The Half. Photography by Simon Annand. Scarborough Art Gallery. 12-05-11

For anyone who has been going to the theatre regularly for the last thirty odd years as I have this exhibition is completely enchanting. Simon Annand has had the privilege of being allowed to photograph actors at close quarters during the half as they prepare to go on stage for roughly the same period of time as I have been sitting in audiences and he has made the most of it. It is a highly charged time, full of nervous anticipation, a great subject, and he has produced a dramatic, intimate and varied collection of images which take us into another world, a world between real life and make believe. It brought back great memories for me of both productions which I have seen and productions which I wish I had seen.

There are some lovely contrasts to enjoy. There are two Miss Adelaides from Guys and Dolls, Jane Krakowski at the Piccadilly in 2005, a beautifully lit thoughtful introspective study of concentration, and Imelda Staunton at the National Theatre in 1982, looking straight into the camera and posing gleefully in full costume on her way to the stage. Two pantomime performers are also portrayed very differently. A moving, timeless image of  a melancholy introspective Spike Milligan sitting staring into space preparing to go on as Spike the Stupid in Babes in the Wood at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1985 is set against a lovely image of Roger Lloyd Pack in full dame make up and padding, just lacking a frock. He is clearly preparing to go out and have a blast on stage in Dick Whittington at the Barbican in 2006, grinning happily and striking a pose with his hand on his hip. There are two Hamlets, Simon Russell Beale at the National in 2006, all nervous agitation seen through his dressing room window from a distance, and Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic in 2009, hair over his eye and flirting outrageously with the camera.

Some of the images are much more sombre. Nobody could ever describe preparing to go on in Rockaby, Samuel Beckett’s short but quite terrifying one woman play as preparing to have a blast and Billie Whitelaw’s portrait seen through her dressing room mirror at the Riverside studios in 1989 is a stark image of mortality. Her pale ghostly face is matched by what looks almost like a death mask next to her- the photograph of her face fully made up that she is using as a guide. Max Wall is preparing for another Beckett one man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, a huge challenge, and he is deadly serious and alone with his thoughts, already a world away.

It is sometimes easy to guess which actors enjoyed the moments of company and attention and which of them would probably rather have been left alone. Sarah Kestleman smokes a fag and grins knowingly at the camera before going on in Bussy D’Amboise at the Old Vic in 1987, while Alison Steadman looks up balefully from her script, interrupted in her preparations for Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Arts theatre in 2001. There is a lovely sequence of images of Jane Birkin, who is wonderfully expressive, captured as she talks and gesticulates clad in a simple white vest.

Sometimes the performance is already fully there and ready to hit the stage and sometimes it isn’t. Helen Mirren’s portrait taken as she strides down a corridor on her way to the stage at the National is most definitely of Phedre rather than the actress, while Daniel Radcliffe is still very much himself as he sits on the shelf in front of his dressing room mirror before a performance of Equus in 2009, still in his day clothes, with the beginnings of a soft fluffy beard and moustache shadowing his face. It is a touching portrait of a boy becoming a man, and it mirrors the enormous challenge that he had set himself by choosing to play a high profile, challenging stage part after enormous film success. He made himself very vulnerable by making that choice and took a great risk and this is all there in the portrait.

Sometimes it is the details that are moving. Perhaps a frozen moment, as in the portrait of Michael Williams where he completes his transformation for Two Into One at the Shaftesbury in 1984 by putting on a bowler hat. Two Into One is a Ray Cooney farce, but there is only a quiet wariness visible as he confronts himself in the mirror, while his wife smiles out from the wedding photo sitting next to him.

If you love theatre make sure that you see this exhibition. Even f you don’t you will still relish the skill of a wonderful photographer who uses the light and mirrors of the dressing room cleverly to illuminate and frame his subjects. I am glad that it had a showing at the V&A in London before coming up north to Scarborough. It was richly deserved.


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