As you know, it’s awfully rare when critics agree with each other about anything much, including whether the earth is flat. (It is, actually.) So when I disagree occasionally with Ben Brantley, chief drama critic of The New York Times , it’s nothing personal, I assure you. It’s just that Mr. Brantley is the first drama critic in the history of theater to build an entire aesthetic around body parts.
“Shall we start with Eileen Atkins’s right leg?” he began his Oct. 25 review of The Unexpected Man . “It is, like her left leg, slender and shapely, and it has no doubt served this fine actress well over the years as something to stand on.”
Not many people have thought of that before. But Ben has. Legs are something to stand on. From the outset, we therefore see his body-part aesthetic boldly establishing itself. Ms. Atkins’ right leg, however, is the important leg.
Ben goes on to explain why. “But in The Unexpected Man , the cigarette-slim play by Yasmina Reza that opened last night at the Promenade Theater, Ms. Atkins turns her right leg into something far more resonant: an index of the vanity, anxiety and authority of the woman she is playing.”
And here, if I may say so, I was wrong-footed. For I know Eileen Atkins to be one of the leading actresses in England, and if she could do all this with her right leg, what unearthly heights might she yet reach if she chose to act with her left leg, too? But how, you may wonder, does she scale the peaks with her right leg?
Ben will tell us. “She does this simply by pointing her right toe outward,” he explains, “and shifting her weight, with the leg at a comely distance and at an angle from its partner. This small physical adjustment makes Ms. Atkins look as cosmopolitan as an Erte fashion illustration, and it defines her character as someone for whom stylish affectation has become a reflex.”
And there we have it. “Now consider Alan Bates’s shoulders,” eagle-eye Ben continues. Before we consider the aesthetic of Mr. Bates’ shoulders, it’s important to note that Ben’s consistency of critical judgment in the body-part department is admirably close to F.R. Leavis’ strictness of moral concern in the great tradition of the English novel. “Ms. Atkins’s angled-leg business was also a highlight of Indiscretions on Broadway five years ago,” he adds, thereby making the crucial historical cultural link.
Scholars in the field will no doubt recall his previous epiphany over Michael Gambon’s feet. “The Great Gambon,” as he’s known, was making his long-awaited Broadway debut in David Hare’s Skylight four years ago, and Ben unlocked the secret to his genius when he observed his “sly, sad footwork” within “the dance of desire.” “Watch how he tentatively props and then withdraws a well-polished shoe on the rung of a chair.…” he admiringly advised us. And on the night I attended the performance, a thousand eyes beamed onto Mr. Gambon’s sly, sad feet as we all awaited the pivotal well-polished-shoe moment.
And we watched and we watched. And guess what? It didn’t happen!
If Ben’s body-part aesthetic has a tiny weakness, it is merely that great actors don’t necessarily prop or withdraw a well-polished shoe on the rung of a chair the same way every night. They might, for example, think to themselves before the curtain goes up, “I think I’ll prop it on the sofa tonight.” They might think, “Maybe I’ll go to Joe Allen’s after the show.” They might even forget about their feet entirely, forgetting their body parts.
But this doesn’t entirely invalidate Ben’s unique approach. It’s a question of emphasis. “Well,” he began his review of the unforgettable My Night With Reg a few seasons ago. “At least one man on the threshold of middle age has nothing to worry about when he puts on a swimsuit this summer.”
Here the body part that caught Ben’s eye was Maxwell Caulfield’s penis. Whilst it is never cool to drool, Ben pointed out that the “impeccably proportioned torso” of Mr. Caulfield, the actor he admired when he played the naked Adonis on the beach in Louise Page’s Salonika in 1985, was “once again on unabashed display (every inch of him) in My Night With Reg .”
I regretted at the time that I was unfamiliar with Mr. Caulfield’s memorable performance as the naked Adonis in Salonika . I had seen him in Grease 2 and An Inspector Calls , but good though he was, he was fully dressed at the time. I feel I might have something to contribute when it comes to Eileen Atkins’ right leg, Michael Gambon’s feet or Alan Bates’ shoulders. But there are times when one must concede the territory to the expert. “The flesh of Mr. Caulfield, at least,” Ben concluded, “still provides no evidence of a paunch or, despite a catty comment or two directed at his character, a drooping posterior.”
We were very relieved to hear it. If only Mr. Caulfield’s impeccably proportioned torso were appearing nightly in The Full Monty . Ben wouldn’t have needed to ask in his review, “Can you see, you know, everything? No, at least not from where I was sitting.” But actors themselves have always been concerned with body parts, of course. Their eyes are crucial-eyes that can burn. Olivier thought his nose was most important. He famously couldn’t get into character unless he had the nose right. False noses gave him confidence, like a discreet mask.
On the other hand, Gielgud, whose voice was kissed by God, only felt comfortable when the costumes arrived. He knew then who he was supposed to be. With Alec Guinness, it came with the walk. When he was a student, he actually followed strangers in the street copying how they walked. For him, it was the key to a character. For Ralph Richardson, it was the imagined weight of his characters. The roles came to him through their physical embodiment. He would literally test the ground-or stage-beneath him, flexing his legs to see if his character felt comfortable.
Thus, every actor has his physical way into a role, his backstage tricks and secrets. But when they are good and great actors, we do not notice. Ben notices. He celebrates the body parts other body parts have never even met. “Now consider Alan Bates’s shoulders,” he continued his review of The Unexpected Man . “They are more formidable than one remembers their being from those 1960′s movies ( Georgy Girl , King of Hearts ) that made Mr. Bates a countercultural movie idol. He doesn’t do anything very flashy with them-just some curving, flexing and shrugging.”
There he is! Curving, flexing and shrugging away-yet modest withal. “And yet,” Ben concludes, “those shoulders are displayed like both a well-polished badge of self-regard and a No Trespassing sign. Here, clearly, is a fellow who struts his importance while pretending he does not.”
I must very respectfully disagree with Ben here. I thought Alan Bates’ shoulders gave one of their best performances in Far From the Madding Crowd during the cow-milking scenes. Nor, I must admit in all candor, did I find that Eileen Atkins’ right leg gave a better performance than her left leg. Maybe I’m losing it, but they both seemed exactly, neutrally the same to me. On the contrary, I would say that the secret to Ms. Atkins’ super performance is her watchful, intelligent stillness.
Well, that’s quite enough of their body parts. I’m off to see Juliette Binoche’s right knee in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal . And Yasmina Reza’s play about two strangers-a literary lion and a cultivated fan-who meet on a train? I previously reported from London, when The Unexpected Man played there with Ms. Atkins and Michael Gambon, that for me it’s a flirtatious brief encounter, a slight piece at 70 minutes. It still is this time around with Ms. Atkins and Mr. Bates, masterly actors of such effortless emotional range they could charm and intrigue us if they read the telephone book. It’s always good to see them. Let’s welcome them back to town with open arms.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.