Alone in the Wilderness

Henrietta Bredin finds out what it is that draws actors to the gruelling one-man show

The Spectator, 9 May 2009

Judi Dench says she'd never do it, Roy Dotrice didn't do it for 40 years but started again in 2008, Joanna Lumley says that managing to do it while looking at her own reflection in a mirror made her feel afterwards as if she could handle pretty much anything. Let's do it, it's the one-man, or one-woman show.

Stepping on to a stage or in front of the camera to perform requires a particular brand of courage but how much more focussed and intense is that experience if you undergo it entirely on your own? As Michael Pennington says, 'Let's not forget it's one of the most lonely things you can do in our game' but it is nonetheless something that many actors - given the vicissitudes of their chosen career - find it useful to 'have in their back pockets'. He first devised and performed his one-man piece about Chekhov in 1984, bringing it back on numerous occasions since, and has recently performed his solo tribute to Shakespeare, Sweet William, in London and Chicago. 'I don't hold any special brief for the form but there is a huge attraction in finding out more about a person, in my case writers I love and admire, and whose works I have often performed.'

There is a difference, not always easy to pin down, between a one-man show and a one-man play. As Simon Callow sees it, Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine, which he directed in the West End, 'has only one character in it but is quite clearly a play. There's an action, a narrative, and it builds and builds until it reaches a sort of resolution. In my view, that genre was invented by Micheâl MacLiammôir, who wrote The Importance of Being Oscar, a biographical divertissement in which the performer talks about his subject, becomes some of the characters, occasionally becomes the subject himself but is always there at the centre as the bard, or storyteller.'

That model was followed by Callow with The Mystery of Charles Dickens, written by Peter Ackroyd. 'His biography of Dickens is highly theatrical in the way that Dickens's own books are highly theatrical and I knew that he was extremely well versed in the writing itself. I proposed the idea to him, we talked and talked, drank about 19 bottles of wine and he sent me the first draft in a week. Brilliant as he is, it was all wrong - he'd gone off at a complete tangent - but we talked again, and drank another 19 bottles of wine, and the second draft came three days later. That one was almost there and the third draft came within a day. Even then the piece kept evolving, during rehearsal and then out on the road. In four years I never once did exactly the same show in terms of text.'

If you've only yourself to answer to, then the opportunities to change, edit and reshape must be limitless, although that must surely be a risky business. 'It is quite alarming,' confesses Pennington. 'On the first night of the Chekhov show at the National, I came to the conclusion, entering the second half, that there was a deadish stretch coming up, that it was beginning to flag a little. I just cut a couple of pages on the hoof. But your mind is whirring, trying to think ahead, to work out whether, having made that jump, the narrative will still make sense and hang together when you land on the other side. Fortunately it did.'

This piece, devised, cut, pasted and edited by Pennington but all of it Chekhov's own words, has a structure and a narrative and is manifestly a play. Sweet William is perhaps more of a show, with Pennington as himself, talking about Shakespeare and weaving in speeches from the plays as illustration. That enables him, to his evident delight, to perform speeches he would never get the chance to air otherwise, as the painfully vulnerable and precocious small boy Mamillius in A Winter's Tale, or the terrifying Queen Margaret, she-wolf of France.

For Patrick Malahide one of the most rewarding aspects of confronting an audience on his own is the precision of focus, the holding of attention. 'Great risks can be taken and the audience will go with it. When I played in Barry Collins' Judgement, there was a moment when I was leaning against the back wall and I held on to a long, long silence - at least a minute. The tension was extraordinary, and it never slackened for an instant.' This was a piece which, from its opening line: 'Comrades, I can see that I disgust you', took audiences on a gruelling journey as the protagonist, Captain Andrei Vuhkov, described the real-life events in which he and a group of fellow officers, imprisoned for 60 days without food or water during the Second World War, survived by killing and eating each other until only two of them were left (one, an offstage presence in the play, driven mad by the experience).

At an uninterrupted two-and-a-half hours it was also an extraordinary feat of memory. 'The thing about that,' says Malahide, 'is that by the time you perform a role you are in a state that is really very far removed from the rote learning of lines. There's a sort of biological clock of performing which takes over. In rehearsal you embark on a careful piecing together of the emotional and mental journey of the character so that the performance emerges as an embodiment of that whole, painstaking process. Then it becomes the most natural thing in the world to speak the same lines at the same time each night.'

Memorising is a major feature of these solo ventures. There's nobody else out there to cue your lines, nudge you into remembering what comes next. Simon Callow learnt the entire sequence of Shakespeare's sonnets to perform them in Toronto last year. 'What helped me there was that, to my surprise, and eventually to my satisfaction, there was a detailed production devised by Michael Langham. Each of those sonnets is really a play in itself and we charted the emotional shifts from one to the next, moving from his blithe delight as a young man through doubt and despair, anger and finally resignation. Technically that's hugely challenging because you want to linger over some poems and with others to go incredibly quickly, with volcanic, red-hot emotion.'

Then there's the question of how much an actor tries to become the character they're portraying, or whose work they're performing. Maureen Lipman, in Re:Joyce, dressed like Joyce Grenfell and took on some of her vocal cadences and mannerisms; Vanessa Redgrave, performing Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, with the author very much alive, present and physically quite dissimilar, thought of her character as 'she, the speaker, the storyteller', not as an impersonation.

For Joanna Lumley there is intense satisfaction in being solely responsible for the imaginative leap required to evoke an entire world. For Simon Callow, the company he keeps with 'Bill Sykes, Mrs Gamp and Mr Podsnap' means that he's never lonely. For Michael Pennington, intellectual curiosity makes the journey richly rewarding. For Patrick Malahide, the only thing that comes near it for terror and fulfilment is single-handed sailing. For all of them, you sense that solo performance has an element of possession about it, of being uniquely connected to a live crackling current of inspiration.