Style Over Substance?: Understanding the evolution of acting styles

I appreciate all of your comments on my previous post.  You have inspired me to take on a little project.   I have decided to start exploring acting on a deeper level in order to open up a conversation with actors (and other readers) about the state of contemporary acting and performance.  First up, I’d like to explore the evolution of acting styles. Most people who have studied acting are aware of the shifts in acting styles that have occurred over the years.  Some changes have been drastic, while others have been more subtle.  As a result, actor training has changed over time as well and the invention of film, video, and new media have had an irrevocable effect on the evolution of acting.  Let’s take a trip through the last 60 years or so by exploring different portrayals of Hamlet.

I remember watching Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning performance in Hamlet when I was in high school.  My brother walked in and watched with me for a while, but he was not enthralled.  He told me that Olivier’s lauded performance was boring and melodramatic.  I said, that he was acting in a particular style.  My brother curtly noted that the “style” was bad acting.  In 1948, this performance was almost universally praised, but if an actor playing Hamlet today performed in this manner it wouldn’t go over so well.  Olivier had extensive classic training and by this time was an accomplished actor of stage and screen.  His classical training is evident in this performance, but over time our expectations have changed.  He uses the internal monologue to show us an introspective Hamlet.  His positioning makes it clear that he is of a melancholy humor.  What do you think of his performance now?

Fast forward 16 years to Richard Burton’s seminal performance as Hamlet onstage.  This performance was captured on film for posterity.  The acting style has evolved from Olivier’s introspective performance.  Burton’s Hamlet has a more muscular approach.  He relies less on the classical style of playing the melancholic humor, instead he brings a thoughtful and robust virility to his Hamlet.  His Hamlet attacks the language where Olivier caressed it.  Burton burst with vitality and brings both light and shade to his words.

In 1980, Derek Jacobi took on the role and brought a surprisingly different take to the melancholy Dane.  His frailty and vulnerability are on display in this performance.  His Hamlet is softer and he (or the director) makes the choice to directly address the viewer in an almost disarming manner.   Jacobi plays with the poetry of the words and coos the speech with a soothing tone.  He seems almost frightened and childlike: this is a direct contradiction to Burton’s more forceful Hamlet.

Ethan Hawke took on Hamlet almost 20 years later.  His portrayal is very much of its time.  He is the slacker Hamlet.  He too (or  the director) engages the voiceover technique that Olivier used, but his Hamlet is trapped in the banal monotony of a video store while Olivier was perched at the edge of an angry sea.  His is an apathetic Hamlet who has been numbed by a world full of constant stimulation.  Hawke’s Hamlet might as well be reciting a shopping list or the alphabet.  The words are almost superfluous.  He embraces minimalism and speaks the words with little inflection.

Which brings us to David Tennant’s RSC Hamlet from a year ago.  Tennant imbues each word with meaning.  While Burton and Olivier relied heavily on physicality, Tennant allows his vocal work to reveal Hamlet’s true mind.  His direct address is more menacing than Jacobi’s and he leaves a haunting impression.  Today, Tennant’s Hamlet feels modern, but in 10 years will it seem as dated as Hawke’s performance?

Of course, its important to note that there are many other factors which impact performance, but it cannot be denied that acting styles have and will continue to evolve over time.  Contemporary acting should pull from what has come before and expand upon the traditions and then explode them into something new.  What do you think about modern acting styles?  Do you embrace a purely naturalistic approach?  Do you believe that solid technique is the foundation a great performance?  What do you think of these contrasting Hamlets? (and yes, I left out Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, Kevin Kline and many others.  Do you like them better?  Tell me why!)  I’d love to open up a debate about acting styles.  Talk to me, people!

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3 thoughts on “Style Over Substance?: Understanding the evolution of acting styles

  1. Cj says:

    Thank you for this interesting post, Ms. Lilly.

    Here are a few assorted, scattered, personal thoughts, whatever value they may hold.

    Acting on film vs. on the stage have two different challenges about them. What may be considered ‘natural’ on film could easily die on stage depending on the actor and audience. Kevin Kline’s beautiful performance onscreen done onstage and by a less charismatic actor may not reach beyond the first few rows. No doubt, Mr. Kline could pull it off easily as he brings an audience in to share his secrets and has the requisite charisma.

    Do you mean approach or delivery? One could approach the material ‘naturally’ discovering the subtleties and nuances of what is being said, and then create an enlarged performance that would grab the attention of the fellow eating candy in the last row of a theatre. Maybe not ‘natural’ (if by that you mean something you would see on the street by an everyman) but perhaps interesting or possibly even captivating. Does it get the playwrights intention across? Did you share a meaning or truth or thought or experience or ‘moment’ with the audience?

    This is the first time I’ve seen Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and he was refreshing after Sir Olivier and Sir Burton. While I loved the first two performances, I felt that that was what they were, performances, without as much thought to what they were saying, as to how it was being said. I felt Mr. Jacobi brought more thought and meaning to his words and let the performance take care of itself.

    What do you think about modern acting styles?

    I think styles are learned by what we see and understanding the truth of our characters. The same exercises and approaches could be used by many from Stanislavsky to Chekhov to Meisner and Mamet, but the results will be different depending on the actors experience and what other performances he has witnessed. His acting IQ increases when he witnesses a performance and hears something inside himself that says, “That didn’t ring true for me. Why not? How would I do that and why?” Or, conversely, “Wow, that was amazing, I felt that.” And, having witnessed truth in performance, we then have the same expectation of ourselves. I would love to see both Sir Olivier and Sir Burton rework their Hamlets again (if such miracles could happen) after they have seen all these. That combination of their talent, charisma and then witnessing would make for even more amazing performances.

    Do you believe that solid technique is the foundation a great performance?

    Foundation is the key word. Technique is not the performance, it is part of the building blocks. Just like you learned to write, you no longer think about it, you just do it. As Sir Ben Kingsley put it, “Somewhere in your career, your work changes. It becomes less anal, less careful and more spontaneous, more to do with the information that your soul carries. “

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