FringeReview UK 2021
Giles Terera, Hamilton and Me: An Actor’s Journal, Nick Hern Books, 220pp. Published July 1st 2021
The room where it happened, the audition, the silence back home where the RSC ask you to play another Aaron, that role from Titus Andronicus you’ve always wanted
Giles Terera’s touring in the Globe’s outstanding Merchant of Venice (2015-16) with Jonathan Pryce and when the call comes it seriously collides him with the Prince of Morocco. Not least because he nearly doesn’t make it back to play him.
The room Terera happens on; where, as Hamilton writer/composer Lin Manuel Miranda reveals in his Foreword, Terera was from the first the actor he had in mind for the role of Aaron Burr, in the London premiere. How Terera’s RSC training suggested to him someone who doesn’t want to impress with a beautiful voice but tell the story.
Miranda hears that storytelling because of an infection that affects his balance and thus dance rehearsals prove impossible. So paradoxically, Miranda decides to go to the auditions and hear Terera in person, almost by accident. Terera feels without knowing that everything’s on a perilous balance, all is on the hazard for several months and he has to turn down that other Aaron he was born for.
The rehearsal room, because if you read Hamilton and Me – because you’ve seen or want to see Hamilton – you get far more. Not just the joyous falling-in-love with the part Terera realises he’s born to play, that’s quite often the case. Even the enthusiasm, probing intellect, we’ve seen before.
This is a handbook. If you’re an actor, director, any creative, you’ll want this blow-by-line account of what it’s like working at full tilt in a world-class production, stretched beyond belief when you’re world class yourself, which means you’re a world class critic of yourself. Not an internal saboteur, but this fine side of deconstruction.
A diary not written for publication we’re told, picked up by accident a year later and reassembled as not all of it’s in the notebook. There’s reproductions of it too with each chapter heading. Neat firm handwriting. Terera’s tidied up some of it, but sometimes let half uncompleted lines stand as just that on occasion, broken off, as an insight’s dragged into performance and vanishes in song or gets obliviated.
There’s momentary elation on getting that audition plunged straight in with doubts. The unexaggerated highs, unflinching lows. The dries, the unlearning of a record track you’ve been spooling in your head and have to press delete to; the complex move backwards up steps whilst singing. How to rehearse rap. Images in a song allowing you to bite it to the core. The way directors, creatives, other actors listen to you, you them. How you click, laugh, realize there’s part of that you have to scrub. And the rehearsal process, weeks walking out under stars.
You begin to breathe Terera’s solitude, his raptness, one that’s focused on the part, not himself. There’s unprompted use of dream and memory to texture the narrative. He dreams his part as expected but less predictable, more key, more fictively persuasive even is the way Terera brings in personal history. It points his teenage years: news of terrorism in Belfast and South Africa; outside the South African Embassy to hear of Mandela’s release. A nation built on the backs of others Terera’s young self notes. It all resonates but is never underscored.
Miranda’s inexorable confluence, the room where it happens, is echoed in the way Terera feels into the process, the history. There’s the exclusion of Burr by his friend Alexander Hamilton when Jefferson et al want to cut a business deal and the ‘bastard son of a whore and a Scotsman’ and orphan like Hamilton, is somehow not good enough. The climactic duel – a mighty reckoning in a little room. And a foundation myth and curse of the Signers.
And we follow historically Terera chasing down and re-imagining a real dialogue recorded between Burrr and his landlady/daughter/lover, whatever rumours gust in. The last room where it happens, a curious envoi telling us all we need to know of Terera’s probing, thrilling in-the-moment research. In a word his profundity dealing with Aaron Burr.
Hamilton and Me was written because from a child Terera has always written exhorted to, by his mother, when doing anything different. This wasn’t intended for publication though the sheer visceral leanness of the prose is masterly. Certainly the sheer periodicity, the swing of it, is like a diary: small incidentals, but too the way Terera can make details tell.
The scene-setting in December 14th 2016 Terera’s 40th birthday in fact has him cross the river at dusk, stars out for his audition. It’s punctuated throughout. Even the birthday. Miranda’s clear how much of a storyteller Terera is. That’s what we get here but far more.
By the time Terera’s left the production a couple of years later, you feel he’s also laid to rest something of his artistic heritage, that it had to be written out or it’d trouble his dreams. This, the diary we’re told got written everywhere includes times when notebooks were unavailable; so on the inside back cover of another biography of Burr.
Terera’s clearly no ordinarily gifted actor-chronicler, one confident in his inheritances taking up new studies and absorbing the new company several of whom s/he’d know, and certainly the milieu. Terera’s of course a vastly experienced actor, but Miranda’s use of the word ‘laser’ is right. This isn’t simply method-acting, since Terera’s book is generous in scope – avowedly from his detached self and his Terera/Burr viewpoint in one.
We’re often told there’s two kinds of actors: those who focus on their own part; and director/actors, who think of everything around the production with their place in it. Slightly more detached, less egoic. Terera thinks like a director/actor outside his character though unusually drags that back into Burr’s intensive field. His lucid style tells you how.
That’s another distinction, the fundamental one. Terera in rehearsal burns through his part, the histories, relates the how of it, to adopt as he did Miranda’s distinction. Not the why, that’s a given, that’s occult, an impertinence even. How things fall out.
In Terera’s case, the Olivier Award, one of seven for the show deemed the finest since the millennium. This is the core of it. In rapid, elegant, idiomatically kerned language belying its (admittedly large font) 220 pages, Terera proves himself a superb expositor of where it happens.