When I posted my blog on Monday about London’s unsung theatrical heroes, one of those I named wrote to thank me - but quipped, “Damn, I thought for a moment I’d made it onto your ‘best hung theatre personalities 2010’ list.”
Now I know that I recently wrote here about critics getting too personal in reviews, following the furore that engulfed Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times for his characterisation of the Sugar Plum Fairy in a New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker having consumed too many sugar plums herself, but as Michael Coveney suggested in his blog on Tuesday, “A performer gets on a stage and performs. With heart, mind and body. All three are fair game for critics, and being rude or not simply doesn’t come into it. What an actor, or a dancer, looks like is what critics write about.”
And if a performer goes naked, it should, to follow this reasoning, be fair game for their particular attributes to be commented on, too.
Critics, of course, often do, particularly if the performer doesn’t exactly measure up, so to speak. I have previously written here how Mark Lawson once commented adversely on Ian Holm’s manhood when he appeared naked during the storm scene in a National Theatre production of King Lear, and Holm replied in his autobiography that the comments have “stayed with me, so I suppose they must have hit some kind of nerve.” But Holm gets his revenge: “Even disregarding Lawson’s own physical shortcomings (the liver lips, the pudgy plasticine face, the old man’s prematurely balding dome), I am not convinced that his no doubt enormous cock would not also have dwindled after a cold bath in front of several thousand people.”
Ian McKellen, playing the same role for the RSC (and likewise stripping), on the other hand drew this admiring, even slavering, review from New York critic Michael Portantiere, in which he noted, “Special note for those who care about such things: In a brief nude scene, McKellen amply demonstrates the truth of Lear’s statement that he is ‘every inch a king’.” No wonder that Derek Jacobi, now playing the role for the Donmar, has publicly declared in an interview with Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph: “I can’t compete!!”, and so he doesn’t try and remains fully clothed during that scene.
When Daniel Radcliffe, the Harry Potter film wizard, famously showed his own personal wand as he made his stage debut in the lead role of Equus that involved a prolonged nude scene, he told the New York Times when he reprised the role there that he suffered from what he called Michelangelo’s David Effect, and said that David “wasn’t very well endowed, because he was fighting Goliath. There was very much of that effect. You tighten up like a hamster. The first time it happened, I turned around and went, ‘You know, there’s a thousand people here, and I don’t think even one of them would expect you to look your best in this situation.’”
Nicholas de Jongh, then theatre critic of the Evening Standard, however clearly expected more, declaring that “never in modern times has such excitement been stirred by the prospect of viewing a very few inches of adolescent male flesh”.
The very phrasing, of course, proves that nude scenes in the theatre do undoubtedly cause a frisson and sexual tension that isn’t necessarily to do with the character at all but about the actor’s own exposure of something far more intimate. And in any case, I heard from separate reports over the course of the New York run that far from suffering the David Effect, appearing in Equus proved to be sheer theatrical Viagra for young Mr Radcliffe, who was more man than boy as the play increasingly stirred him to attention.
A similar thing happened to Eddie Izzard when he appeared in a nude scene in the West End play Lenny with co-star Elizabeth Berkley, and rose to the occasion in every sense, so to speak. As Max Bialystock says to Ulla after her audition in The Producers, “Even though we’re sitting down, Mr Bloom and I are giving you a standing ovation,” so it seems that both Mr Radcliffe and Mr Izzard wanted to lead the standing ovations.
Of course, some actors who’ve got it are only too happy to flaunt it, and in that spirit, I am today offering up as a little Christmas treat of some of the most memorable showings I seen in my time.
• Ewan McGregor: This is cheating a bit, since though Mr McGregor has variously appeared on the London stage in Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs and Guys and Dolls, there wasn’t a nude scene, alas, in either. But thanks to his prolonged bouts of onscreen nudity in films like The Pillow Book, we all know what he’s got now; even his dad was admiringly said to have remarked, ” I see you’ve inherited one of my major attributes”.
• Rupert Penry-Jones has forever been known to me as Rupert Penry-Penis, ever since he ran starkers across the stage in the Almeida’s production of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby and managed to get the play redubbed in some quarters The Play About the Penis.
• Sam West hasn’t actually gone starkers in a play (yet), but running on a treadmill in an early scene of Enron, it seemed clear that he was “going commando”, as they say (not wearing underwear underneath his tracksuit bottoms), from the way he seemed to be swinging freely.
• Ian McKellen in the RSC’s King Lear — see earlier in this blog.
• In David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, Tom Hollander played Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, lover of Oscar Wilde, whose appetite for young men is shown in a scene when one of them gets out of the bed they are sharing and did a proudly impressive nude walk across the stage.
• No one who ever saw it will ever forget the sight of a young Jude Law clambering naked out of a bath in the opening scene of the National’s production of Les Parents Terribles.
• Nor can those who saw Ben Daniels in Martin Sherman’s Cracks at the King’s Head easily forget the sight of Mr Daniels’ other head, that was truly kingly.
• In Antony Sher’s The Giant, seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2007, the model for Michelangelo’s David was played by Stephen Hagan (now playing Judy Garland’s last toyboy husband in End of the Rainbow, who appeared nude to this admiring notice from Paul Taylor in The Independent: ” Incarnated by the uncannily well-cast Stephen Hagan, he’s the curly-mopped country boy whose heartbreakingly beauteous body could inspire a man to a hands-on style of sculpture.”
• The day after seeing Frank McGuinness’s Greta Garbo Came to Donegal at the Tricycle Theatre, I previously wrote here how I hadn’t spotted “the front-of-house sign that warns of full frontal male nudity till I was on my way out of the Tricycle Theatre last night for the interval, and by then I’d already had my pulse quickened by the early delivery of that promise when hunky Tom McKay wandered starkers onto the stage” in the play’s opening minutes. As I went on to write, “It was the gay equivalent of the moment that caused both Quentin Letts and Charlie Spencer to salivate so openly when they caught sight of Anna Friel’s derriere in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Quentin even went so far as to recommend that readers ‘book a seat in the gods for a view of her derriere, by the way’. Well, Mr McKay certainly got McGuinness’s play off to a lively start for me last night. But it is also wonderfully undercut with the observation that one of the women who shares the scene with him commenting after his character leaves the stage, ‘Tell me this and tell me no more, what is the world coming to? A naked man wanders into a kitchen - sees three strapping lassies all gumming for him, and there’s not a stir between his legs. There’s queer and there’s queer, and we may as well take up farming’.”
What nude stage appearances have caused a stir between your legs? Please share here! And on that elevated note, please have a great Christmas one and all, and see you again next week.