A recent performance of the whole of Homer’s epic Iliad offered an opportunity to observe actors close up and to understand what their craft has in common with music performance
I only meant to pop into the British Museum on Friday afternoon to hear a bit of Homer’s Iliad. By 1am I was lying exhausted on my sofa watching the live stream from the Almeida Theatre, where Tim Piggott-Smith as Priam was bringing the dead body of his warrior son Hector home to Troy, wrapping up 16 hours of continuous reading. Wonderful actor after wonderful actor spoke the great dactylic hexameter, translated by Robert Fagles from the Greek text that is one of the oldest works of Western literature.
They started at 9am in the British Museum, where their amplified voices boomed through the Great Court, the sudden exclamatory battle cries jolting unwitting tourists, and sometimes even the actors themselves. The sound didn’t make it as far as the halls that house the ancient Greek urns, statues, tchotchkes, and – dare I say, marbles, but it felt a very appropriate venue. I arrived at 2pm and was glued to the action until 8pm, when the readings switched to the Almeida Theatre, which I watched on the live stream at home.
What made it so compelling? Let’s be honest. It wasn’t the plot, which is basically a series of battles between intransigent, blood-lusting men in armour, with regular interventions by the gods. Most of the descriptive detail goes into the battles themselves, with lengthily specific accounts of the exact location on the body where the spear pierced, the type of wound sustained and manner of blood letting, or the precise way the soul left the body at death, and comparisons with battles in the animal kingdom. There didn’t seem to be much character development – indeed a running theme of the official tweetalong was how Achilles is always angry – very, very angry.
It was all a perfect antidote for those of us who spend too much time online, passively digesting pictures and text, or even (as I do) listening to Radio 4 in the background all day, because it forced one actively and constantly to imagine the narrative and to refer back in one’s mind to the characters and their connections and histories. I don’t know if it’s actually true that back in those days narrators would be able to memorise the entire 16 hours of it, but I could feel dormant mental muscles working as they haven’t since my iPhone became my memory repository.
My concentration level may have waxed and waned, but what I found consistently enthralling was the sheer beauty of the music of the language. And with more than 60 fine and often great actors, both young and old, doing their thing in as many individual ways, it was a masterclass in acting, and fascinating to try to discover what great actors and musicians have in common.
Firstly, there’s the basic sound of the actor’s individual voice – its timbre and depth. I imagine this is essentially physiognomic and that there’s not much actors can do about its fundamentals. There was certainly a range of projection and roundness, though, which must be technical – just as string players have a fundamental sound that relates to their physical characteristics, or perhaps their inborn ideal of sound, which they learn to project and shape through vibrato and bow control.
In terms of carrying the text, there seem to be many technical aspects:
the basic way actors enunciate words – how efficiently they get their tongues round them (especially the difficult Greek names)
intonation, in the sense of how their pitch rises and falls throughout a sentence
how they pace each line
how they make sense of the syntax through rhythm
how and where they breathe
how they build the pace
how they structure whole chunks of text and build and clear the tension, carrying the storyline
how they use gestures to emphasise meaning – whether in their body language or through their voice
how they differentiate diverse people or moods through the tone of their voice
the sense of overview they seem to have of the whole story arc
a knowledge of the characters’ back stories
a sense of the context of the entire genre, which informs specific choices
All of these factors are the same for musicians when approaching a musical text, even if the language and concepts they’re conveying are more esoteric.
Over and above all of this though, there’s something intangible, that special something that distinguishes truly great acting and musicians. With some of these actors, one was right there with them in the thick of the action, mesmerised, feeling the pain, betrayal, loss or anger described. When they pointed into the distance, one could see the speeding spear, the two hundred horsemen or the falling rocks; when they rallied their troops one stood to attention; when they spoke in character, one saw them as that person. With others, it was still nice to listen to the music of the words, but it washed over without sticking, or seemed like a good point to get a coffee.
What makes this difference? Some of it might have to do with the sense of reading from the script. Fairly reasonably, none of the actors had memorised their words, but some of them were entirely connected to the page, barely glancing up, whereas the best ones left the page behind, referring to it regularly, but still living in the space around them, in contact with the audience. This is certainly a huge factor for musicians: nothing ruins the intimacy of a performance more than having the player stuck in the score.
But maybe that’s just a symptom of what I suspect is the greater issue, that of being fully present, in the technical sense described in this interview I did a while ago with acting coach Patsy Rodenburg. Great actors are able to be truly present: in the moment, in the story, in their communication with the audience, not thinking about the words on the page, where to point, how they look or what they’re going to eat after the show. All the technical work they have done is merely to allow them the freedom to actually personify the meaning of the words. Likewise, soloists have to be completely secure technically, and to understand the story and the structure of the music, but a truly great performance is about embodying the music wholly, in the moment, for the audience. To do that at all is an amazing skill, and to do it consistently across a career, whether actor or musician, is the greatest talent, and I am in awe and gratitude of those who can do it.
I would love to know what actually goes through an actor’s mind in these transformative moments. Are you an actor? Let us know!
Read Patsy Rodenburg's insights into how musicians can learn from actors here.