On listening, preoccupation and physicality (and the comic genius of Jenny Rainsford!):

Orange-Tree Theatre, London, January 2019

Many directors will insist upon the importance of actor listening because true authenticity can only occur when actors are listening to others present in a scene. Listening certainly does enable greater connectedness.

But how do you tell an actor to listen, or that she isn’t listening enough? How do you encourage better listening among actors and, dare I say it, greater truth in a scene? Is this a question that can even be asked?

I recently saw Congreve’s restoration comedy, The Double-Dealer, in London. The actor, Jenny Rainsford (Fleabag), about whom this review is centred, gave the most thrilling comic performance I think I’ve seen because her listening was first rate. Consequently, every twitch and turn came with an embodied focus on her acting partner(s).

Here’s what appeared to be happening with Jenny Rainsford:

The conflict between presence and absence was played out because in each scene she appeared both fascinated, often mockingly so, and slightly appalled or disgusted by her scene partner/s. Physically, she was drawn in and simultaneously repelled by a factor that her imagination had engineered. It was as if her internal monologue read:

‘I know this person; I saw him yesterday. He had a nose; today he doesn’t have a nose. Where is his nose? Why has he gone into public without his nose? I better not let on that I know he has lost his nose. Does he look better or worse without his nose? I think he looks a lot better without his nose. No, come to think of it, he looks much worse!’

The effect of this, physically, on her performance was the persistence of an angular head and, at times, a slightly stooped, subtly liminal body that clearly communicated the corporeal reality of being caught between the states of certainty and uncertainty – a body that reflected the quizzical, inquiring, mildly incredulous, fascinated yet appalled, character; a character so deeply intoxicated by the preoccupation that her imagination had conjured, that listening appeared effortless and automatic. In short, it was the kind of physical performance that lifted the audience forward in their seats because the actor was at once coming and going, and dwelt intriguingly in this between-state.

She embodied the idea that action and truth in performance is, indeed, a by-product of preoccupation; presenting, at all times, the duality between the need to be present and the burning inclination to be absent. Clown coaches often stress the importance of an actor remaining uncomfortable at all times. In this respect, the discomfit of Jenny Rainsford (Fleabag) appeared to be palpable.

Click here for information about The Sticking Place Acting Masterclasses!


Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019