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Marcel Marceau and me

Marceau speaks the only word in Mel Brooks’ film “Silent Movie”.

Seeing Marcel Marceau close up, teaching at his school in Paris, was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.

Marceau was an iconic figure, who can be credited with single-handedly reviving and elevating the art of mime to a new level of popular recognition in the twentieth century through his extensive international touring, particularly in the role of ‘Bip’ with his stripey shirt, and white face surmounted by a top hat with a flower. As a teenager I had seen Marceau perform at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, from the cheap seats way up at the back of the second circle, but in 1985 I got to see him at work close-up and it was a penny drop moment that changed my life.

It was thirty years ago, it was spring, and I was in the spring of my youth. And, once again, I was going a bit mad. When I left University I had formed a two-person theatre company (No Alternative with Denise Evans) and we toured Berkoff’s Decadence to some success in Edinburgh and on the small-scale touring circuit. We were just about making a living. After eighteen months we decided to merge with another Manchester-based two person company, Theatre Totale, and we planned to tour Berkoff’s four-hander – Greek – and an original play to be devised by the company on the theme of the Apocalypse. But the union was not a happy one – all four of us were very strong personalities and the clash of egos was quite intense. I must confess, in retrospect, I was mostly to blame… The new show was going in a direction I disagreed with, but I was persuaded that the director and writer just neeed some time to complete the script and I really needed a break after several months of intense touring – so everyone around me said I should take a holiday and get away, and I decided to go to Paris for a week. If I remember correctly there was an added incentive in the form of a potential reunion with a recent lover.

By chance, my stepmother knew Marcel Marceau and she contacted his school – L’ École Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris Marcel Marceau – and arranged for me to go to see him teaching a class. It was a first-year class and there were about fifteen students and three or four guests observing. As I recall, the class began with stretching exercises and then for maybe twenty minutes they did limbo – yes, walking under sticks while bending over backwards. But then, Marceau announced “Toutes les mains!” and the class formed into rows with Marceau standing at the front, and they all began performing a sequence of hand exercises, like a martial arts ‘kata’ (sequence of forms) such as you might see in a Tai Chi class.

Marceau demonstrates several hand gestures and discusses zen-like concentration.

And there he was, the most famous mime in the world, standing about ten feet in front of me, performing this simple routine which he must have practised thousands of times, but still totally engaged in it, executing the movements with all the skill, all the focus and mastery as if he were on stage at Sadler’s Wells. And he wasn’t doing it for the tiny audience. And I don’t think he was doing it for the students. He was doing it for the art, for the gods. He was doing it because that’s what a great artist, a great master does.

I came away determined to become even more focused, even more self-disciplined. Within a year I had became a vegetarian and began studying martial arts. About three years later I read Nobuko Albery’s book The House of Kanze, which tells the story of Zeami Motokiyo, the founding genius of the Noh theatre in Japan, which talks a great deal about ‘the Way of Noh’ – the idea that theatre training and practise is a spirtual path or ‘Way’ (a ‘Tao’ in Chinese, or a ‘Do’, ‘To’, or ‘Michi’ in Japanese).

After more than 30 years as a professional actor but also now that I have been training in Kendo for 24 years, I understand more completely what I witnessed in that room in Paris all those years ago. In martial arts training there are basic simple forms which one practises over and over. Even, or perhaps especially the most experienced practitioners will go over the basics again and again. And again… While obviously there are physical benefits, the real purpose is more mental or even spiritual. The repetition is not mindless. Quite the opposite. The mind and the spirit are strengthened by concentrating deeper and deeper on each moment of the physical form.

At the time I saw him teaching, in 1985, Marceau was 62. Sadly Marceau’s school closed in 2005 and Marceau died aged 84 in 2007.

Here is a longer interview in which Marceau covers a huge range of topics. I particularly like his discussion of gestures in different cultures.