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Look back to the fifties

Michael Sheen tells Timothy Ramsden what it's like to play Jimmy Porter.

At 25 Michael Sheen is spot-on for drama's least sugary sweet-stall holder. But what's it like for a babe of 1969 to take on those famously topical mid-fifties fulminations of Look Back in Anger History books provide the details but what an actor needs to make a character full of period references live is some modern parallel. For Suez and Hungary read Bosnia and Rwanda and you have situations that pose similar questions to which a young actor can feel his own responses and measure them against Jimmy's. Here lie the same central issues, "A sense of impotence, the question of this country's place in the world - of who we are."

Sheen has no truck with Jimmy as spokesperson for a generation - and anyway it's an unactable concept. As for Jimmy the surrogate voice for his author (who died a few days into rehearsals): "If he is meant to be John Osborne then Osborne's being very honest. He said Jimmy is a slightly comic figure. He didn't write a purely sympathetic character. Sometimes Jimmy is blazingly honest, sometimes he pretends to be. He's frightened, vulnerable, but destroys things then blames others."

It's this duality in Jimmy which seems to fascinate his latest incarnation. Most of us, Sheen says, can experience "moments of empathy, anger, frustration. Then a general sloth comes down and pushes these away. Jimmy won't allow that to happen. He forces himself to keep at a certain level which he believes is real. The cost - personally to him and in relationships with others - comes in working himself that hard all the time."

In moral terms then, Jimmy is like someone who refuses ever to sleep and feels betrayed when others have a nap. The sense of betrayal, Sheen finds, is strong in the play. It accounts for Jimmy's behaviour to Alison. "There was a quality about her he wanted. After the marriage he found it was not actually there. It had been a mistake and he feels trapped. In the play they've been four years in that flat, before that in London. Was the marriage always like that? Or have they changed?" Jimmy is "very, very frustrated with what's going on around him. He knows what he doesn't want but doesn't know what he wants." A clear line of investigation for an actor is the balance between Jimmy the psychological bully, using his own pain for emotional blackmail and the real inward hurt he suffers through his remorseless response to the world. And alongside betrayal, that continuing quest brings the fear of being alone. More surprisingly, Sheen believes Jimmy can be positive towards his wife. "He really does try to examine how she feels as a person rather than what she (socially) represents. He does try to negotiate, compromise, though he's not very good at it."

But what makes Look Back seem so much the Jimmy Porter show is less his own tirades than the way the women alone together spend all their time talking about how he feels. "There's a big element of that in the play. You can't ignore it or try to justify it. I think it's Osborne being selective about what he chooses to show." Sheen compares it to the situation where an individual group member starts sucking everyone's energy in and becomes the group's focus. "You start to identify yourself in relation to that person. Such dependency is a problem, which is why Alison has to leave."

In case this sounds defensive, remember Sheen was answering my agenda. For himself enthusiasm over Look Back matches his sense of the play's spontaneity: "It was written very quickly and within its structure it's incredibly in the moment, with character-making decisions all the time. At any one moment a scene could go any way. Yet they have nowhere to go, these people - just one room. They could bring out anything. Jimmy will use anything - there's extraordinary spontaneity".

Back to my agenda. What did he think of one director's decision to cut Helena's kiss, as a West End cliche? He believes it's a vital moment. "The audience will have wanted to slap him just as Helena did. But at the slap his remorseless persona disappears; in the kiss she responds to the vulnerable person in need of love who's then been allowed to the surface."

Rehearsals have brought surprises. "For something I thought would be beyond my own experience, it's amazing how much I do connect with Jimmy Porter, the other characters and the situation. Osborne doesn't hide uncomfortable parts of people or areas of relationships." He instances Jimmy's anti-woman tirade, something which either has the whole company tutting, or else divides rehearsal rooms. Yet Osborne places this just after one of Jimmy's particularly petulant moments, when he insists on listening to a broadcast concert. His childish behaviour is still in our minds when he lashes out.

Finally breaking the mouthpiece view of Jimmy, Sheen has found he undergoes a journey within the play as he is made to realise the cost, to himself and to others of his approach to life. And there's truth in Helena's accusation that his sense of his own futility helps fuel his behaviour. Specifically, it's this feeling he transfers in his attack on Alison's pusillanimity.

Then there's the matter of structure. Within a year of its first, 1956, production Osborne spoke of its old-fashioned realism, "Look Back in Anger feels like a play straining at its structural limitations." Also in Jimmy and Cliff's music hall patter, but more importantly in the big speeches which seem to be bursting away from realistic conventions. "He's written what appears to be a naturalistic play but he makes it hard to do it in a naturalistic way. Jimmy's speeches move to a new area but the rest of the play does not go into that area."

Far from an orator then, Jimmy Porter is a psychological minefield, who "needs to be with someone who loves him," who from laying down conditions "realises he does have to negotiate with another person in human terms, and that he can live in and deal with a world where things are not as they should be. So he finds his place in the world with someone else. At least, potentially."

Manchester Royal Exchange, January 26 to February 18. Box office: 0161 833 9833.

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