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Theatre: Staged - Nicholas Lezard

Arts | By Nicholas Lezard

Staged: David Tennant and Michael Sheen play David Tennant and Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen's and David Tennant's attempt at lockdown Zoom rehearsals on BBC iPlayer

We’ve been having to redefine what the theatre is these days, what with being able to watch it only on a screen.

Even so, calling Staged ‘theatre’ might be a bit of a stretch. I could use some fancy casuistry to make a case that it is actually a kind of hybrid form – half-TV, half-theatre – but the main thing is that the editor says I can file it under theatre and, besides, everyone who is keen on theatre will love this.

In six 15- 20-minute episodes (so far), we see Michael Sheen and David Tennant, playing themselves, trying and failing to enter lockdown rehearsals via Zoom for a new production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, under the hapless instruction of their hapless director, Simon Evans, also playing himself (and who wrote and directed).

Other people – Sheen’s and Tennant’s wives – also play themselves (in lockdown, spouses can film as close to each other as they want). There are appearances, too, by Samuel L Jackson and Judi Dench. ‘F*ck!’ cries Tennant when she pops up on his computer screen – and so do we. I do hope I haven’t spoiled the surprise for you. (The whole thing is very sweary, in keeping with its aesthetic of verisimilitude.)

The main gag is that actors are vain, pretentious, insecure and utterly self-absorbed. We all know this already, but Staged takes this ball and runs far with it. There are running gags about, for instance, who comes first on the credits, and even what their names are. Tennant is called ‘Macdonald’ at the beginning of episode 3, Macdonald being, we are told at the end of episode 2, his real name. Episode 4, following a huge row between him and Sheen, has him credited as ‘That F#!king Liar David Tennant’.

Tennant and Sheen have worked together before, most notably on the Amazon/BBC series Good Omens. Whereas there they looked impeccably sharp and smooth as the demon and angel working together, here they look a mess: bearded, long-haired and with something dead behind their eyes.

Sheen is perhaps the more dangerously demented of the two. He is often shown staring at 90 degrees to the laptop camera, as if stranded on some desolate shore. When he turns his gaze back to the camera, it can make us jump, as if he is about to hit us.

Tennant, on the other hand, looks lost, his eyes huge and black, defeated by everything that life is throwing at him. His self-esteem is simultaneously both so high and so low that at one point he drinks from a mug with his own face on it.

‘Is that your face?’ asks Sheen, incredulously but also delightedly.

‘No,’ says Tennant, setting up a gag I will not spoil for you, but which had me gasping for breath with laughter.

And oh, how funny this is. People arguing is always funny, or should be: think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before it gets really nasty. Here, there is a real bite in the way Sheen and Tennant bicker; I’m sure they’re best friends in real life, but they do a very convincing portrayal of two people who may not be living in the same place and are connected only by broadband, but who somehow live in each other’s head. This, we are being invited to believe, is what it is like backstage, before the greasepaint is applied and the show goes on, as it must.

Here, of course, the show does not go on. That is Staged’s main running gag (and while we’re here, let’s salute the great cleverness of the title). The production of Pirandello’s play is as impossible as the arrival of Godot. What we are seeing is everything that a play is not (and the choice of Six Characters… as the play they are failing to put on is, of course, a nod to that play itself, its attempt to escape its own bonds).

Is this really what it is like behind the scenes? And does it explain the mystery that I have always felt about Michael Sheen’s performances; that is, ‘How the hell does he do that?’ His beard and hair suggest both someone who has given up caring, beyond artifice, and at the same time someone in hibernation, hiding himself from us. When he lashes out at Tennant, it is as if a bear has been rudely awoken from its slumber; and when he impersonates a Muppet, in order to denigrate Tennant’s acting skills, it is not only uncannily good; it is also terrifyingly intense – as well as being hilarious. It’s one of those bits you have to rewind because you’re laughing so much.

So it certainly has the immediate feel of theatre. Is it the timing or the editing >span class="s4"> thing is that it’s about more than bickering actors. It’s about our own lockdowns.

This story was from August 2020 issue. Subscribe Now