draft by the end of the following day, and that one was pretty much it. All the same, it was still evolving during rehearsal, and then evolved further during performances. It kept on getting closer and closer until the very last performance I gave, which was in Melbourne. It was perfect – that text was perfect.’

There must be a high element of risk involved in keeping a performance so fluid, constantly changing it and shifting things about. Did he worry about keeping the shape of the play intact, remembering what came next? 

‘Performance memory’s a very strange thing, but with both Dickens and Oscar Wilde it was crucial that the script had to fit me, to sit as comfortably as a properly cut suit. And the audience keeps teaching you things. Their response can make you realise that you need to find a bridging passage between one episode and the next, or that something is a little too long and needs to be cut back. In the end, you know when the balance is right.’

Given that a one-man play is essentially a minimal, painstakingly reduced construct, there is in fact a panoply of creative talent involved. There’s the original writer, the writer of the play, the actor (in Callow’s case, a fine writer himself) and the director, which for both The Importance of Being Oscar and The Mystery of Charles Dickens, was Patrick Garland, highly conversant with the works of both Wilde and Dickens and a brilliantly sensitive interpreter. 

‘Absolutely. And of course there’s a designer as well, and a stage manager once you’re on the road. I’m often asked if it’s lonely doing these things but, quite apart from the people just mentioned, there are all the different characters on stage with me. I go around with Mrs Gamp and Mr Podsnap for company. Beyond anything else you’re in constant, direct communication with the audience.’

In terms of memory, the most astonishing feat was for Callow to memorise and perform the entire sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets: ‘The first time I did them, at the National Theatre in 1979, I had learned them but I had the book in front of me, and it was a fairly straight recitation. But I’ve just done them in Canada, with a whole production devised by Michael Langham. That helped in a way, because performing particular physical actions prompts the recollection of which line comes next.’ 

It’s storytelling again, but surely each sonnet has to be treated separately, with a tight, concentrated focus?

‘Yes. Each of the sonnets is really a play in itself. It was a question of charting an emotional development. There was a narrative but not one that was actually written. You’d go from one sonnet to the next, noting the emotional shift between each until you were in the heart of anguish. His blithe delight as a young man gives way to doubt and desperation, to anger and finally, a sort of resignation. Technically that’s enormously challenging. One wanted to linger over some and for some of them to go incredibly quickly, with huge, volcanic, red-hot emotion. Like a pianist hurtling into a sequence of notes.’

Is there any other writer with whom Callow would like to spend time in this unique fashion, up close and personal?

‘Balzac. He fits the criteria – an astonishing writer with a life that was frequently extraordinary, a man who was preposterous and yet magnificent. It wouldn’t be easy because, of course, the words would have to translated first. 

‘I asked the great British Balzacian, Graham Robb, who’s written a brilliant book about him, what his French is really like. I’ve read him in the original but I wanted to get a reaction from someone whose French is so much better than mine. And he said it’s serviceable, it’s energetic, but in France it’s not so much the words that people quote as the plot and the characters. 

‘Balzac was the great rewriter of all time. He didn’t originally conceive the Comédie Humaine as a linked sequence of books but halfway through his career he thought oh, maybe they do form part of an arc, and he went back and rewrote them. I’ve seen reproductions of printers’ proofs and they are absolutely fascinating – scrawled all over, endless little spider lines of amendments and additions.’

Next on the agenda however, is Being Shakespeare, even now in the midst of the long process of being devised, crafted, honed, polished and repolished. At the last count, Jonathan Bate was on his fourteenth rewrite...

lllustration by Michael Constantine www.mconstantine.co.uk