Forget the Greasepaint

Improved lighting and more intimate dramas require simpler technique

``WHAT I love is that you can change your face completely - anything is possible.'' Actress Judi Dench, quoted at the end of an exhibition called ``Slap!'' (at London's Theatre Museum through April 7, is clearly pro-makeup. Actor Denholm Elliott, quoted in the same context, is (at least theoretically) anti-makeup: ``My attitude to makeup,'' he says, ``is the same as my attitude to directors - never use them.''

It was the British makeup artist Rosemarie Swinfield who suggested this exhibition in the first place. It's subtitled ``A Celebration of Stage Make-Up,'' and traces its history from the time of poisonous potions via greasy sticks to today's various and sometimes highly sophisticated techniques.

``Everyone's fascinated by stage makeup,'' Ms. Swinfield firmly believes. Nor is she taken in for a moment by Mr. Elliott's humorous disclaimer. She's sure he can't do without directors - or makeup.

Talking to me in her tiny studio in the basement of the Charles Fox company in Covent Garden, she lowers her voice confidentially: ``It's a curious thing ... [male] actors actually don't like people to know they're using it. They want it, but they don't want anyone to know it's there.''

In fact, such an attitude is perfectly in line with Swinfield's own approach to her art.

She quotes Douglas Young, the man who trained her at the Max Factor Salon on Bond Street. ``He said, `If it's working well you don't notice it.''' She adds: ``It should be engraved on the head of every actor, I think.''

What she teaches her drama students, she says (and quite a number of notables have passed through her hands at two of Britain's leading drama schools), are ``makeups to cheat the director!''

Though this may not be the period of ``the grand makeups'' (things like ``Phantom of the Opera'' are, in her opinion, ``exceptions''), it is the period of doing more with less.

Her work with Nigel Hawthorn in preparing for his remarkable portrayal of C.S. Lewis in ``Shadowlands'' - a hit in London, now in New York - is a case in point. She liked the challenge. ``He didn't want anyone to say `Oh, he's relying on his makeup''' she says. ``C.S. Lewis has been described as a man with the mind of an angel and the face of a butcher.''

IN her book, not inappropriately called ``Goodbye Greasepaint,'' Swinfield describes how she very subtly made Mr. Hawthorn's features seem heavier and ruddier, altering the appearance of his nose with highlight and giving ``a feeling of high color'' to his cheeks by means of stippled ``EF9 supracolor.''

She showed me the chart for this makeup. It looks deceptively simple. No use of latex or ``putty.'' Even an early notion of spraying Hawthorn's hair dark (which comically turned his gray to pink when it was washed out) was abandoned. Little more was done than to strategically place ``pales'' (highlights to make his face fuller), a brown shader to make his mouth look slightly bigger and the area under his eyes looser.

Certainly a ``natural'' makeup, but makeup nevertheless. But that's Swinfield's trademark: she's ``valued for the subtlety of her work'' says Catherine Haill of the Theatre Museum, who was coorganizer of ``Slap!''

Swinfield says in her book that ``There has been a quiet revolution in stage makeup over the last few years; so quiet, in fact, that many people are not even aware of it.''

Factors in this revolution she lists as improved lighting, more intimate theater, film, and television makeup techniques adapted for stage use and a move away from conventional greasepaints, as colors have greatly improved.

Her own development comes out of the late '50s and '60s ``when theater had changed but makeup hadn't,'' she says. ``Old fashioned makeup, new theater.''

Some people, however, started to see the anomaly. They began to realize, as Swinfield puts it, that ``in a gritty play you couldn't come out with lip gloss on and all those things!''

Looking back at photos of a naturalistic play like ``Look Back in Anger''(1957), the new, more natural makeup used does not look particularly natural anymore.

``But compared to some other actress at the time,'' Swinfield says, ``who might have had big false eyelashes and a lot of color on her eyes, it's natural.''

If things changed then for women, for men ``it changed to an almost total rejection.''

SINCE then, things have balanced out.

``The makeup in today's theater is like the last piece of jigsaw,'' Swinfield maintains. ``You don't have to do the grand gesture. Small, very important things change a face.''

Makeup for a stage actor, she feels, is the final touch once he or she has worked out everything else to do with a role.

``Inside first, and then, finally, the makeup - and then you've got the outside as well.''

This is her answer to young actors who often feel makeup is somehow ``false'' because everything should come from ``inside.''

Such an attitude could hardly be more different in philosophy from Laurence Olivier's often famous makeup that derived from his conviction that a character was built from the outside in. Swinfield tells how, when she worked at Max Factor, Olivier (``He was very, very fascinated with makeup'') ``would come and spend a whole afternoon just working on a makeup. I heard he would probably go off and consult with someone else as well.''

She brings out the chart of one of Olivier's remarkable transformations - into ``Othello.'' She heard that ``he wanted to have false ears, false lips, false nose - false all kinds of things - and he had to be persuaded down until he eventually came to this.'' No latex at all. An ``unusual'' makeup in her opinion, ``done with pancake. To get the shining bits it was wiped off with another kind of clear makeup, body tint. The shine is important. A `pale' would give a rather flat look. It's one of the most famous of theater makeups. Nothing dated about it - you could do it again today. There wasn't a lot of makeup, you see, it's just a matter of getting it right. I can change the look of a face entirely by changing the shape of your nostrils.''

At this point in the interview, an earlier mistake caught up with me.

I had asked to see her demonstrate her skills. But her planned student for training that day had not materialized.

I really would, I said, like to see her at work on some victim. It was the wrong word.

``I much prefer the subtle things,'' she reiterated. ``And doing pretty ladies gets very dull. I like doing cuts and bruises.... In fact - that's what I'll do on you. Very simple. Absolutely real in close-up. When I've finished with you you can go out and meet your wife and she'll cry! Come and sit here.''

I should have run for it.

I'd overlooked the fact that in the '70s Swinfield, in a career that has taken her into virtually every aspect of professional makeup, worked with Christopher Lee in ``Dracula has Risen from the Grave'' and Peter Cushing in ``The Blood Beast Terror.''

Perhaps, after all, subtlety and the natural look can be very potent techniques.

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