“How kind of you to let me come.” Steady on, Audrey! Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”. Photograph: Everett Collection.
A while back I reviewed something that was overall a very good production. But I decided not to include one thing that really irked me – one of the actor’s accents.
The situation was that the entire cast were British with British accents bar one actor who was American and had a very strong American accent. Their acting was very solid, just their voice made them stand out like a sore thumb and really distracted me from the production.
Should I have mentioned this in my review, and if so, who should I have blamed?
There is an art to casting. People make entire professions out of it, especially in film. So would the casting director have to take the brunt? One thing I bore in mind was that this was a fringe production, and one of the main reasons I chose not to include it in my review. Fringe must be incredibly inventive by its very nature, due to being usually very strapped for cash, and find support and resources where it can, and would be incredibly insincere and nonconstructive to have moaned about a single actor’s accent. But I would be much less forgiving for something like this in a big West End production, especially when they the wealth of acting talent vying for roles like there’s no tomorrow. For fringe, where actors are usually paid in a profit share if at all, the pickings are a little slimmer to say the least. As I mentioned, the actor was good. If the decision came down to a good actor with a stand out accent, or a less talented actor with a local accent, I can’t blame the production team for plumping with the former.
But what about blaming the actor? Why couldn’t they just put on a British accent? Well, maybe because their British accent is appalling. The British public often mock American film stars for fluffing British accents, but the criticism goes both ways. I think a dodgy and forced British accent would have been more off putting than an America one. Also, sometimes a good actor’s skills can suffer from trying too hard to perfect the accent. This I felt happened with Joe McFadden in Torch Song Trilogy, which is a shame because when his accent was less convincing, his acting excelled.
But can’t the director and production team have done more to level out everyone’s accents? Voice coaches cost, and once again it’s a luxury the fringe can rarely afford. But sometimes it’s an expense that is really worth forking out for. Apart from being a really dreary musical, one of Goodbye Barcelona’s faults was that it clearly had a bad, or more likely (I hope) a lack of voice coaching. The result was with some of the Spanish characters’ accents sounding more Speedy Gonzales than Catalan freedom fighter, a flaw me and the friend I saw it have turned into a long running in-joke.
But maybe we as an audience should be trying a little harder. The production in question was actually set in Germany. Why not have the entire cast speaking in German accents for the sake of being more believable and authentic/pedantic? If our capacity to suspend belief will stretch to making British accents of German characters, why couldn’t I as an audience member do that with the American actor?
At the same time, directors and casting directors shouldn’t try to try a patron’s imagination too much, as there is only a limit to how much it can allow. For example, the marvelous Simon Russell Beale inexplicably kept his very British accent in Deathtrap despite it being set in New England and the rest of the cast donning or using their own northwest American accents. Some reviews picked up on this and moaned about it, and not without cause. However, I didn’t think it was that big a deal. For me it was actually quiet feasible that his character could be a British ex-pat author, especially as nothing alluded to any particular heritage during the play regarding Russell Beale’s character. But an American among a British cast playing Germans is perhaps that stretch too far, forcing me out of my allowance of imagination just enough to find it bothersome.
Overall the show was very good, and I felt that it would be more than a little inglorious to nit-pick at this, especially as the production was making great strides with its limited capabilities as it was. But accents on stage are by no means just a minor detail as it can turn into a big frustration for theatre goers if neglected.