In a recent, enjoyable film produced by E! (A Royal Rendezvous), a 'game changer' stands out, one of those actors who - within an extremely pleasing cast, as in this case - raises the bar higher and determines what is at stake.
It is the case with Marcus Lamb, the Irish actor, with an impressive career in theatre, cinema and TV (and spectacular reviews) who has opened up in our pleasant chat, analysing the complexities of dealing with different means of expression, the excitement of being a Beckettian actor, and the projects that will see him involved in the coming months.
An interview which opened with the first (very welcome) surprise. He says - in fact - that he is the great-grandson of Elsie Martindale (and named his first daughter after her) married to the writer Ford Madox Ford and, consequently, that he is the grandson of Ford's daughter Katherine, wife of the Irish painter Charles Vincent Lamb, with whom she lived in Connemara.
Some time ago, I read that you would like to work more in Ireland. Is it still the case?
At the time, I had done a lot of touring, especially in America with DruidSynge and the Druid Theatre Company. We performed all Six Plays by John Millington Synge and rehearsed for four months, which was very immersive. We played all works by Synge and the audience would arrive at around 12 o’clock, staying until 11 pm. In the same period, I went to Singapore with AC Productions, then to Shanghai and New York with Gare St. Lazare, as well as Tokyo performing in Waiting for Godot with the Mouth on Fire Theatre (I am a floating member of the company). When I made that comment it felt like not so many people knew me here, as I did so much work abroad and I wanted to be seen a bit more professionally, in Ireland.
What are the challenges of working with different means of expression? You seem very comfortable with all of them…
I find TV and film work more isolating as if you had to do all the private detective work completely on your own. When you arrive on the set you metaphorically find a fully formed sculpture and the director might want you to shape its elements a bit differently, but the structure is all there; whereas in a theatre you arrive on the first day and you find a big bulk of wet clay you have to sculpt together with the other actors, which is much more interactive and communal. I find the theatre easier because you have the time and space to develop the play and characters. One aspect I have learnt over the years is that, as far as theatre is concerned, it is more helpful not to do too much character work, but actually, understand the blueprint of the play and what you need and want from the other character, in order for your own character to evolve inadvertently.
My approach with a character, both in theatres and on screen, is leaving it to as late as possible to develop them. I have read, for example, that people who worked with late actor John Cazale remember that it was almost as if he had not created anything, but when the camera rolled everything started to emerge. This is a very gentle approach, particularly suitable for the screen with its language of behaviour, whereas for theatre which is more language-driven, more muscular and physically demanding in terms of energy, I think you need a more technical approach. Furthermore, the more I go and see theatre and perform, the more I realise (especially with the Irish theatre with its huge language and literary tradition) that the voice is of fundamental importance. You could be feeling everything and be immersed in the character, but if it is not getting across to the audience then there is a block between your internal inspiration and their reception.
Why are you so keen on performing Beckett’s plays and what do you think are the challenges in portraying his characters?
There is a book by Jonathan Kalb (Beckett in Performance) including interviews with numerous actors. One in particular, with David Warrilow who played in A Piece of Monologue (the first piece by Beckett, I played in 2011) which is about 25 minutes long. I think he says that the way Beckett wrote it is as though he knew what emotional and psychological state the actor would enter if he followed the logical progression of what he had written. In my experience, you start to inhabit the words and create a kind of ekphrases, painting the picture in the audience’s mind, going there emotionally, visualizing that state during the Monologue, because it is the story of a man who rises night, after night, after night and describes what he sees, opening with the lines: ‘birth was the death of him’. He speaks of himself in the third person, for he has become psychologically disengaged, possibly after having been traumatized and this is his way of dealing with his very limited existence.
I remember when I played the first show, I blinked a couple of times and the great Beckett director: Sarah Jane Scaife, who was at the show, said it was great but suggested I should not blink, throughout the performance. I did and this meant that the play became a performance art piece as I barely moved, looking through the audience into deep space. There is a part where Beckett describes a series of black umbrellas seen from above, and I started to visualize them, feeling as if I was above, looking down. Doing this every night, the audience disappeared and I entered that zone where words are so evocative that you either perform it correctly or you fail, as it is so intense and rigorously written.
How do you get ready for a role? Do you need to know more about the author’s biography or his work, for example, or is it distracting?
I do not think you need to, though out of curiosity, I went to Roussillon in the south of France where Beckett lived with his wife (Suzanne Dechevaux) from 1943 to 1945, when they were on the run from the Gestapo, as he was translating letters for the resistance. Their physical suffering, their starvation, as well as the way they talked with each other is, apparently, part of the inspiration behind Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot with its emphasis on the physical elements, where Estragon is represented by the rock and Vladimir is represented by the tree; it is an extremely earthy and metaphysical play. It was interesting to go to Roussillon, and see its terracotta red earth (I still have a small bottle of it), in order to store the experience at a cellular level, so when I enunciate the words, I can still visualize it.
May I ask you about your present and future projects?
I have recently worked on a TV series called Sanctuary which will be out soon, both in England and America. I feature heavily in one of the episodes and I play a Machiavellian character. The series is set in a village in rural England, inhabited by a witch and healer, who is completely accepted by the town until someone dies and everybody questions whether she has anything to do with it. There will be 6 episodes based on the homonymous book.
I am also working on two play developments, one directed by Raymond Keene, who has done a lot of Beckett work with Sarah Jane Scaife, but this is a completely new play by Dee Corcoran; the other is a piece by an Irish writer called Philip St John, possibly a one-man show.
I will also play German Colonel Treskow in the feature film God’s Spy, an excellent script directed by Todd Komarnicki, a World War II film shot in Belgium about Dietrich Von Bonhoeffer and the assassination attempts on Hitler.