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An Interview with Andrew Hall

27 February 2018 | Sian Brett

Arthur Miller’s 1994 play Broken Glass tells the story of one woman’s sudden paralysis after she reads about the events of Kristallnacht. It’s returning to the stage this March at Watford Palace Theatre, and we spoke to actor Andrew Hall, who plays Stanton Case, about the play, his role, and how theatre can be used to examine topics as big as this.

Culture Calling: Hi Andrew, thanks for talking to Culture Calling. Can you tell us about the play?
Andrew Hall: It’s an extraordinary play. And the more that we’ve worked on it the more extraordinary it’s become. It’s a late play from Arthur Miller, and he’s exploring his own identity as a Jewish man, but using this allegory of this paralysed woman and this detective story of what has caused this paralysis that has come out of nowhere. The events around it tie very closely to what was happening in Germany at that time, [1938] where you had Kristallnacht, which I think for many people was the time when the real horror of the regime began to become apparent. So [you have] a woman whose paralysis on the face of it seems to have been brought on by that, who is married to a self-denying Jewish man, and then what we learn over the course of the play is the dilemma that is tearing him apart and tearing her apart.
 
CC: You play Stanton Case, Gellburg’s boss – can you tell us about your character and his role within the play?
AH: He’s the quintessential WASP. He’s the president of Brooklyn Mortgage which is where Phillip Gellburg works, and he is fabulously wealthy; he’s won the Americas Cup twice in the course of the 1930’s with his yacht. At that time an America’s Cup winning yacht would cost you about 28 million in today’s money - so clearly a very successful man. Gellburg early on in the play proudly proclaims he’s the first Jew who’s ever set foot on this man’s yacht, he’s the only Jew to work at Brooklyn Mortgage. It’s so easy to forget how anti-Semitism was run of the mill in many different societies. That anti-Semitism might manifest itself in hostility but could also manifest itself in ‘yeah well you people are different’, so there is casual racism. What happens in the relationship between Gellburg and Case is part of that exploration of the subtleties that take place. It was a terrifying time. I think it’s a very important play to see at the present time because there’s a lot of very easy comparisons made around what is happening in America with Trump and all of that political backdrop. There are a lot of things which are genuinely concerning, because you have large sections of the population who believe that their interests are no longer being looked after by their political leaders and so demagogues like Trump have pretty easy picking. It is a reminder of the way in which history repeats itself. There’s tragedy, and then there’s farce, but it ain’t gonna be funny if it comes round again. There’s a need for a constant awareness of how easily some of these facades can slip. Having said all of that, it is a play where there is some wonderful humour and the insightful kind of humour that comes from Miller. It’s been a joy to work on and also it looks stunning. I think it’s going to be a very memorable evening.
 
CC: You mentioned how it still feels relevant today - do you think there’s something about the medium of theatre in particular that means we can challenge and return to these kinds of issues?
AH: I think the extraordinary thing about theatre is that it puts you in the room. I directed a production of Kindertransport three years ago which was also about what was happening in the 1930s and what was extraordinary about that was the incredible emotional impact that that would have on an audience. What it does, is personalise a global tragedy. So by reducing it down and looking at what is happening to one child, in the case of Kindertransport, it enables people to relate to it more easily. And then I think there is something that happens in theatre that just doesn’t happen in any other medium. There is something about the live performance taking place in that room in that theatre at that time that engages people in a very different way. Which is why great theatre is fantastic and bad theatre is truly abhorrent. Maybe some productions you sit through and go meh whatever, but when you see a truly great piece of theatre it engages you and moves you in a completely different way.
 
CC: What are some of those great pieces of theatre that you’ve seen over the years?
AH: I saw Girl from the North Country a couple of weeks ago which I loved, Don Carlos which I saw a few years ago. Many years ago I worked backstage before I trained as an actor, and I worked at The Royal Court. There was a production there of Edward Bond’s Bingo. Night after night I would see Arthur Lowe and John Gielgud doing the scene in the inn and marvel at these two guys at the pinnacle of their craft, so that was just extraordinary to watch. I think the other thing about theatre, and it’s something of real concern at the moment, is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to learn their craft, because the repertory theatre system has declined so much since the sixties, seventies and eighties. There’s a little village near where I live with a population that is, at most, 1000 people, but there was a repertory theatre there - there was work. It was terribly paid but there was work, and the ability to learn a craft. Theatre has always been a training ground for some of the greatest theatre actors but also film actors as well. What will happen if we continue to lose that possibility for people to work in large houses? There’s an awful lot of fantastic work going on in small venues, but the ability to size it up isn’t always there.


Michael Matus and Andrew Hall, image credit: The Other Richard - Richard Lakos
 
CC: How has your directing work influenced your acting?
AH: For various reasons I had to finance myself through drama school. In those days if you worked for three years you got a mature student’s grant, which meant that I spent three years working through production management roles; assistant stage manager, deputy stage manager, company manager. So I learnt that side of the stage first and then trained as an actor. And the combination of those things meant that I had the skillset to direct. Where the two have fed into each other very much is that when I’m a director I understand the preoccupations, the terror, the psychology of it from an actor’s point of view. And also the ability to understand text and to try and find the clear narrative arcs that you want to deploy, and the technical ability to understand how best to make use of the equipment, the stage, the focus. I think the ability to have the vision of the play overall in your head can be both helpful and a handicap as an actor because sometimes as an actor it can be useful to be totally focused on what your character needs in the play rather than necessarily seeing the world around [them] the whole time.
 
CC: What is it about Miller that we keep returning to in the theatre and what makes him so timeless?
AH: He addresses themes that are both large and personal at the same time. What he does is take very large, very important themes but then bring them down to a personal journey, which is what the great playwrights do. They will take something which is a preoccupation of mankind and then they enable you to see it and relate to it through a story that anchors it in an individual’s journey. The issues that he addresses are timeless. They’re not fashionable issues or superficial issues, they are things that run to the heart of what makes people and societies work or not.
 
CC: There’s still a lot of humour within this play, how important do you think that is?
AH: Phenomenally important and I think it’s also very much an insight into human nature.
If you pick the most serious, tragic play the one thing you can guarantee is there will be laughter backstage. Whenever you see communities, and certainly the tough communities, it’s always humour. There’s always laughing in the face of adversity, which I think is a very British thing, but also a very Irish thing, a Jewish thing. Populations that have or are having a tough time reach for humour, quite often black humour, to get through.
 
CC: What’s next after this?
AH: I go straight into rehearsing for a farce, which I’ll be going into in Sonning, with the master of farce Ray Cooney. One of the other great things about theatre is that you need a lot of different skillsets, and farce requires a very specific skillset. It’s a very different way of working, it can be quite technical. Ray is an absolute master of that technique. It really comes down to ‘if you move your arm in this way and look up and deliver with this intention, you’ll get a laugh’. There is an enormous amount of craft that goes into it and then on top of that you’ve got to be good enough to take the audience with you. Going from this to that is about as different as you can get.
 
Broken Glass is being performed at Watford Palace Theatre 1-24 March. You can get tickets and find more information here.
 
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