The Fugard Theatre is currently home to the much loved musical, Funny Girl. Met with rave reviews since opening night, most people know that it is inspired by the life and career of American actress, Fanny Brice, brilliantly portrayed by Ashleigh Harvey. But what of the man who captures Brice’s heart night after night? The one who so easily just gets labelled the villain living in her shadow? Clyde Berning, brings a fresh onstage presence to this ‘villain’ named Nick Arnstein, as he takes on the lead role opposite Ashleigh Harvey’s Brice.
Berning impressively brings Brice’s conman husband to ‘life’ as a character with real depth. A theatre man by training, having played a wide range of roles in plays ranging from Hamlet and History Boys to Noises Off, Berning embraces the versatility found in different theatre styles. So it is only natural that he should be intrigued by the world of musical theatre too.
Though he does confesses himself new to the realm of musicals, he also can't hide his excitement at having been presented with this opportunity to be part of a musical. "I really enjoy doing comedy – straight comedy or absurdist comedy – and I really enjoy doing tragedy, but when a show like Funny Girl has a sense of pathos… that is exciting to me. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Just the experience of laughing that deep guttural laugh and then being moved to tears within the next heartbeat is magic for me… the balance of it.”
That idea of balance is clearly reflected in Berning's approach to his character, Nick Arnstein, a man who arguably is a bit darker, broodier, than most musical main men. Although the original musical book did not allow much character development for Arnstein as the fortune seeker love interest to Brice’s rising star, a merge between the screen and stage versions, as well as a well-researched understanding of the man himself, in this current staging allows Berning a bit more scope. With that scope to play with, Berning very subtly takes Arnstein from charming to emotionally detached as his relationship with Brice unfolds and spirals towards heartache.
“I think that swing for me [from charming to detached] is about just playing him, the truth of this guy. It’s not like he wants to do anyone any harm. But to a degree he is selfish – without judging him – I mean he is a selfish guy. He wants the best of everything and he wants to win… it is almost like talent is the most attractive thing to him.” That is what draws Anrstein to Brice, says Berning. “She doesn’t need to be aesthetically perfect or aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. She has so much talent that that is even more attractive. He sees that and then he’s like ‘well, I want that’.”
In that attraction lies the irony of the story. That which initially draws Arnstein to Brice is what ultimately makes him leave too. “I think let’s be honest, the play can come across as quite sexist. Not even quite sexist, it’s almost misogynistic. But that has a lot to do with him. [Director] Matthew [Wild] and I were talking about it… I don’t know what it would be in English, probably some kind of embarrassment, but in Afrikaans we call it ‘skaamkwaad’. So just the idea that she’s becoming more successful, that she’s in a way more talented, that she’s just more than him” brings out a (self)destructive anger because he can't look past it to see that Brice is actually supportive to a fault. “There she is gaining the alpha role… yet she is willing to give up her career for him and throw it all away still for their love. I think it is a complex thing, a layered thing. I hope that we could capture that through their relationship.”
Berning reflects that Brice and Arnstein’s relationship actually rings true of the nature of the entertainment industry, “where you have to experience rejection and defeat and then absolute success and then absolute rejection again.” Much like their relationship, “it is so volatile, it fluctuates so rapidly in that world, in the entertainment industry in general. It is not a stable curve. It is unpredictable.”
So to get around the stumbling block of Arnstein just being played as the bitter emasculated man, not being able to cope with Brice’s success, Wild and Berning chose to explore his humanity in that unpredictable, volitile context. Drawing on the idea of balance, of pathos, Berning explains “you need to see the greater truth of his humanity… It is not as though the facts are important, but rather the truth of the person”, showcasing who the man in Brice’s life really was at his core.
In finding Arnstein’s truth, in playing that into the character, Berning shares that he connects with Arnstein by drawing on the one character trait they have in common … risk!
“We both take risks. That is the essence of his gambling, but that also has so much to do with love, relationships, I mean driving a car, just everyday life.” In fact that risk element reveals Brice and Arnstein to be two sides of the same coin, with perhaps luck just being more on her side. "She just bursts in on a rehearsal saying ‘But I am this good! You will come with me and teach me the dance!’ and she makes it happen. So for me that just worked as an approach" to Arnstein too.
Immersing oneself in the life of such a complex character onstage, one that isn’t really happy with his life, does call for some real life balance Berning admits. In finding that balance, time with his wife and kids are key. He finds his haven to be their bustling family life. “I try to leave Nick Arnstein here at the theatre and not take him home with me… so I’m determined to walk out the door, out of my dressing room, and leave him there in the wardrobe and in the cigarette case, and he can stay there and be angry and take his risks. If you can strike that balance, then you’ve got it lucky.”
Luck seems to be on Berning's side, not only with that balance and a great musical opportunity, but also in giving him a chance to work with director Matthew Wild again, now that Wild has made a name for himself not only in musical theatre circles, but even more so in the bigger and bolder world of opera. Berning sees great inspiration and value in having a director that can transfer some of that boldness into his musical vision. “There is a heightened sense of emotions” at play says Berning, as in opera “everything is on a larger scape, the whole dramatic arc is on a bigger scale.”
“I remember one of our lecturers saying to us that when spoken word can’t contain emotion anymore you move to poetry, and when poetry can’t contain it anymore you move to song, and from song into opera. There is something very true about that… because when there is just too much emotion to contain you find yourself belting out an aria!”
Is that not what musical theatre at the heart of it all is too? A song-infused burst of emotion, with the added entertainment of a dance number or two? Both operatic and musical performances embrace the power of song to escape. That is the appeal of musicals shares Berning, that musicals “have always been an escapist medium” for audiences. “It captures our fantasies and our dreams, our upper most emotions”, as one sees reflected in the emotional roller-coaster of Arnstein and Brice in Funny Girl. “Even though this story is based on someone’s true life, or as close to it, it is still the dream of that life. When it is up on that stage it is the fantasy of that life.”
So go join Berning and the rest of the Funny Girl cast at the Fugard Theatre, as they take you on an escapism journey of note... a journey to another time, another life, with Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein. The show runs until 11 June 2017, with tickets available at Computicket.