The Art of Staying in Character
Cover image from the National Thetre’s 2017 production of Sondheim’s Follies
I had the pleasure of watching Dominic Cooke’s professional production of Sondheim’s musical Follies this month at the National Theatre in London. As a spectacle and a production it was astoundingly good. The very open set comprised of the skeleton of a full-sized New York building (the Follies Theatre), which was centred on a rotating stage with the audience around the outside of approximately two-thirds of the stage. It meant that we could see everything, and although one room was always the centre of attention, the other players could almost always be seen, especially when the scenes were being rotated.
These were excellent performers both in terms of acting and singing, but with such a lot going on all the time, they also had to be very well directed to know where and when to move as well as what they should be doing. There was one lovely moment where the older performers decided to put on one of their old dance routines and their younger ‘ghost’ selves in their glamourous outfits also danced the routine to the same music. There were many pastiche numbers where performer would either duet with their younger self or the younger ‘ghost’ self would appear in the background strutting as if they were performing the song. There were also character songs, in which they performers would express their emotions either to themselves (and the audience) or to each other. Again, what made this so impressive was when their ‘ghost’ versions started to listen to the characters and then play out an emotive or nostalgic scene from many years before. There was an incredible moment, when things got particularly tense, so much so that the older characters started interacting with the ghosts, as if reliving the experience over again.
This brings me to my main observation in terms of performance. As a member of the audience, I was looking everywhere at the action and was impressed how everyone was always in character. Even when the stage was rotating performers out of sight they would be continuing to dance or interact with their fellow party-goers. During a song I would find myself distracted by light and movement away from the main characters but this revealed their younger selves watching the performance and strutting as if performing the routine themselves from their heydays.
One final mention has to go to Imelda Staunton, who played the part of Sally Durant Plummer. She gave a heart-felt performance throughout, but at the end of her solo, ‘Don’t look at me’, she maintained a haunted, distant stare throughout the playout music and the applause that followed. That was the most memorable part of the song for me; it seemed to strengthen the potency of that character in the moment. Absolutely stunning!