Theatreland's Celebrity Ladder

TThe moment Stephen Fry utters his first lugubrious syllable in Tim Carroll’s Twelfth Night at The Globe, a frisson runs through the assembled crowd. By now, surely no nation on earth remains untouched by repeats of QI, and a good number of tourists and Londoners alike will have braved the October weather to see Lord Melchett as Malvolio. Fry repays them amply; this is, after all, a man who trod the boards long before Hollywood called. And while he milks the monologues for maximum wit, Fry is much subtler than Blackadder fans might expect; he is willing to hold back on easy laughs in order to remind us that this betrayed butler is a poor forked creature with hopes and dreams as real as ours. In short, he reminds us that he can actually act. It is a delightful reclamation of a performer who has, on TV and film, become almost a pastiche of himself.

Celebrity is a tricky concept in the theatre world. In ancient Greece, theatre had as central a role in society as government or religion, yet the actors’ masks encouraged personal fame to be subsumed beneath the archetypes they played. In Shakespeare’s time, most actors were hard-living, politically cunning and ruthlessly mercenary, equal parts hero and villain. Nowadays, too much fame, let alone fortune, can brand a stage-grown success a sell out; too little, and they find themselves continually sidelined for the latest overhyped starlet looking to claw back a little credibility under a west end pros arch.

So what are the celebrity strata that determine rank in the theatre world? What does stardom really mean in a distinctly unglamorous industry?

Fry is undeniably an A-list thespian. He also happens to be an A-list movie star. But these two categories of fame are very different, and frequently incompatible. Several box-office darlings with coconut water and method coaches in tow have discovered that film A-list does not only not guarantee status in the west end, it makes it even harder to earn. In theatre, ‘A’ must stand for Authentic, as well as Adored In America; it begins with a youthful period of dues-earning in the fringes or spear-bearing at the RSC and usually ends on its knees in front of the Queen. Bona fide A-listers include Maggie Smith, Ian McKellan, John Hurt, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh and Julie Walters (who recently, brilliantly returned to the stage for the first time in over a decade for The Last Of The Haussmans at the National Theatre to prove she can still act, too): essentially, the cast of Harry Potter.

And unlike film, theatre’s A-list has a shadow cabinet: the S-list. S-listers have all the form and talent of the ‘A’s – often more – but a quirk of career path, age or looks has kept them out of the international screen scene. Mark Rylance, also playing in Twelfth Night with a reprise of his Olivia from ten years ago, is a great example of this. Back then, he was an eccentric industry darling little known outside theatre circles. Thanks to cross-Atlantic accolades and awards for his role in Jerusalem, he’s now selling tickets as effectively as Fry. But the fame is still largely theatre-centric, and casting directors have always found it hard to accommodate his particular brand of genius on the screen. Rylance is too much of an original and a rebel to wholly fit into the ‘A’. He will continue to do some of the best acting ever witnessed, but where he does it best: on the stage.

Other S-listers include Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Iain Glen, Helen McCrory and Anne Marie Duff. They give good character on British TV, but to catch their prime you have to leave the house. When asked for recommendations from theatre novices, I’ll try and pick a production with an S-lister at the helm. I know they’ll produce the kind of magic you just can’t get on film, and that the recommendee will come away amazed they’re not international stars. But that’s the thing about S-listers: we want them to stay ‘S’, because they’re our secret.

Which brings us to the I-list. The I-listers are the actors that regular theatre-goers have admired for years, and slightly resent becoming public property – hence ‘I’ for ‘I Knew Him When’. Ah, cry theatre lovers, what is Ben Wishaw’s cute turn as Q compared to his 2004 emaciated Hamlet or his brutal Elliot in Mercury Fur? Benedict Cumberbatch is another classic ‘I’; we knew him as the oddly sexy star of Richard Eyre’s Hedda Gabbler and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein before Sherlock suddenly catapulted him into a very different league of fame, and we’re slightly discombobulated that our weird crush has become mainstream hot. And anyone who saw Tom Hardy in In Arabia We’d All Be Kings at the Royal Court in 2003 or the National’s The Man of Mode in 2007, will watch him ace the film The Dark Knight Rises with the mournful pride of a mother sending her special soldier off to fresher’s fair.

Behind the ‘I’’s come the 'W's: the ‘Weren’t Theys’ – actors and actresses who, in a reverse journey from screen to stage, have found a niche on TV and now earned the right to their first decent theatre roles. Again, Carroll’s Twelfth Night offers a perfect example in Samuel Barnett’s Sebastian. Barnett recently gained a cult following with a beautifully observed turn as the obnoxious PA Daniel in the BBC’S Twenty Twelve, and his entrance induces a classic W-list audience sequence of frown; squint; recognize; squeal catchphrase for instant nerd points (‘Soya latte? Great choice! Enjoy!’) Spotting W-listers is a rewarding game; there is particular pleasure in seeing a promising young actor start to mingle with the greats.

Finally, we get to the ‘C’s. The ‘C’s have no celebrity at all. The ‘C’s are Canon Fodder: anonymous, fresh faces playing bit-parts in the regions to get their first break. Unrecognised, exhausted, trying to fling out their handful of lines with enough panache to make a casting director bite, they are apparently the backbone of the British theatre tradition, but they don’t feel like backbone, they feel rubbish (I speak from experience). They’d trade their experimental Ibsen for a corpse part on Holby City in a blink. But, because we’re talking about theatre, the ‘C’s have perhaps the greatest status of all. They are what gives the ‘A’s their authenticity. They are what separates a Spacey (fantastic, but hasn’t lain shivering in a B&B awaiting the opening night of a ‘modern take on Electra’ in Barnsley Town Hall) from a Judi. They’re top of the ladder, because they’re holding it from below.

So yes, buy your ticket for Fry. But once in a while, take a chance on the fringiest bit of fringe you can find as well.

This article originally appeared in London Calling