Plummer: the Jubilation of Acting

The veteran actor talks about the wit and professionalism of Dame Edith Evans, working with untrained actors, and music as only Shakespeare could write it

TO borrow a phrase from comedian Billy Crystal, actor Christopher Plummer looks ``absolutely marvelous.'' Fit and energetic, Mr. Plummer sits in a sound studio here in casual clothes talking about untrained young actors, the splendor of Dame Edith Evans on stage, and the glory of Shakespeare as a musician.

Shakespeare? Musician?

``He wrote music,'' Plummer says, his distinct voice in a low, soft register. ``There are elements of symphony in Shakespeare that build and build, and actually go beyond symphony because the plays deal with greatness, nobility, sadness, humor, and comedy all in one package. Writing has as much music in it as Mozart or Beethoven. To me, the use of our language is the highest example of art.''

LAST weekend, Plummer brought Shakespeare's language together with Mendelssohn's music on stage with the New York Chamber Symphony. Reading selections from ``A Midsummer Night's Dream, Plummer, and conductor Michael Lankester, created a whole theatrical presentation rather than the usual narrator and symphony trading emotional moments.

``We lower the lights, a shimmering of strings, and there is Henry V praying the night before the battle,'' Plummer says. ``It's certainly not the whole play, but there is enough substance there to give the author a decent hearing.''

Shakespeare and Plummer became virtually synonymous over the past quarter century. Performing many roles at Great Britain's National Theatre, the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn., and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Canada, Plummer earned superlative laurels.

After a l982 production of Othello on Broadway, critic Walter Kerr said Plummer's portrayal of Iago was ``quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time.''

Most popularly known for his role in the l965 movie ``The Sound of Music'' and many other movies, Plummer has also been recognized with a Broadway Tony Award, an Emmy for TV, two New York Drama Desk Awards, and Canada's Genie Award. Plummer's one man show, ``A Word or Two Before You Go,'' is described by him as ``a somewhat personal stroll through literature.'' He will perform it next in Carmel, Calif., on October 23 and 24. And at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, beginning in January l994, he and Jason Robards will do Harold Pinter's ``No Man's Land.''

Following are excerpts from a recent interview.

A film critic once described you as ``coasting'' in one of your movies. Is criticism easy or hard for you to take?

I'm a little bit snobbish about my critics; I like them to be top critics, because so many today are not trained or they move down from the sports pages. The ones who genuinely love theatre and films, and love being critics, are not out to destroy, or just be funny, or mock at the expense of someone. They give a tough assessment, and I'll listen to it. As for coasting, was he saying I'm not allowed to live well and make some money in order to do the things I really want to do?

How do the skills of most young actors today differ from actors when you first started?

Young actors sadly don't get enough theater training as did the actors of my day, simply because television has swallowed everything. The kids want to immediately become TV stars. I don't blame them. It doesn't mean they don't have talent. Their friends get on a show and become big names, and the others say, ``Why should I have to go through all this nonsense of training?'' They just don't think of theater as the highest form of art for the actor and writer. If you're good at the theater, you can honestly be good at anything.

Yet the growth of regional theater over the last 20 years has provided lots of acting opportunities.

The truth is that New York doesn't mean as much as it used to in theater. The most important thing is that more and more small towns have their own theaters, which is strangely like Europe many years ago. What we need is to have young people go back to the theaters for training, to know what training is. New York has become a kind of personal-appearance town, a hot-ticket town instead of a place where every top writer from all over the world was represented in one season. It used to be more exciting than London.

As a professional actor, whom or what do you trust?

I trust all the influences that made me excited and jubilant about going into this profession. The few magic moments that one has had in the theater make you realize it can still be there, if you work for it. And even though we are surrounded by awful junk most of the time, there's hope someone will write a great piece and maybe you'll be in it. I trust that to happen.

And I can always go back to the war horses like Macbeth, King Lear, or Hamlet. And if New York doesn't want them, you can do them in Provincetown or the Bering Straits if need be.

You have acted with all the great theater actors of the last 40 or 50 years. Is there one who stands out for you?

Dame Edith Evans dared all the time. She was probably the greatest actress I've ever known. She had more joy in appearing on the stage than anybody, with so much vitality. She was nearly 80 when I worked with her in Richard III at Stratford in England, and she was playing mad Queen Margaret, which includes a curse that goes on for three pages. All the time in rehearsal, she kept saying she couldn't play it, but she was absolutely riveting when she did it.

But one night she stopped in the middle of the performance and said to the audience, ``I can't do this, it's hopeless. This is a part for a [Greek actress]; she could go on cursing all her life, but I'm English, and for heaven's sake, I'd stop and have a cup of tea.'' She brought down the house.

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