At The Menier Chocolate Factory on Thursday night to review Nicky Silver’s wonderfully irreverent The Lyons for The American. Fantastic night of theater, but I kept wondering to myself if I was being slightly petty.
The play was set in a hospital. A New York Jewish matriarch, Rita, is passing the time while her husband Ben (played with a touching simplicity by Nicholas Day) waits until cancer finally eats the last dregs of life away from him. Isla Blair plays Rita, who could hardly be called long-suffering she suffers very little and doesn’t let her husband’s death agony get in the way of her picking a new theme to redecorate the living room in after he’s gone. There was a wonderfully callous quality to the comic rhythm of the contrapuntal exchange between the pair. The problem I had though was that, clearly talented though Blair is as an actress, I found it slightly jarring that she hadn’t got her head quite wrapped around the American accent. Certain moments just seemed to slip carelessly to the floor when they were clearly aimed to precisely slot neatly into a Eugene O’Neill-esque rhythmic jigsaw of grim jollity because of the occasional blips and gaps between Blair’s delivery and the alternate course the line seemed to want to take.
Perhaps what made it jarring was that the other actors seemed to have got it so perfectly down. I had seen Tom Ellis as a raspy voiced villain in Merlin and as a mild-mannered physician in Doctor Who, so I was pleasantly shocked by how well he was able to slip so naturally into and convey a sense of insecurity in Rita and Ben’s gay short story writer son, Curtis, lankily edging around the stage, raging in brittle nasal Manhattanite tones.
Yet my friend who had accompanied me who actually is English, thought the opposite, that Blair sounded completely natural, but that knowing Ellis was British made him constantly question whether the actor was pulling it off.
It’s all academic obviously. I still can’t do accents. I’m still useless at distinguishing a New Zealand accent from an Aussie one. I’ve acquired the habit of asking the barista over the counter where her North Atlantic twang is from (Canadians get ever so slightly offended when they get confused for us. We think it’s quaint and charming when the opposite happens, go figure).
And accents are tricky things. I harbor a secret, minor contempt for expats whose accents change and yet I often get confused for Irish. My wife was once mistaken for American in a pizza parlor in New York and yet the same person thought I was an Irishman. The consequences of over a decade’s influence on each other. I have met expats whose accents retain the same strong native quality as the homeland from whence they came thirty years before. And my high school students have mistaken my accent for anything from Welsh to South African.
But I do wonder if British actors, aurally fed for years on the ubiquity of American film and TV, which, in all but a few exceptional circumstances tends to offer up characters speaking in a broadly neutral, accessible and unspecific plains talk, have taken too much for granted concerning the ease and homogeneity in our accents. It’s an easy mistake to make. I don’t think I realised just how various are the ways we talk until I was 21 and I left the country for the first time.
As one of the characters in another brilliant play, Brian Friel’s Translations, says in response to a request to teach another character English, “I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea.”
Was I being too picky? In the magic of the theater, I should be able to suspend my disbelief and look beyond. After all, every critic from The Telegraph to The Camden Journal will have raved by now about masterful performances by both Ellis and Blair, which, to be sure, they both gave, despite feeling like the rest of the audience was a bit more “with” Rita than I was, especially at her departure from the stage, for which many clapped, but felt to me like one of the only cringeworthy moments, a hit more Gloria Gaynor/ Aretha Franklin a la R-E-S-P-E-C-T than taking seriously a woman who doesn’t want to waste her twilight years. But I do think that actors, more than many, need to be mindful of the nuances in the way we talk, especially if they want us to “buy in” to the persona they present to us.
Sure a masterful performance can impress and compel and rivet, but in a play that depends so much on private family tragedies, does it help us to “interpret between privacies” of the characters on stage or the individuals we meet in our travels? I’m not so sure.