By: Isa Goldberg
If you’re an English actor graced with a Tony nod this season, it’s likely to feel a bit strange. After all, in London the kind of hoopla we bestow on actors is usually reserved for the likes of those named Sir and Dame as in Sir Ian McKellan or Dame Judi Dench. Still, this season’s entourage of British talent on Broadway includes a list of thoroughbreds, all chomping at the bit and eager to toast Broadway’s winning season.
Needless to say, they were difficult to hunt down, but fortunately a few brave souls offered their thoughts on the upcoming Tonys. First, Jessica Hynes with whom I spoke on the phone while she was sitting in a café. Hynes, nominated for her role in "The Norman Conquests" portrays the downtrodden Annie, a character whose attire is so frowsy, she should be nicknamed Sobu (Susan Boyle).
"I was slightly nervous because there was this issue of the dress. I did say my criteria is that if the zip goes up, then I’ll wear it. I went in and tried the first dress on and zipped and I went, ‘phew. That’s it.’" She continued, "The way in which Americans enjoy and are enthusiastic is a wonderful thing and to be a guest at that party is a fantastic privilege, an unforgettable life experience."
We move on to talk about her perceptions of the American audience at which point Jessica is interrupted by her son, "Do you want to sit on my knee?", she says and continues our conversation: "An example would be a scene in "Table Manners’. After the weekend is nearly over and everyone is shell-shocked, Annie lugs the breakfast tray onto the dining table and Sarah comes in…" Jessica interrupted again, "Just sit down and I’ll get you something else. You can share Gabriel’s. You were supposed to share…" (Back to "The Norman Conquests"), "And Sarah says among other things, ‘I was going to make breakfast’ and someone in the audience said, ‘YAH RIGHT’!
"It’s a thought that expresses how completely keyed into the character the audience is — which enhances the performance. But the point is that would never never ever ever happen with an English audience. They may have felt it, but they would never say anything about it."
Her co-star Paul Ritter (who plays Sarah’s husband, Reg) and is also nominated for best featured actor, commented from his home "We’ve had great good fortune to be welcomed so warmly and for our show to be embraced and that goes to our impression of the audience as well — extremely vocal, well informed and demanding in the very best sense."
He also recounts a scene from "Table Manners". "There is one key moment for me where the family sits down and the starter for their meal is a single lettuce leaf each. Now the New York audience finds this so outrageous, bizarre and funny. But you know the English (we played it exactly the same way in London) — one senses that the audience is saying to you ‘I’ve seen worse salads.’"
While "The Norman Conquests" may cause most of us in the audience to laugh uproariously, Ritter feels quite differently about the play "I think in a way it’s so funny because it’s so sad and vice versa. It’s that rather magical quality to the writing. So we concentrate on pathos safe in the knowledge that Sir Alan’s comic writing is so fearless that it will take care of itself."
While Ayckbourn’s trilogy offers marvelous food for thought, Peter Oswald’s adaptation of Schiller’s "Mary Stuart" feeds the soul in many different ways. As Harriet Walter describes it: "There are lots of layers and you can go on thinking and it’s philosophically and politically extremely complex. It’s sort of what life is about all around us now. It (‘Mary Stuart’) has very modern resonances that people can recognize."
It took a few years to bring the show to New York. Among other reasons there was a fear that Schiller’s play would be too highbrow for American audiences. Regardless, the actor commented about the show’s glorious success saying, "There’s a slight conception that audiences like to be entertained. And that entertainment can only be lighthearted and fun.
"I’ve certainly done my share of tragedies and heavy dramas that audiences absolutely love because they love to be challenged; they love to be involved in life and death issues; they love to be on the edge of their seat wondering what’s going to happen next and feel involved in the argument."
About the Awards themselves Walter was quite focused when she said, "I take (these) things with a slight pinch of English salt." Although the actor who so brilliantly portrays Queen Elizabeth in an elegant black and gold gown, did say about Sunday night at the Tonys, "I think the major thing is that you have to find a good dress." As Walter refused to name her designer, you’ll just have to watch her at the Tony Awards also broadcast on CBS Sunday, June 7th at 8:00 p.m.
She is nominated for Best Actress, as is Janet McTeer who plays opposite her as Mary Queen of Scot. Other contenders for this award are Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis, both from "God of Carnage" and Jane Fonda from "33 Variations".
Whatever happens, it is a shame as someone recently pointed out at a noisy café that these awards can’t be shared.
By Isa Goldberg
Photography: Barry Gordin