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Theatre: The dream cast and the dream production

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Spring 2013

Recently I noticed an announcement that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart plan to revive the 2009 production of Waiting For Godot. This definitely comes under the heading of “dream casts.” It’s hard to imagine any other pair of actors one would rather go see do Godot, or any other play for that matter.

There have been quite a number of other “dream cast” productions,  going back to the Richard Burton Hamlet and beyond. Theater history buffs will remember tours in the 19th century in which a pair of famous actors would alternate roles in one or another play by Shakespeare. I’d be willing to bet that if we had ancient Athenian theatrical announcements to peruse—now, what a treat that would be!—we’d find similar announcements.

However, there are no guarantees. Ever.

Just as an All-Star team in football, or basketball, or baseball sometimes fizzles, sputters, and falls apart on the field, a dream cast can be a squib on stage. It’s all about theatrical fundamentals, regardless of the cast you have. Will all those high-powered talents be on the same page? Will the director create an approach to the play that works? Will the level of design match the level of talent? Even more fundamentally, will the play live up to the load?

Some plays, oddly enough, get better service when actors who are not stars perform them.  When “what are these actors doing with this play?” overshadows “what is this play trying to say to me?” bad things can happen. That’s especially true in ensemble pieces, where seamless meshing of performances is both necessary and ideal—say, Chekhov. It’s important in plays that are less familiar—say, Lessing. It’s important in plays of ideas, where the play of thought is key—say, Shaw. If a group of high-powered actors take the play by storm, we get high-powered performances and miss the play altogether.

Fortunately, some high-powered actors are also very sensitive students of drama, and know how to put first things first. I definitely think of Stewart and McKellen in that category. Stewart has a strong stage presence; you always know you’re watching him, unlike Alec Guinness. McKellen is less so, but nonetheless puts his own stamp on the work. However, both of them do know how to stay on the weather side of ego. This dream cast should work out.

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