The Weekend Australian - Review

A PAIR OF RAGGED CLAWS

- Stephen Romei

Ethan Hawke’s fourth novel, A Bright Ray of Darkness (William Heinemann, 256pp, $32.99), is tantalisin­gly autobiogra­phical.

Set in New York, where the Oscar-nominated actor and screenwrit­er lives, it centres on a 32-year-old film star who is making his Broadway debut. He has been cast as Sir Henry Percy aka Hotspur in Shakespear­e’s Henry IV (as was then 32-year-old Hawke in 2003, though it was not his Broadway debut).

As this fictional famous film star, William Harding, prepares for the most stressful role of his life, he is dumped by his even more famous rock star wife, with whom he has two young children. He’s been caught, in the tabloid media, fooling around with other women while on set in South Africa, making another blockbuste­r.

In 2003, the real famous film star about to play Hotspur separated from his just-as-famous film star wife, Uma Thurman. His infideliti­es were cited. They had two young children. It’s difficult, therefore, not to read William’s thoughts without thinking of his creator.

“Coming back to New York,’’ he thinks on arrival at JFK Airport, was like placing my head in the center of a well-made noose.” He checks into the Mercury Hotel, drinks, takes drugs, chases women, sees his kids and reads Shakespear­e. His wife announces a new round of gigs, the Piss on Your Grave Tour.

However, for this reader, it’s not the possible links to Hawke’s own personal dramas that are most intriguing. It’s the discussion of moving from film to the stage and working with a great, demanding theatre director and a great, condescend­ing theatre actor, the real star of the show, who is Falstaff.

Here’s the director, JC Callahan, addressing the cast on day one. “There are only two kinds of Shakespear­e production­s: ones that change your life, and ones that suck shit. That’s it. Because if it doesn’t change the audience’s life... the production has failed.”

Having stunned the actors into silence, he continues: “We’re going to come down on this city like God’s f..king fist and do the greatest American Shakespear­e ever.”

JC is in his 60s, bald and wears bow ties. Look up photograph­s of Jack O’Brien, who directed Hawke in Henry IV.

Any reader will wonder how much of what happens is true, and will also do their own casting. There’s a hilarious scene when an older film star, who is even more famous than William, and perhaps madder, arrives in his limo and takes the younger man out to dispense some advice, and some cocaine, which he has in a Tardis-like bag. I have an idea of who this might be, but best not say so in print. Other readers will come up with other names.

Then there’s the moment when William is in a bar, trying to memorise Hotspur’s opening soliloquy, and he meets Eugene R. Whitman, “America’s greatest living playwright”. The winner of two Pulitzer prizes is drinking heavily and chatting up a woman about 40 years his junior. “My hero,’’ William quickly realises, “was blitzkrieg drunk”. Again, some names popped into my head.

Yet it is Falstaff who is the most fun to think about. It’s fascinatin­g to read of the hierarchia­l nature of stage acting, even if it’s assumed and not stated. Virgil Smith is an Oscar winner, a Tony winner, “probably the only legitimate American film star who was also a universall­y celebrated and respected theater actor. He was everything I’d ever wanted to be, since I was old enough to want”.

When they first meet, William thinks, “since I was kind of famous and he was superfamou­s, I guess he figured we should hug”. Virgil is arrogant but not unkind. He advises his Hotspur to work on his consonants, especially “your and and adds that overall he would be better off with Chekhov, “who gives the actor the leaves — and we must build the tree”. Shakespear­e, on the other hand, “provides the whole tree — only the leaves are ours’’.

This can only be a nod to Hawke’s real Broadway debut, in 1992, as Konstantin Treplev in Chekhov’s The Seagull. That’s amusing, but the overwhelmi­ng question is who is this Falstaff? It was Kevin Kline in Hawke’s real life, but I don’t think it’s him. Several names popped into my head — rememberin­g the actor must be American — before I settled on one I am confident about: Al Pacino. I think The first Godfather movie is alluded to.

This is a very funny, very well-written novel that can be read on several levels. The title, by the way, comes not from Shakespear­e but the Bible. The novel’s final Act (rather than Chapter) starts with this quote from Psalm 139:12: “The darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light.”

I think the haunting final lines of the novel speak to this, but I may be wrong. Perhaps it’s relevant to a bit early on, when William understand­s there can be dark and light at the same moment: “Everyone hated me so much these days, I was sure a spectacula­rly humiliatin­g Broadway failure would please the world immensely.”

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