Featured Clowning Around and Finding Greatness

Clowning Around and Finding Greatness

Andrew Buckland has been a fixture of the annual arts carnival in Grahamstown for yonks. Now aged 61, Buckland had wowed audiences with his remarkable prowess as a physical actor and mime. last year, after a run of playing down and outs finding solace in a bottle, he appeared in an oddly titled play directed by Sylvaine Strike. Bucklands’ performance in Tabacco and the Harmful Effects Thereof, which returned to Festival again this year, is revolutionary. Buckland’s turn as Ivan demonstrates new depth and vulnerabilities in his range as an actor.

Does Tobacco feel like something new?

Sylvaine Strike and I had wanted to work together for many years, and it nearly happened a few years ago, but then she was busy with Coupe and I was working on Truth in Translation. We both agreed the time wasn’t right. When we started working on Tobacco the timing was dead right, and also the script was so extraordinary. She sent it to me when I was in Scrooge in Cape Town. It was three in the morning when I finished and I phoned her and said, “I’m sorry to wake you but I’m just so in love with this script, this text, it’s just so beautiful and I can’t wait to start.”

Can you speak about the script?

Andrew Buckland on stage playing Ivan, a smoker who is giving a lecture about the harmful effects of smoking, at the St Andrews Hall in Grahamstown on 2 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival (Photo: CuePix/Hlumela Mkabile).

Andrew Buckland on stage playing Ivan, a smoker who is giving a lecture about the harmful effects of smoking, at the St Andrews Hall in Grahamstown on 2 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival (Photo: CuePix/Hlumela Mkabile).

The amazing text comes from this young writer, William Harding (see below). His script collates Austen, Kafka, Joyce, Poe, Longfellow, Andre Breton, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, and a whole bunch of other writers, and grafts their words onto the structure of a Chekhov script. Charles Mee, an American playwright, encourages this kind of work: writers use material that is already in the public domain. It just bowled me over when I first saw it. I’d never read a story that crafts the actor’s journey so beautifully, but that also contains the fucking amazing paradoxes of life, especially of long-term relationships. The creation of the character of Ivan in Tobacco is embedded in the text; the rest came out on the floor with Sylvaine leading Toni and I in improvisation.

What is the value of a good script?

As an actor you concentrate on getting out of the way, on allowing the technique to work itself. You’re not constructing things to show, you’re just releasing. You do your best to get out of the way of the text, to just find this thing and disappear.

What was it like working with Sylvaine?

Sylvaine trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq [in Paris], so when we started working she started the rehearsal process using the red nose, the simple clown, mainly as a kind of creative mechanism. It’s an amazing way of finding vulnerability – the ego disappears because the simple clown is kind of naive, but at the same time quite mischievous, addicted to the attention of the audience. This starting point to try and create the character was a revelation to me. I’d never worked with the red nose before. Sylvaine is an absolute master at leading that work. I found it changed the way that I saw myself as an actor. Everything seemed different.

This play seems to be far more physically demanding than others we’ve seen you in.

It’s a good workout, but I don’t come off the stage and fall over afterwards. It’s too much fun.

How do you keep on form for a run like this?

I have to go into a regime of training. I’ve been lucky because this production followed on a professional sabbatical in 2013 when I was going to gym every day. But to answer your question, I use the studio at home to do some of the performance technique, line work, vocal work, some of the dance things. I do Pilates with Janet [Buckland], but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to economise. Whereas before I was just pounding energy out all the time, now I’m more selective about what I do. I’ve developed a warm-up sequence that deals with flexibility and stamina and form, finding line and things like that.

The three principal figures in Tobacco – you, Sylvaine and Toni Morkel – each come from very distinctive professional backgrounds. How has this meeting of talents gone?

I hadn’t worked with either before. I’d looked at them both, admired them stupid, and wanted to work with them. Toni is also a brilliant, beautifully present actress. To improvise with her, to be on the floor with her and creating material – I’ve seldom found an actress like that, or a person like that, who is as generous and as attentive and also kind of fine in what she works with. When we first met to create the history of this relationship that audiences only see a moment of on stage, we spent the whole day just living through from the time of their meeting to the years and years that they’ve been together. It’s just been a joy from the beginning to now.

Anna Christensen & Sean O’Toole
Cue editors

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