WILLIAMSTOWN — The Cold War was no fun to live through, but the protracted East-West staredown yielded one dividend at least: It kindled the imaginations of great writers such as John le Carré, whom we automatically associate with the espionage thriller genre, and Tom Stoppard, whom we don’t.
If you see the Evan Yionoulis-directed production of Stoppard’s “Hapgood’’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival — and you should, because it’s fascinating — prepare to feel lost for much of Act 1.
The 1988 drama opens with a stretch of bewildering intricacy, even opacity, during which the playwright deliberately keeps the meaning of what is being said and done just beyond our grasp. Had there been a thought bubble above my head during these scenes, it would have read: “Huh?’’ But hang in there, because in a thoroughly gripping Act 2, Stoppard’s series of interlocking puzzle boxes begin to make sense, even as they continue to furnish surprises.
There’s another notable aspect to “Hapgood’’ for which Williamstown theatergoers need no preparation whatsoever: an exquisite, subtly virtuosic performance by Kate Burton. This is the 18th season at the festival for this splendid actress, who has tackled everything from “Hedda Gabler’’ to “Cyrano’’ to “The Front Page.’’
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage , Williamstown 413-597-3400.
Writers:Tom StoppardDirector:Evan YionoulisOther Credits:Set, Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman, Costumes, Michael Krass, Lights, Donald HolderDate closing:July 21Ticket price:$50 Company website:http://www.wtfestival.org
In “Hapgood,’’ which unfolds in and around London in 1987, Burton plays the title character, a British spymaster so cerebral that she plays chess without a board. Now Hapgood faces a somewhat analogous challenge in her intelligence service, where someone has apparently been passing top-secret scientific research findings to the Soviet Union. As she races to find out who it is, Hapgood’s efforts are complicated by a desire to protect her young son.
Her professional orbit consists of Blair (Reed Birney), a by-the-book intelligence official who has a deep rapport with Hapgood but frets over her
rule-breaking ways (“There’s a little anarchist inside you,’’ he tells her); Wates (Victor Williams), an American CIA officer, very quickly at loggerheads with the Brits; Ridley (Euan Morton), an arrogant and hotheaded young operative; and Kerner (Jake Weber), a Russian double agent, long in the employ of the British but suddenly under suspicion.
The playwright further underscores the notion of duality by adding twins into the mix. Less happily, he makes Kerner the vehicle for those show-offy flourishes to which Stoppard has always been prone. This is especially so in a scene where Kerner delivers a disquisition on particle physics, arguing that intelligence officers are like electrons in that they “can be here or there at the same moment.’’ It’s an interesting notion, but Kerner goes on about it at such eye-glazing length that the play nearly comes screeching to a halt.
On balance, though, both the pace and the dialogue are bracingly fleet. Yionoulis is no stranger to Stoppard; she directed a 2005 production of “The Real Thing’’ at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. In “Hapgood,’’ the Nikos Stage is often steeped in shadow as she expertly conjures the paranoid, who-can-you-trust atmosphere of Cold War espionage.
The production is a family affair: The lighting design is by Donald Holder, a Tony Award winner for “The Lion King’’ and “South Pacific,’’ who is married to Yionoulis. The original music is by Mike Yionoulis, the director’s brother; it pulses and whooshes ominously, creating an aura not just of suspense but of whirling chaos barely held at bay. The set by Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman is dominated by a forbidding bank of black doors through which characters rapidly appear and disappear.
As with the best of le Carré, “Hapgood’’ delivers a satisfying two-fer. You can revel in the trappings, tradecraft, turnabouts, and general hugger-mugger of the traditional spy thriller: Suit-wearing men bustle about carrying briefcases, guns are fired, and Burton even wears a khaki trenchcoat. But you also get to immerse yourself in the big-picture Stoppardian play of ideas. Take the way Kerner seizes on the concept of the “sleeper’’ agent to riff on the question of true identity, suggesting that “at night — perhaps in the moment before unconsciousness — we meet our sleeper. The priest is visited by the doubter, the Marxist sees the civilizing force of the bourgeoisie, the captain of industry admits the justice of common ownership.’’
Starting as early as 1966’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’’ Stoppard’s characters have often been forced to wander through what T.S. Eliot, in his poem “Gerontion,’’ called “a wilderness of mirrors.’’ In “Hapgood,’’ that wilderness takes a form that is geopolitical and personal. The achievement of Burton’s performance is that she makes us keenly feel the relative stakes of both.
Modern performance is all about emotional access and personal exorcism. Presented with a role, the Method actor reaches deep into his or her past, focuses on an appropriate and often painfully real memory and uses that to bring honesty to the part.
Since the time of Clift and Brando in Hollywood — since the time of Stanislavski in Russia — that’s been the model.
But for Tim Roth — the slyly brilliant performer whose 30 years of work ranges from “Reservoir Dogs” to TV’s “Lie to Me” — acting began not with revelation but concealment, not with uncovering a truth but with carefully preserving a lie.
“I was an abused kid,” he says matter-of-factly, during a long, frank phone interview. “Not by my immediate family, but yeah. And if you’re an abused kid, and you hold that inside — that’s your first acting gig, you know, and a pretty tough one. You can’t be a crap actor, because you have to deceive a whole slew of people who are very close to you.”
Getting past the pain
In a world where the word “survivor” has become practically meaningless — used for everyone from reality game-show winners to actresses on their second comebacks — Roth deserves the title. Married 20 years, with children, he moved past that awful time to build a life that happily shuttles him between LA and London, movies and TV.
But it’s also brought him to “Broken,” an indie English film about bullying and victims and dysfunctional families. And also about the willful blindness that can temporarily make things seem normal — while allowing ugly violence to continue.
“I don’t think there’s any more bullies today than there were when we were kids,” says the 52-year-old-actor. “But it’s easier for them to do what they do. In the old days, you know, Dad would simply go down and find the little bastard and say, ‘Oi, leave my kid alone!’ you know? Or your parents would say `We’ll move.’ But now that everyone’s online, there’s no place you can go. And some of the stuff, the anti-gay bullying — that’s become really nasty… People say, ‘Oh, kids will be kids.’ But now some of the kids are armed, and dangerous.”
tim-roth-mr-orange.jpgFor American audiences, 'Reservoir Dogs' was the one that put Tim Roth on the map
Roth grew up in South London, and remembers “being bullied a lot in school,” he says — a problem he avoided by simply skipping classes and roaming around the city instead. “I grew to recognize bullies really quickly,” he says. “I can smell them when they’re in the room. I think that’s why I’m quite good at playing them.”
Roth’s mother was a teacher and artist, his father a lefty journalist, and both encouraged their son’s growing interest in fine arts. Roth particularly liked sculpting, and had even enrolled in art school, when a drama coach grabbed hold of him.
“She saw something very damaged in me, and talked me into doing this play,” he says. “It turned my life around, and it was the result of an encounter with a really fine teacher — but also of that really horrible aspect of my childhood... It was only years later that I put two and two together, actually, and thought, ah, right, this is where the acting bug came from. I’d been acting all that time.”
A new wave
By 21, Roth was getting small good parts, doing Shakespeare and Kafka on stage, playing skinheads, gangsters and other assorted lowlifes in TV dramas and low-budget films.
“I went into this whole thing blind and I think that was a good thing,” he says of his early career. “If anyone said `No’ to me, I thought, Well, you’re wrong! and I’d just barge ahead. You have to be that belligerent when you’re starting off.”
His arrival happily coincided with a new burst of British cinema, as liberal English filmmakers reacted to the Thatcher `80s much as American ones had to the Nixon `70s — with edgy, pessimistic and often brilliant dramas. Directors like Peter Greenaway, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach gained new prominence. Actors like Roth and Gary Oldman began to emerge. Headline writers dubbed them the Brit Pack.
“There was a whole new young mob,” Roth remembers. “Me and Gary. Daniel Day-Lewis. And then, on the posh front, Colin Firth, and Rupert Everett. We were all doing very different things -- although people tended to bundle me and Gary together — but it was very exciting. We hit British films at just the right time... And then Gary came over here, and I sort of came over on his coattails and the whole American independent world started up. We couldn’t believe our luck.”
tim-roth-rob-roy.jpgPlaying the loathsome, foppish villain of 'Rob Roy' won Roth an Oscar nomination
Roth’s luck expanded with “Reservoir Dogs,” a picture the novice Quentin Tarantino was expecting to shoot with amateurs — but which turned into a real movie once Harvey Keitel saw a script and signed on. Tarantino thought of Roth for Mr. Pink, but Roth pushed for, and got, the gory central part of Mr. Orange.
“That ended up being a huge turning point for me, opening up a lot of doors,” Roth says. “But we all loved that picture. We made it in about five weeks for no money, all because of the script, and Quentin. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, but just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you can’t do it; I’ve worked with a lot of people who have directed for years and they’re still awful! And Quentin just kicked it out of the park, right from the first day. I think he was a filmmaker before he even knew what film was.”
Tarantino also cast Roth as Pumpkin in “Pulp Fiction” — and Roth soon added to his dangerous repertoire with parts in “Little Odessa” and “Rob Roy” (which won him an Oscar nomination). He also continued notching credits with particularly interesting directors — eventually adding to his work with Robert Altman (“Vincent & Theo”) stints with Woody Allen (“Everyone Says I Love You”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“Youth Without Youth”).
“Each film is a separate adventure, some happy, some sad,” Roth says. “But one thing I always do with every director is watch them, watch them like a hawk. Coppola, for example, I loved watching him prepare images with the camera. Altman was this outrageous collaborator — once you gained his trust, and he gained yours, you could try anything. That was a wonderful experience, one of my favorites. I love that kind of collaboration. It wouldn’t be a very good day at the office for me if I didn’t feel I had something to contribute.”
tim-roth-funny-games.jpgMaking 'Funny Games,' Roth admits, was probably his toughest experience as an actor
There have been some challenges. As an actor, perhaps Roth’s biggest one was co-starring in 2007’s brutal “Funny Games,” Michael Haneke’s English-language remake of his own, fiercely transgressive 1997 arthouse shocker.
“That’s a film we almost shouldn’t have done,” Roth admits. “It had already been done, by Michael, and I turned (the remake) down a couple of times. I understand what it’s about — violence, and audiences becoming immune to violence — but, blimey!”
In the second version, Roth and Naomi Watts play the picture-perfect upper-class victims of a senseless home invasion. The brutality is unremitting. The film is unforgiving.
“There were some serious problems with the movie,” Roth says. “For example, Michael had a really tough time understanding the nuances of English. And for the actors, you know, we shot it all in sequence — so you would go to work, spend the day being tortured, go back to the hotel, and then start all over the next morning… Michael is one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet, he’s a man I would do just anything with but, yeah, that one was a tough ride.”
The unblinking horror
Even tougher still was “The War Zone,” a 1999 film and — so far — Roth’s only attempt at directing. Set in a bleak, windswept corner of England, it’s a devastating story of abuse, and includes a horrifying scene of a father raping his daughter — all the more horrifying because the camera simply sits still, watching, refusing to look away. At its first festival screenings, angry audience members yelled at the screen and walked out — or stayed, just to yell at Roth afterward.
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“Some people could not literally sit there and watch it,” he remembers. “And my feeling was always, if you want to walk out, feel free, just try not to be noisy about it. But I know it was very, very hard to watch. And as a director, I don’t think you do scenes like that willy-nilly, you can’t just do them to shock, you have to earn the right to inflict something like that on an audience. I felt we had… But, obviously, that was a film that was very, very important to me, because it was an experience that I’d been through. And I thought that scene was necessary, to really put people into the shoes of those children.”
Ironically, it was that film — about one of the most monstrous of movie fathers — that eventually resulted in Roth now playing one of the kindest, in “Broken.”
“Dixie Linder, who helped me get ‘The War Zone’ made, we’ve remained very, very close friends, and I’m always interested in what she’s up to,” Roth says. “So she sent me this script, just to look at, and I thought it was just lovely. And later she came back around and asked if I’d be interested in doing a part.”
The role she offered, though, was that of an adult bully who’s raising a daughter just like him — and Roth passed, saying it was “a little close to stuff I’d done before.” But then the role of the other father, the good father, opened up. And Roth jumped.
“I thought, oh well, lovely, that’s a fascinating road to go down,” he said. “The big, screaming, tearing-up-the-scenery stuff — those parts are fun to do. But playing a very ordinary man, and making him simple, clear — that’s a lot harder to achieve than you might think, especially when, as an actor, you carry a certain amount of baggage.”
It’s finding challenges like that, in unexpected places, that still keeps Roth’s career interesting — and healthy.
“There are some jobs where it’s just a stroll, you do them and OK; and then there are those when it’s a real risk,” he says. “Most actors only get one shot at something like that during their time, and I’ve had many — many — so I’ve been very lucky. I remember, ages ago, Gary and I had a conversation, and I said, `You know, there seems to be a hole in the market for some tasty London boys. If we can just hang on, we might actually do all right!’ And 30 years on, we’re still at it.”
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