Monday, 21 January 2013

FEATURE: Ultimate Characters in Theatre

From the works of Shakespeare to that of Arthur Miller, theatre has been blessed with many a great character. The figures of Hamlet, John Proctor and Eliza Doolittle are driving forces in their plays’ storylines, and are essential to the success of the piece. Indeed, without fascinating and finely drawn characters, a play and musical might amount to nothing more than a flop. Here is a list of ten of our favourite characters from plays and musicals, both from Europe and across the pond (in no particular order).

It would be hard not to include Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a list of great characters. With the soliloquies, thought-provoking speeches, and approximately one third of the play’s lines, Hamlet is the celebrated philosophiser of theatre. The role is one of the most sought after and challenging; the marker of how good an actor is. In recent years, the part has drawn in Ben Whishaw, David Tennant and Jude Law – names that surely indicate just how juicy and demanding this character really is!

Eliza Doolittle
The laverly Eliza Doolittle has been immortalised by both Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn, in the stage and screen productions of My Fair Lady. It’s the character’s early appearances as a Cockney flower girl that endear her to audiences, and her light-hearted tussle with Henry Higgins that gives the play its humour as she trains to become a London lady. She’s loved for her warmth, spirit, and willingness to challenge Higgins, but do we like her quite as much once she’s transformed into the elite?

Arguably the most difficult role of theatre, Macbeth is the Shakespeare character riddled with antitheses and packed with lines and speeches. The role might not get as much stage time as Hamlet, but for its sheer energy and complexity, it is a clear rival. Perhaps the greatest difficulty actors face with this character is the conflict between psychological and supernatural disturbance - how does an actor choose to play it? A conundrum Patrick Stewart and Rupert Goold dealt with superbly in Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2008 production.

Bernarda Alba
Perhaps not an obvious choice, but García Lorca’s Bernarda Alba is a strikingly brutal figure in twentieth century drama. Her dictator-like power over her daughters, and the eerie hold she has over the play, make her a force to behold. Bernarda’s words might be cutting, but so, too, are her silences. This is an incredible character, as most recently evidenced in the Almeida’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba last year.

Jean Valjean
Theatre is littered with misunderstood characters, but none is more misunderstood than Jean Valjean, from Les Misérables. From prisoner to father, from worker to mayor, Valjean never quite escapes the torment of police officer Javert, who has vowed to capture the escaped prisoner. What’s more, he must struggle with Marius, the young man in love with his daughter. Valjean indeed struggles for most of his life, in an attempt to make peace and to atone for his sins. He is without a doubt one of the strongest characters in theatre. 

One of the iconic roles in theatre for young women, Juliet has been tackled by some of the most reputable actresses in the business, from Judi Dench to Mariah Gale. The character is famous for her incomparable beauty and youthful love with Romeo, but Juliet is no soppy heroine. As Gale demonstrated in the 2010 RSC production, this is a young woman with a bite. Her choice of ‘dead men’s rattling bones’ over marriage with Paris, her taking the Friar’s potion, and her final heart-breaking act of suicide are testament to this female character’s undeniable strength.

Max Bialystock
The hit stage show The Producers bursts with incredible characters, but Max Bialystock is at the top. The wayward producer is described as selfish and greedy but has a big heart, as he helps aspiring producer Leo Bloom achieve his dream. Together, they set out to raise $2million dollars from little old ladies to put on 'Spring Time for Hitler', a musical satire about Hitler, in the hope of making a fortune out of a sure flop…but is it a sure flop? Nathan Lane starred as Max in both the Broadway and West End productions, winning a record number of Tony awards and playing to critical acclaim. Everyone dreams that working in theatre land could be this side-splittingly funny!

Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins is the ultimate character. We all want to go on adventures with her, and can’t resist joining in with her upbeat number, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! From the original books to the renowned Disney film to the hit stage show, the character is always present in our hearts. Hired as nanny to the Banks children, Mary Poppins takes them on magical adventures with Burt the chimney sweep and a host of other wonderful characters. Most recently, the role earned Laura Michelle Kelly the 2005 Olivier Award for Best Actress. Kelly, who originated the role in this new West End production, played over 500 performances.

John Proctor
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is one of the last century’s most agonising dramatic works, and John Proctor is the persecuted tragic protagonist at the centre of it all. It’s details that matter in this fine portrait of a man deeply conflicted between personal integrity and public reputation. Proctor’s impassioned lines about ‘[his] name’ in the second half of the play, and his determination to hang, are evidence of a painful struggle with truth and identity, in a world where vindictive lies have control.

The Wicked Witch of the West has long been known for her green skin and evil prowess, but in the hit musical Wicked, the character of Elphaba is shown in a different light.  Another misunderstood character, she is turned wicked by rumours spread to capture her, as she knows too much about the Wizard’s evil plans to rule over Oz. Although she tries to do good, helping her sister Nessa and her friends, Glinda the Good and Fiyero, she realises that she can never be truly good. Her failure in turn drives her mad, transforming her into the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. 

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