I’ve just gorged on the second series of Staged, the blissful second series of the actors-in-lockdown zoom show, directed and co-written by Simon Evans, with Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing (versions of) themselves, alongside their real-life wives (Anna Lundberg and Georgia Tennant respectively) also playing themselves, and Evans himself taking a starring role as a director trying to get them on the same page (if not stage).
In the first six-part series (in bite-sized 15 minute episodes), back in June, they were attempting to continue rehearsing a paused theatrical production online. This time around (following the same 15-minute episode format, but stretching now to eight editions), the first series was such a success that it is now being remade for American television — but with other actors, considered more commercially recognisable there — replacing them as themselves, a subject of much inevitable mutual resentment.
So they attempt to sabotage actors like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, much to the disapproval of their uber-agent, played by Whoopi Goldberg (all also on Zoom). There are other guest appearances, recurring like Nina Sosanya as their London theatre producer, or one-offs like Samuel L Jackson and Judi Dench (series one), and Michael Palin, Ewan McGregor, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett (series two).
The show is a Pirandellian, meta-theatrical joy that makes the perennial angst of actors both palpable and infinitely knowing. And Sheen and Tennant — both with lengthy lockdown hair and beards — are just wonderful, unashamedly revealing their quirky Welsh and Scottish humour and humiliations. As TV critic Euan Ferguson wrote last Sunday in The Observer: “A huge part of the premise on which this is built revolves around the talented two angsting over how relatively, globally, famous each one is, and that needs must involves referential in-jokes, meta-within-meta. I loved it. Billions won’t.”
Back in November there was a mortifying real-life version of the sort of thing that’s satirised in Staged when actor Lukas Gage posted a video to Twitter of an infraction with a director he was meeting on Zoom for an audition, who not realising he was unmuted, told others in the room with him: “These poor people live in these tiny apartments like I’m looking at his, you know, background and he’s got his TV and his, you know…”
To which Gage interjects and lets him know he’s just heard what he’s said: “I know it’s a shitty apartment. That’s why give me this job so I can get a better one.”
The duly and deservedly mortified director was British director Tristram Shapeero (pictured above), who outed himself as being the offensive director, in an open letter to deadline.com, in a public apology:
“Despite what is probably wise advice: to say the least possible and let this pass, I have decided to come forward, take responsibility, make the apology Mr. Gage deserves, and offer some background for my unacceptable and insensitive remarks. I am Tristram Shapeero, a 20-year veteran television director, half in the UK, and the second half here in the US. First and foremost I offer Mr. Gage a sincere and unvarnished apology for my offensive words, my unprofessional behavior during the audition and for not giving him the focus and attention he deserved. My job is to evaluate performers against the part I am trying to cast. Lukas deserved better…. As I say on the video, I’m mortified about what happened. While I can’t put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube, I move forward from this incident a more empathetic man; a more focused director and I promise, an even better partner to actors from the audition process to the final cut.”
Staged couldn’t have staged it better.
Considerably more loving — though occasionally shot through with waspish asides — is Roger Michell’s gorgeous portrait of our four most senior theatrical dames — national treasures Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, plus the more restrainedly-famous Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright, filmed at the Sussex home that Plowright shared with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, whom each of them had worked with.
Called Nothing Like a Dame on its 2018 UK theatrical release — and Tea with the Dames for its US release — I finally caught up with it on TV on Tuesday night, and it proves to the perfect companion piece for Staged. Although some of it is staged — we see the film crew fussing around them, and at one point Dame Maggie even comments to Judi on the couch beside her whether they ever really sit like this — mostly it is just fly-on-the-wall chat, with occasional conversational prompts from the director, and is a veritable feast of theatrical anecdotes, from the past to the present.
When Dame Judi was asked to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (opposite Anthony Hopkins as Antony) at the National Theatre, she asked director Peter Hall: “Are you are you want a menopausal dwarf?” Dame Eileen says: “That’s what she was.” And Judi answers: “And that’s how I played it.”
It is interspersed with some stunning archive footage, including Maggie’s appearance as Desdemona opposite Sir Laurence Olivier as Othello, in which he slaps her viciously and audibly across her face. “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” she quips, with her characteristic killer delivery.
There’s a lot of poignancy around their failing heath, particularly eyesight (Dame Joan is blind, Judi impaired) and hearing (Joan has hearing aids — and tells Judi that she SHOULD have them!), and a great story from Judi about being infantilised by an unsuspecting young paramedic after she was “stung on the bum by a hornet”. He asks her, “What’s our name?” and is met with the furious response: “Fuck off! I’ve just done eight weeks in The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick.”