Chaplin is arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon. Everyone agrees on this: the British Film Institute, Time Magazine, the American Film Institute, Sight and Sound Magazine, actors, directors, producers, movie buffs, various Film Studies professors at Kent University…..everyone.
Attempts to pin down the genius of the man by way of succinct phrases invariably fail because of the multi-faceted nature of his talents and greatness. But here are a few that, for me anyway, have a reasonable punt at it:
“He invented global recognisability and helped turn an industry into an art”. So said Time in the foreword to its list of the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’ (the list is unranked but most commenters place Chaplin between 15 and 35 – ahead of Gandhi and Churchill!).
And the film historian Mark Cousins said “He changed not only the imagery of cinema, but also its sociology and grammar”. The Film Studies professors at Kent University would like that one. You only need to add the word ‘Discuss’ at the end of it for a lazy tutorial group session.
So there. A genius. ‘Nuff said. And if not, you can always go to Wikipedia.
But who really was Chaplin?
At the Beehive, the character actor Pip Utton delves into Chaplin’s soul. It is the early hours of Christmas day, 1977, and a tired old man shuffles about making a cup of tea (which he stirs with his walking stick) and calls querulously for his wife Oona.
He begins telling us about his life in a conversational tone; his many great achievements, his accomplishments (he not only directed and produced his own films; he even wrote the music for them), his obsessive search for perfection, his dark and impoverished beginnings, his love-hate relationship with America, and his predilection – throughout his life – for young women. In the darkened, intimate, front-stage-area, we – the audience sitting at our little cocktail tables – are drawn into his story.
But the tone gradually changes from pompous to accusatory, wheedling and maudlin, and it is clear that we are in the presence of two personalities: Chaplin the man, and his alter ego and creation of 1914: The Tramp. Like a ventriloquist with an unhealthy relationship with his dummy, the two begin an internal conversation – whilst still acknowledging the presence of the audience – as Chaplin the man begins a physical transformation into The Tramp. “I know it’s him you’ve really come to see” the old man whines as he puts on the famous wig and moustache, and whites his face with stage makeup. Who are we supposed to love? The creator or the creation?
There are some clever touches in all this. A central feature is a centre-stage projection screen which Chaplin (Utton) periodically steps in and out of to enact The Tramp, in fuzzy, stilted, old style film, and it’s a tribute to Utton’s exact sense of timing that he manages to pull this off – at one point throwing a briefcase on the film that miraculously lands in front of the screen on stage with a startling thump.
All in all it’s a unique take on one of the more interesting characters of the last century, and despite his whining we all feel some affection for the tired old man as he leaves us on that Christmas morning in 1977 – turning into his alter ego as he walks into the screen and transforms into a sepia film of The Tramp walking into the distance.
Pip Utton as Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977)
Review by Neil Madden