By Ben Brantley
[In this article from the New York Times’s arts section (on 11 July 2011), Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley describes several portrayals of madness in the New York stage during the last season. My having been an aspiring actor, this kind of description always intrigues and interests me and ROT being ostensibly a theater blog, I figured it’s a good forum to rerun Brantley’s observations for the edification of both readers who are theater folk and those (poor, benighted) folk who aren’t. I hope you all agree and enjoy the chance to visit the article again. ~Rick]
“Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.” That well-turned observation was originally made about one Prince Hamlet, and doubtless it’s useful advice regarding future heads of state. But the dictum applies equally to those who tread the stage. Few things test the mettle of an actor—or separate the artists from the hacks—like the simulation of a whopping case of mental illness.
On one level, conveying the idea that you’re out of your mind is a piece of cake (three layers, heavily frosted, lots of candles), in the same way that portraying drunkenness is. You or I could do it. Widen the eyes as far as possible, gnash the teeth until they threaten to crack, shake like a leaf in a hurricane and—voilà—you’re a certifiable basket case for public consumption. (For drunkenness, substitute: slur the words, squint the eyes and lean to one side until you almost fall over.)
For centuries, this overwrought approach was widely considered great acting and frequently rewarded with prizes. (Just check the list of Oscar winners over the years.) Such performances, after all, are as dramatic as all get-out, the kind that frighten little children (or, worse, make them dissolve into giggles).
What they don’t do, as a general rule, is lure you into the mind of the afflicted character, or make you realize what a vague line divides the so-called sane from the insane. Audiences can rest comfortably as they watch such displays, thinking, “Well, that’s not me, is it?” What get beneath the skin are the interpretations that make you feel the seductiveness of an escape from reality (or into an alternative reality), in which madness starts to seem like a viable existential choice.
Such thoughts came to my (more or less sound) mind frequently during the past year, which offered plenty of examples of good actors losing it. (And no, I’m not back on the subject of Lindsay Lohan.) This summer alone has provided two sterling portraits of women in states of breakdown that were very different but both entirely persuasive: Joely Richardson’s take on a politician’s bipolar wife in Michael Weller’s “Side Effects” and Carey Mulligan’s interpretation of a young woman succumbing to schizophrenia during a family vacation in “Through a Glass Darkly,” Jenny Worton’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 movie. (Both plays recently ended their New York runs.).
Ms. Mulligan, who is only 26 and a movie star in the making, may well turn out to be one of the great actresses of the 21st century. She is an artist who combines extreme delicacy with matching clarity, so that even when she’s onstage (and you are many yards away from her), you feel as if you were watching her doing the emotional equivalent of needlepoint in close-up. I first saw her as Nina in “The Seagull” at the Royal Court Theater in London (and later on Broadway), where she managed the final breakdown scene with a credibility I have never witnessed elsewhere. (Let’s face it, it’s not easy repeating variations on the lines “I’m a seagull! No, I’m an actress!”)
In “Through a Glass Darkly,” her character, Karin, has recently been released from the hospital, where she was treated for delusions, and she has joined her husband, father and brother on an isolated island to recuperate. From the very beginning, you sensed this woman was torn between the conflicting calls of familial responsibility and a self-contained fantasy world. What was astonishing was how authentic Ms. Mulligan made the world of illusions seem to us.
Long before she erupted into what might be described as anything like derangement, we could sense from her movements — suddenly, slightly speeded up, then slowed to near-paralysis — that she listened to a different internal metronome than anyone around her. And you could read the sensory reality of her phantoms—you felt they had textures, voices and smells all their own—so legibly in her facial reactions that it almost seemed possible to follow Karin into her private universe. She brought to mind what the director Peter Hall said of Vanessa Redgrave after seeing her in “The Lady From the Sea” some 30 years ago: “You could see right through the skin to the emotions.”
Ms. Richardson, as it happens, is Ms. Redgrave’s daughter. As an actress she may be less conspicuously open than her mother or Ms. Mulligan, but she possesses a sharp and affecting lucidity of her own. Her character in “Side Effects,” Melinda Metz, is bipolar, and she doesn’t wear her illness all that visibly at first. But as she interacts with her staid, loving and frightened husband (a pitch-perfect Cotter Smith), Melinda, like Karin, seems to be moving to a rhythm that is subtly out of sync with that of the everyday world she inhabits. At times, her reversals of tempo and of mood are so abrupt and intense, they’re scary.
But they are also kind of exhilarating. And that’s the beauty of this performance. We understand why Melinda chooses not to take her medications (and lies about it). Off them, she may spiral into really high spirits that are dangerous to her husband’s career (not to mention the furniture). But unedited and unshackled, she is fully alive in a way Mr. Smith’s character never can be, and you know why he remains so attracted to as well as terrified by her. Any of us who experience irrational fluctuations of feeling from time to time will see a heightened mirror of ourselves in her, and we start to question what defines mental illness.
Sometimes, of course, a more classic scenery-chewing madman is just what the, uh, doctor ordered. In the title role of “Diary of a Madman,” adapted from Gogol for a production seen last winter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the prodigiously gifted Geoffrey Rush played insanity as stark, raving stand-up comedy, to eerily entertaining effect.
At the other end of the spectrum was Edie Falco’s portrait of Bananas, the hallucination-prone, apartment-bound wife in this season’s Broadway revival of John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves.” If Mr. Rush’s interpretation of madness might be said to have been in Technicolor, Ms. Falco’s was in MRI shades of gray, an exercise in somber, clinical exactitude. I’m not sure this interpretation always suited Mr. Guare’s whimsical writing, but it was certainly fascinating to watch. On the other hand, I was never entirely able to identify with her or Mr. Rush’s characters, as I could with Ms. Mulligan’s and Ms. Richardson’s.
Of course, there was at least one other outstanding portrait of madness in extremis in recent months, that of Derek Jacobi in the last acts of “King Lear,” also seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Shakespeare’s use of madness—including the feigned madness of our friend Hamlet—occupies its own cosmic level in world literature. That’s a topic for another day.