I’m sorry, you have a sideline in what??

Lurching from feast to famine like a drunk on an ocean-liner, actors are the walking, talking expression of the 21st century binge economy. During a spell of gainful employment, it’s Krug through a straw, wads of notes down the cleavage and devil take the hindmost. Then the job comes to an end – and it’s a wrecked credit-rating, trips to Poundstretcher and hurling abuse at George Osborne on the telly. 

So, it’s over a month since Wars of the Roses came to an end in Kingston, and where are we at? In no particular order: the RSC performing their usual trick of fluttering their eye-lashes at me for weeks on end, then telling me to sod off; a disastrous casting for a telly thing where it appeared I lost the ability to even pronounce my own name, let alone make sense of the script; and, in the immediate aftermath of the carnage in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, a white-knuckle ride to the Middle East to take part in, erm, a health & safety workshop. 

But hey, that’s all for another post. Today, I want to provide a brief snapshot of the actor when he or she is at rest.
 

Snapshot
 

Before & After

Now, as is commonly understood and celebrated down the ages, we actors survive in-between jobs on a diet of own-brand value nuts and skin gnawed from scabby knuckles, preferably our own. The sudden reduction in calorific intake that attends the end of a contract, coupled over time with the bowel-churning mood-composites of anxiety, recurrent disappointment and professional jealousy lead to an increase in our overall metabolism and a commensurate and gratifying level of weight-loss. 

In contract
Out of contract

This appears to have the unintended and vaguely Darwinian side-effect of making us appear slightly more employable by the industry at large. What was heretofore a complacent smirk perched atop a few wobbly chins like a cherry on a jelly trifle becomes razor-sharp cheekbones beneath haunted eyes that scream mutely: I am your monkey-man, make me dance for you, lord. 

And, unlike Cassius in Julius Caesar, the lean and hungry look does tend to get the gig, I’m afraid. (Just ask Robbie Sheehan.) Thus a new and exciting position will eventually be obtained, our identity reaffirmed and bank account replenished. Running back to Waitrose as to a lover’s bed, the cycle begins afresh. 

Of course, this all assumes you don’t comfort-eat to fill the void in your life. If you do, then frankly you’re screwed, and you should go into teaching.
 

Take me, big boy, I’m yours
 

We’re all actors now

For some of us, this backbreaking and undignified process becomes less tenable with the arrival of angelic little parasites back home. So a workable compromise must be sought, which allows us to continue the Ceaseless Quest whilst also paying the rent. 

For most actors, this entails any number of sordid transactions with the real world, all on a temporary, mutually contemptuous basis, and zero loyalty given or expected by either party. Waiter, cold-caller, office temp: back when I first started out, these jobs were the grouting in the complex mosaic of the British economy, a means by which an actor/artist/struggling citizen could negotiate their precarious way on to the next serious stepping-stone in their wider career. Little did we know then that us struggling actors were the vanguard of society’s heroic experiment in neo-liberal capitalism, participating in an economic model that would become the norm for all walks of life. Of course, now there are hardly any tiles left, and in economic terms, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall grout as far as the eye can see. 

There’s a new demographic term for these jobs and the folks who fill them: the precariat. Soon, everyone will be on zero-hours contracts, and we’ll all be as desperate as each other. 

Finally, equality for all. Stop struggling. Accept your destiny. 


The Call-Centre

For a while in my twenties, I used to have a job where I would phone bored unemployed people in the middle of the day from a bleak, strip-lit call centre in Harrow and ask them whether they’d be interested in insurance protection in the event of them becoming, um, unemployed. We would also aim to discover their views on toilet rolls, breakfast oaty bars, euthanasia, all the critical components of a life spent on the dole. 

Populated by a chaotic jumble of couch-hopping desperadoes, it was a serious case of the blind phoning the blind, a greenhouse of sweaty, cacophonous misery. Shouty young people with BTECs in media studies jostled cheek by jowl with sweet old ladies with whole lives in a few carrier bags and balding divorcees who had lost everything. In amongst them all, fighting for air with a few bad jokes, were some young actors who were rather too cheery to be credible. 

Greenhouse of misery

The whole outfit was run by a pair of cadaverous old thespians in stained cardigans and neck-ties called Terrance and Jim. A dessicated camp double-act from a more analogue era, they kept their old 1970s Spotlight photographs beneath bottles of vodka in a drawer, both to be gleefully whipped out for an outing depending on the audience. I think we novice actors, wet behind the ears and hilariously convinced of our incipient greatness, were Terrance and Jim’s last connection with the life of footlights and old-fashioned grease-paint that had left them far behind.

I still remember with fondness Terrance occasionally cornering me in my booth whilst I was attempting to make light conversation with a mono-syllabic malingerer on the phone. His leathery skull would appear over my shoulder and there he would hover, a wizened squirrel smelling of tomatoes and surgical spirits, reminiscing in his fruity baritone about playing Buttons in Worthing opposite Diana Dors. 

She was filthy, so I was assured.

Filthy


The Shit-Kicker

In the UK, vortex flow control technology was first harnessed in the mid-20th century to control and dissipate the energy of water dropping from high-level drains into deep-drop sewers. Today vortex technology is apparently used in thousands of drainage and sewerage applications all over the world. It also provides the basis, I am given to understand, for hydrodynamic separation of silts, oils and pollutants from stormwater and of ‘solids separation solutions’ in sewerage treatment. 

In other words, my friends, should you ever need to seriously sort through your shit, this is the technology for you – and the scientific basis for another period of my youth that I recall with vivid and abject horror.

Looking like the forgotten member of the Village People, it was my job to hose down human excrement from the glistening sides of various ducts and sewers around the county of Hampshire. Then, using vortex flow control, we would collect it and extract all the incidental gubbins that one so often finds gatecrashing the modern toilet. 

Horror

It was a two-man job, necessitating one of us at the front of the hose to point and click, and a wingman at the rear to stand there and retch violently into the wind. We delivered our cleansing jets from the side of a monstrous vehicle that was clearly moonlighting from a Ridley Scott movie, and was a proudly British invention that had featured on Tomorrow’s World. 

(For our younger readers, Tomorrow’s World was a pop science programme in the 1970s and ’80s that presented humanity’s newest innovations to the British public as a way of reaffirming our faith in the species. A sort of Blue Peter for grown-ups. I remember thinking at the time that getting into a lather of excitement over a big lorry that sucked poo from a pipe seemed to suggest something depressing about British innovation at the back end of the twentieth century.)

Innovative

Chief poo-cleanser was a gentleman called Keith, who drove the bus and was in charge of the hose. Over the years Keith had built up a fearsome understanding of the capacity of the human bowel, and would regale me with an exhaustive list of the items he had catalogued that had dodged the numerous digestive acids functioning in and around Eastleigh circa 1989. From sweetcorn and tomato pips to the corpses of pet rabbits and the last will and testament of a prominent politician, he’d seen it all, and was keen to share his knowledge of the intimate processes of mass urban defecation in all their startling glory. This, in spite of the progress of my packed lunch, which owing to the topic of conversation, would often be hovering at my lips in a traumatic crisis of confidence.

Character building, and not a little informative.

The Focus Group

One marvellous little wheeze that actors are apparently supposed to keep quiet about is the focus group. 

Political parties, major corporations, jihadi terror groups: all have a need to know what the public think of any given party line, product or murderous rampage. Every single product you consume throughout your day will have been market-tested to destruction to achieve its purest expression of appeal, often in front of a specially selected gaggle of every-day punters. Trouble is, most actual members of the public have too little time or inclination to sit down with a clipboard in a suit and give of their opinion. After all, most of them are too busy consuming. Which is where actors come in. 

On a wet Wednesday evening, I can often be found with a group of other pretend people sat in front of a two-way mirror in a market research suite in central London doing a brilliant rendition of Joe Public desperately keen to share his thoughts regarding a soon-to-be-launched breakfast oaty-bar, or similar. 

I will have been summoned to the suite by a mysterious lady I’ve never met who has my details on file. She phones me up with an offer of a particular focus group, tells me who I am, what my consumer preferences are and my preferred attitude to the product in question. It’s all thrillingly Mission Impossible. 

The real thing

My standard disguise in these sessions is the bustling, well-heeled business executive who just happens to have been persuaded away from his relentless jet-hopping schedule by a few twenty-pound notes and a tray of curling sandwiches. Needless to say, I can also play across a wide range of social groupings and sexual preferences, as required by the product’s market research team. After all, I’m a classically trained actor. Most of this stuff was covered in Voice and Movement classes.

In the market research suite, pleasingly reflected in a gigantic mirror, ten chatty actors pretending we’ve never seen each other before and one unwitting facilitator engage in a freewheeling dialogue regarding the respective merits of an imminent advertising campaign. Viz: do we thrust the oaty-bar’s logo boldly against the backdrop of a street of laughing children, or do we gently position it at rest in a field of corn swaying in the sunshine? And what does each approach say about the ability of the breakfast oaty-bar to a) speak to my aspirations as a modern consumer of morning comestibles; and b) have a chance in hell of persuading me away from a bacon butty in a greasy paper bag?

These, amongst many such paralysing questions of demographic & aesthetic urgency, it is our job as proud facsimiles of the lumpen proletariat to place in our mouths, chew and spit out on a shiny IKEA coffee table. As well as the oaty-bar itself, if we’re lucky. This we do in full view of a hidden panel of advertising executives in the adjacent room. These shadowy individuals are, of course, quietly overjoyed at the uninhibited opinions of actual real live consumers only fractionally removed from their natural habitat. 

Bless them. Not a clue.

Clueless

Of course, there’s a reasonable chance that with a fair wind and an agent worth his or her commission, our air-conditioned coterie of actors might then go on to audition round the corner in Soho for the starring role in the series of TV adverts that will eventually accompany the breakfast oaty-bar’s promotional campaign. And subsequently, once it’s available and flying off the shelves, you’ll probably get a phone call from one of us in a Harrow call-centre to conduct a questionnaire about it. (Some poor sod might even get to clean the end result off the sides of a sewage pipe for you.)

Welcome to the virtual economy, my children. By which I mean that at virtually every point along the supply chain of modern life lurks an actor pretending to be you in order to sell the actual you what we’ve told the dark lords through the looking glass what the virtual you wants. Nothing is what it appears. There is no free will. It’s like the premise to The Matrix. 

And you thought we were the puppets on a string. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

(No actual people were harmed in the making of these caricatures.)

Wars of the Roses: How was it for you?

And suddenly it’s all over: the highs, the lows, the terrible diet. Following our grinding theatrical war of attrition, rounded off by the Battle of Bosworth and a night in the pub, the actors woke up on Monday morning to the prospect of their very own personal reign of Henry VII: a tedious period of inactivity where not much happens apart from an urgent need to count the pennies. 

Parting is such sweet sorrow. Especially after a gig like this. Sure, you attain a vague rhythm after a while – due to the production’s insane spin cycle & the ingenious mind of Jim Creighton (see below) – but, sweet Mary, those trilogy days wrung us all out good and proper. Much as we’re going to miss this ogre of a show, we damn sure needed a break. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. You end up running on fumes. I was into my third cold of the run by the end, a sweating, hacking germ-engine, with only Nurofen & the threat of public humiliation to sustain me through the day.

Horror show

In George A Romero’s seminal 1970s zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead, the recently departed rise from their graves & take to America’s gleaming shopping malls: the only places their rotting brains can vestigially remember as providing any meaning & structure to their former lives. Well, I invite George to consider a sequel, based in 21st century Kingston & with a cast now eager for some work:

All last week, on repeat loop as if strapped helpless to a broken VHS tape, the company – arms outstretched, drooling – would stumble from their dressing rooms to the warm, inviting sanctuary of the stage, over and over and over again. Like a stricken moth to a flame, we’d gather in the wings panting to join the world beyond, glowing like Narnia at the end of the wardrobe, incongruous as a Waitrose in Lewisham. There, like Dr Jeckyll muddling his metaphors and showing up in the wrong horror film, our trusty old evil genius, Dr Theatre, would be waiting with hypodermic in hand, ready to re-animate the corpse with a shot of super-strength, Kingston-grade adrenaline. 

Beginners

The moment those dead feet staggered into the light, and before their owner could even say Oooh this feels nice, the groaning cadaver would flower startlingly into a vibrant medievalist with elastic lips & stunning breath support. Glorious acting would instantly ensue: mind and body in perfect sync, smooth, revivified actor purring like a Bentley in a follow-spot. 

Then, as the scene drew to a close, slick Shakespearean would panic & look about him or her surreptitiously: 

I wonder if anyone would, erm, notice if I, you know, just stuck around a bit. Hid behind the throne. Pretended to be dead p’raps. Anything really. I promise not to make a noise. Oh God, please don’t make me leave, don’t force me back to the dressing room, back to my other self, back to the coughing, the mucous, the strip-lighting, the never-ending cake!! Nooooo…!!! 

And it would become sadly necessary for stage management to physically remove agitated actor from the stage to be man-handled protesting through the wings and upstairs to the dressing rooms, strapping him or her down as necessary. At which point, the cycle of horror would begin once more as Mr Hide reasserted his dominance into the depths of a damp, green handkerchief. 

Bad cold

Such a strange but potent phenomenon is this public performance malarkey. It’s the best tonic money can buy. Being onstage in front of hundreds of people literally cures the common cold. For about five minutes.

But by crikey, what a job. I ask you, us and pornstars, eh? Both climbing in & out of sweaty clobber all day, both performing under heavy lights for the benefit of an eager audience, both catching some horrible virus due to the exhausting schedule, and both on roughly the same money. 

Mind you, pornstars don’t get written about in the Kingston Echo, do they? Eh?? 

Well, not recently they don’t, no.

Sir Richard Ratcliffe


Wheels coming off

If any more proof were needed that the company was approaching the end of its collective tether and taking its eye off the ball, it came at approximately 8:30pm on Friday night during the first half of Richard III. I was in deep conversation with Larry and Olly in our dressing room regarding the price of the modern Mars Bar. 

Suddenly, slicing through our deliberations like a scalpel, came the sound of Erin’s voice over the tannoy, urgent and brittle with controlled panic, communicating information no actor ever, ever wants to hear: 

“MR COTTON YOU ARE OFF! MR COTTON YOU ARE OFF!”

Now, I have witnessed in my time many examples of the impressive velocity human beings are capable of achieving in extremis: I have observed a postman run from the advances of a Rottweiler down a narrow alley, satchel caught in the wind like a sail. I have seen a woman in her dressing gown hare after her husband as he drives off with their two year old on his roof. And I’d hazard a guess that most of us have watched footage of Ussain Bolt in all his sublime glory charge like a steam-train in pursuit of some title or other in the last few years. 

Oliver Cotton

Friends, I have never seen anyone move with such alacrity, power or command of obstructive furniture as 71-year-old, white-faced Oliver Cotton upon receipt of Erin’s apocalyptic pronouncement. Meeting her news with a small, tight-voiced Oh fucking sweet Jesus, Olly surged from the room like a tsunami of ermine, sending chairs and garments flying as he went. After he’d ripped through doors and clattered away down the stairs, the room was left in stunned silence. It was as if a small bomb had detonated, the remaining actors left mute and wide-eyed in awe.

Oliver Cotton

Meanwhile, onstage, an ominous vacuum was coursing through the theatre, as Buckingham’s line, “Here comes the sweating lord,”  directed at the wings and an (ordinarily) approaching Lord Hastings, was this time met with an actor’s second worst nightmare: an impenetrable, unforgiving void. Realising something was amiss, Buckingham & the Lord Mayor attempted to keep the ship afloat by making some incomprehensible small talk in cobbled-together verse (you try it, impossible); whilst Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stalked offstage to look for the tardy Lord H – aswell as whisper blue murder at Naomi stood in the wings on headphones. 

Oliver Cotton

It wasn’t long before everyone everywhere became aware of Olly’s approach, in the same way one might become cognisant of a piano collapsing down a flight of stairs regardless of whether you hear it from the kitchen or the downstairs loo. Skidding to a halt and meeting the Duke of Gloucester at stage left, the wild-eyed Lord Hastings took a deep breath, then both actors strolled on together. 

Found him!” chortled an inspired Robbie Sheehan. 

I had family in that night, and my brother said he thought the bloke who played Hastings put in a brilliant performance. 

“Off? What do you mean, he was off??”

 

Oliver Cotton
 


Passing the time

By the end of the run, as the finish line approached, we had all successfully found things to sustain us and to keep us all alert: the girls kidnapped a member of the public and slowly ate him; Karé Conradi in the neighbouring dressing room was pleasured nightly by a Stormtrooper…

Pleasure

… and Jim Creighton developed a quite brilliant classical music quiz which tied Andrew Woodall & Oliver Cotton – both of whom seem to know more about classical music than seems wholly feasible for two gentlemen who aren’t internet search engines – into quivering bundles of competitive fury. Which was obviously handy as they prepared for the relative dispositions of Humphrey, Lord Protector, and the Bishop of Winchester. 

Jim would stroll nonchalantly into our dressing room as we stood there in our underpants, press play and stand back with an inscrutable smirk. The challenge? The first actor to name the composer, his dates – and whether he had a beard or not. (Bizarrely, this was always more likely to be the bit that stumped Andrew & Olly.)

Jim Creighton and some other bloke

For an example of a fairly standard trilogy day music challenge, click here.

Newsflash

Before Friday night’s performance, we were called down to the auditorium to see Jerry, the producer. Now, there’s extremely vague talk of a future life for the show. And when I say vague, I mean the sort of vague that compels someone to suggest they can see France whilst sat on the beach at Folkestone. Might happen, but then it might not. And if it did, it wouldn’t be for at least another two years, if not three. And it’ll have to be a different set. And different community chorus. And I imagine the actors will all be in panto/Hollywood/prison by then, so any revival is unlikely to have the present cast in it. So, basically a different production. If it happens at all. Which it probably won’t. 

Still, it was nice to see Jerry & come in to the theatre a little earlier than usual. Sit on the river and watch the ducks. Observe the fall of autumn leaves.

Care in the community

A big shout-out, incidentally, to our wonderful, indefatigable community chorus. They occupied an incredibly unforgiving space in the pecking order. Locked in the attic, there left to eat their own socks whilst rocking backwards and forwards in a corner, they were allowed out to occasionally run screaming across the stage or to take a brief bow at the end, before being bundled back upstairs to scratch at the door crying for mummy. And they did all this with supreme grace and good humour, and along the way, became our treasured accomplices and companions. 

Guys, you all totally rock.

“We love you, Kingston!!!”

When the end came, it was the predictable knee-trembler we had all been set up for from the press night a month ago. If anything, it was even more insane. God love ’em, the audience went at it like monkeys on drugs. I am reliably informed that a lady rose from her seat, divested herself of her trousers and relieved herself in full view of Row H. I honestly haven’t witnessed the like since Judas Priest reformed ten years ago to play the Hammersmith Odeon. Or whatever the hell they call it these days.

Final performance of Wars of the Roses

As people clamoured, hooted & whistled, I briefly imagined myself the rock’n’roll star of my youthful dreams. I fear that at 45, it’s now the closest I’ll ever get to heavy metal glory, stood there in Sir Richard Ratcliffe’s leather jerkin & chainmail, being yelled at by eight hundred frantic souls. If you squinted & imagined me also holding a beaten-up old Rickenbacker, I suppose I could have passed for Lemmy from Motörhead, at a considerable stretch. Regardless, I’ll take it.
 

Sir Richard Ratcliffe
 

Goodbyeeee

Then a big send-off in the bar afterwards. And an immensely bigger send-off after that in the Foresters over the bridge courtesy of Rufus Hound, who organised proceedings. I have to say, I’m hopeless at saying goodbye. Especially on this particular evening. My lips had difficulty forming the words. But that’s probably down to that second bottle of champagne. So I just hung off people like a sobbing koala bear until they were compelled to gently peel me off to get into their taxi. 

Spot the Koala

Heroic promises were made to stay in touch. Most of them won’t be kept. Not because we’re two-faced bastards, but because that’s the way the business is. For a few brief months, we play, fight, dance & sing together, companions on our mighty theatrical journey, supporting each other up the mountain, keeping the ball in the air come hell or high water – and then we’re gone, lost in the mist. An actor’s time on this earth is characterised by these brief but consuming relationships that go on happening – if we’re incredibly lucky – throughout our working lives. It’s a strange hall of mirrors, the acting fraternity, where you know someone quite intensely but also not that well at all. 

However, the bond forged is incredibly powerful – especially on this kind of show. Like a Second World War tank crew. Oh my God, we made it! I love you, brother. Have a great life. Maybe see you at a casting for a shampoo advert. 

But hey. What a wonderful company. To have gone on such a long, hard trek, a gruelling and profoundly complicated nine hour odyssey, without a single pop of frustration or temper or fleeting ill-will is absolutely bloody remarkable. And testament to a truly delightful, good-humoured and down to earth body of actors. 

I salute you all, compadres. And I already miss you like a lopped off limb. (You choose which one.)

The boss

A brief word (go here) from our director, captain, prime mover, totem and principal chum, Trevor Nunn, whose insane idea this all was. This production was a labour of the greatest love for him, and I hope we did justice to Peter & John’s original vision. 

  

Trevor is a phenomenal director and a true master-technician of the stage who has that rare knack of trusting his actors to give of their absolute best in a given scene, as long as we trust him to put us exactly where we need to be. So many people who came to see the three plays remarked on the clarity and fluidity of the action, and thus how completely gripping the cumulative narrative was. That, folks, is the product of a consummate theatrical eye and fifty years honing your craft at the very summit of your profession. Aswell as a knack for inspiring huge affection and commitment from his actors. 

He is the Rolls-Royce of British theatre directors. And we’ve been sat in the back simply loving the ride. Thankyou Trev.

Young princes

There have been so many things to be proud of in this production, from the crystal-clear storytelling, the wonderful verse-speaking, the incredibly harmonious and sweet-natured working environment. To say nothing of the cojones of the Rose theatre management in staging this beast in the first place. Let’s be absolutely clear, doing this sort of thing if you’re the NT or RSC is one thing. Doing it if you’re a small, out-of-town producing theatre with delicate funding streams is quite another. 

But actually, what I’m most proud of are our coterie of young boys who played one Rutland, two princes in the tower, and various little Yorkies, and who rose to the challenge and stepped out into our sacred space every night for six weeks without apparent fret or fear.

These little boys actually have quite a lot more going on in their young lives than you might expect or wish for them, and Ellie, our assistant director, was tasked with keeping them on point, engaged & in the fold. The picture she paints is of a little pack of cubs who were utterly over-awed and breathless, but who have had their eyes and ears pinned back and opened wide by the sheer thrill and delight of being part of this incredible ride. 

I used to be a choir-boy when I was the age our Roses boys are now, singing in Pembroke College chapel choir, Oxford, under the tyrannical tutelage of one David  Titterington, now a world famous organist. He used to take his terrified pups round to as many cathedrals as was legal in the late 1970s to sing yer Magnificat and yer Nunc Dimittis, along with a commensurate body of under-graduate lay-clerks (choir-men, if you will) sat at the back of a big old coach. 

These gentlemen were impossibly exotic and sophisticated beings, who used to play practical jokes of exquisite hilarity on each other and would talk at length about Shakespeare, Shelley & Shopenhauer. And Monty Python. They managed to acquire the printed script in book format of Life of Brian and, on a long and arduous trip to Wells Cathedral in the summer of 1979, performed the entirety of the film, silly voices and all, for the screaming delight of the adoring boys gathered around them. We utterly worshipped these chaps in corduroy.

It was one of those singular episodes that made me think seriously for the first time about what I might like to do with my life, about what it was to perform for an appreciative audience. Inspirational mentoring for the godless middle class: it’s how the English used to do it in the 1970s – before the practice got outsourced to earnest charity workers & radical preachers. It left a big imprint, to say the least.

So, I’m very mindful of the kind of impact this production will have had on a few deeply impressionable young minds. Our Roses cubs will never have experienced anything remotely like these last couple of months, and to be able to say to themselves and others that they walked into our collectively imagined world within that bright, mysterious, intensely observed envelope of light every night will hopefully do immense things for their hearts and minds. A magic bean to take root in their lives and eventually flower, allowing them to climb up and slay a child-killing giant or two. Or maybe even play one, like Robbie Sheehan.

Theatre, like life, is a crowded cupboard. But a magic one. 

Get climbing, boys.

  

Wars of the Roses: John Barton

So, joy of joys, the venerable John Barton came to see Edward IV on Saturday afternoon.

 

We first got wind of this when Cordelia, Trevor’s aide-de-camp, sent us all an email the day before, informing us of his impending visit. As far as advance warnings from visiting deities go, Cordelia is admittedly a couple of pay-grades below the angel Gabriel. (Mind you, she’s got better legs.) Nonetheless, a minor but palpable electric charge went through the company on receipt of her missive. Sweaty clutching of beads. A tweaking of collars.

To give you some context to our fraternal frisson: John Barton co-wrote Wars of the Roses. By which of course I don’t mean to suggest that, subsequent to a hung-over writing workshop with Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare, it took him nearly four hundred years to settle down & get a decent literary agent. Rather that in 1963, he was the first person since the Victorian era not to be man-handled down a dark alley by the wider culture & given a bloody good hiding after adding his own text to a play written (mostly) by Shakespeare.

  

In the process, he (along with Peter Hall, some exceptional actors & a collection of cracking sword fights) put the original bloated and unkempt Henry VI trilogy on a strict diet, gave it a haircut and a swish pair of shoes, and then dragged it kicking & screaming into the spotlight of twentieth century critical and commercial appreciation. Rather like what happened to the Labour party in the 1990s. Oh yeah, and he also co-founded the RSC. And became a guru of classical verse-speaking to generations of actors & directors. A great big, revered, hairy Yoda in a cardigan. The ultimate Shakespearean authority he is. 

To be honest, even if the actors hadn’t been faced with a wise old owl in a wheelchair sporting a monumental white beard and a halo of beatific calm on Saturday afternoon following the second show, we still would have felt like we were greeting God at Stage Door. And let’s face it, it’s the closest to Him most of this company are ever likely to get.

  John Barton

Barton clearly has a thing for monstrous theatrical endeavours: in 1980, he directed The Greeks, a cycle of plays based on the Oresteia legend that he co-adapted from Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. It played in the same RSC London season as Trevor’s legendary production of Nicholas Nickleby, a mere stripling at eight-and-a-half hours. Not content with that, John came back twenty years later & finished off by using all the bits that he and everyone else had left out for his RSC co-production, directed by Peter Hall and son Edward, of Tantalus, in 2000, which turned into a nine-hour extravaganza of ten plays. Interestingly, it coincided with Michael Boyd’s tetralogy of Henry VI parts i, ii & iii, & Richard III, (ie: the baggy version of what we’re doing in Kingston right now), which eclipsed Tantalus somewhat by coming in at twelve hours over two days. (Jeez, people must have had whole acres of their weekend to burn prior to the Box-set.)

Sadly, he & Peter Hall never quite recovered from the epic row they had during the making of Tantalus. By all accounts, Hall balked at the length of it, and sliced one play off proceedings. Letters were written, sulks were maintained, and Barton ultimately boycotted the premiere in Denver. Well, I suppose if you’re going to mutually torpedo a fifty year working partnership, you may as well do it resurrecting the Trojan Wars.

 

Barton was also responsible for a TV programme and book that became indispensable to a whole generation of drama students, aswell as a major hit with Joe Public. Called Playing Shakespeare, it was effectively John facilitating one long Shakespeare masterclass filmed for London Weekend Television with some top-rank classical actors like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen & Judi Dench. See here.

  

Filmed in 1982, it is delivered very much in the way British telly used to do this sort of stuff: that incredibly earnest hush of reverence the nation used to accord the High Priesthood of the classics, in their slacks, neck-ties and, um, gigantic cardigan. I love the way some of the actors are elegantly smoking as the camera lingers on them theatrically muttering Hamlet’s advice to the players, as if they’ve just swept in from the Ivy. It’s so adorably self-conscious. Nowadays you’d stick them in something glittery and revealing, put Simon Cowell in front of them with his sneer and ludicrous hair, then ask the viewers to vote one of them off. The very age and body of the time.

Nevertheless, in spite of its gloriously dated ambience, it is utterly bang on the money in its subject matter. It is thoroughly engrossing and sheds light on the text in a myriad of unexpected and wonderful ways. If you haven’t done Shakespeare for a while & you have a season at the RSC in the offing, watch one of these. At the very least, you’ll learn how to hold a fag properly. 

  

Alternatively, watch Fry & Laurie doing their stupendously loving piss-take of the whole thing, here.

  

Another string to John’s bow, as ’twere, is his deep knowledge of medieval weaponry. Apparently, this is how Trevor first came across him – wielding a long-sword over a gaggle of quailing Cambridge undergraduates in a demonstration of stage combat. Indeed, all the weapons we use in our show are based on his original, very precise, specification back in the early 1960s. 

When he was in his prime, Barton apparently chewed razor-blades to keep himself awake during rehearsals. (Crikey, was the acting that bad?) And once fell off-stage into the orchestra-pit in the middle of giving notes to the actors, before climbing out & continuing as if nothing remotely untoward had occurred. Now that’s what I call focus.

  

He’s in failing health now, and requires a full-time carer. However, beneath the rheumy eyes and bent, incapacitated body, a mind as sharp as a blade still operates, so Trevor assures us. I understand said carer failed to show up on the Saturday morning of John’s visit to the Rose – due, no doubt, to some dastardly government cut. Which meant that John’s sister was required to attend on him throughout the day. It also meant that they arrived late. The actors’ slightly strained public chat onstage whilst some monks chant some plainsong in the background at the top of the show became ever more stilted & desperate as the minutes ticked by. In the end, with the Sword of Damocles hanging over our tea-break, an executive decision was made to commence, and the show sadly started without John. However, nil desperandum: he made it in time to catch the start of the third scene. As the nation totters and the people revolt, Jack Cade finally had something to scare the shit out of the ruling class, as John & his wheelchair trundled into the auditorium bringing up the rear, following behind the baying mob like Davros before a horde of medieval cockney Daleks.  

So *sigh of relief* he got to see my sword-fight with Robbie. And anyway, I don’t suppose he’d ever have a problem picking up the plot.

It fell to Alex Waldemann to honour  him at the curtain call with a beautiful speech paying tribute to one of the most inspirational figures in British theatre of the last fifty years. Unfortunately, at this precise moment, John and his sister had their heads near the floor attempting to do up his shoe-laces. I understand they’d both been engrossed by a particularly troublesome knot for a good while before Alex began speaking. Alex himself, unable to see whom he was addressing, delivered much of his speech to a man in front of them some way to the left. It became quickly clear to Cordelia that a) John was at risk of missing the entire tribute, and b) the hundreds of eager and slightly puzzled faces turned in their general direction had mistaken the fabled director for the small gentleman in tweed and glasses in the third row. 

Cordelia began remonstrating with brother and sister Barton to temporarily abandon John’s shoes and claim their moment – to little avail: as Alex’s gorgeously improvised encomium intensified in emotion around them, Cordelia was reduced to frantically pointing at the Bartons for Alex’s benefit like an air traffic controller on speed, whilst simultaneously hissing down at the mumbling wispy-haired heads beneath her : 

“Look up. Look up, for Gods sake! Stop it with the bloody shoe-lace. LOOK UP!” 

John and his sister gradually came up for air and looked around, slightly non-plussed, not completely sure why everyone was looking at a small man in tweed in the third row. 

In time, the enormous theatrical penny dropped for all parties, and as Alex swept along to his rousing crescendo, cast and audience turned as one body to a beaming Barton and gave a rapturous roar of approval. A genuinely wonderful and emotional moment for everyone.

So, a breathtaking masterclass in exquisite self-effacement from the great sage and teacher, wizard of verse, man behind the curtain showing us all how to avoid the limelight and stay true to the spirit of art. Or a man who hates to see his shoe-laces undone. You decide.

God moves in mysterious ways indeed. Thankyou, John. We owe you so, so much.

Wars of the Roses: Dear Seb

You’re seeing the show tonight: Henry VI, the first one in the trilogy. And I think you’re gonna need a little encouragement and support. 

Me & you go all the way back to the 1980s, when we were callow, spotty youths with ceaseless erections & dreams of world conquest. We shared ownership of a mightily dreadful rock band called the Trash Can Junkies, which was 15 parts eyeliner to 1 part talent. Hampshire’s answer to Mötley Crüe (despite Mötley Crüe never having asked anything of the county, as far as I can make out), you played guitar & I made strange constipated noises into a microphone. You were an eye-popping cross between Keith Richards & Cher, while I channelled a heavy metal Worzel Gummidge. We were massive. In your front room.
  

Bin there, done that. From left: Me, you, Andy & Johnny. 

Since those heady days of sex, drugs & weekly trips home to mother to get our washing done, we both moved on to pursue adult versions of the same thing. You wrote a number of books, one of them a legendary & extremely funny memoir about music and growing-up, Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict; (available from Amazon, peeps.)

  

– and are now lead pout & songwriter in gorgeous noodle-core folk-ish outfit from the south coast, Provincials

  
As for myself? Well, I became an actor, and can currently be seen at the Rose theatre in the Wars of the Roses channelling a heavy metal Worzel Gummidge.

You have a remarkable breadth of interest under the bonnet: musician, charity walker, darts enthusiast. (What you don’t know about Eric Bristow’s inspirational wrist-action is frankly an irrelevance.) You’re a guerrilla film-maker too. This is a wee thing you directed me in a few years back. 

You are also a phenomenal book-worm. Your command of the vertiginous heights of literature is profound. From Byron to Bellow, from Mann to Milton, you bound through them all like a mountain goat of the intellect.

  

Which is why it’s always been a matter for intense personal head-scratching & inward contemplation that you just don’t get Shakespeare. Our friendship revolves around a number of cultural axes – eg: the history of the British party political conference, Donnington Monsters of Rock 1983, beer – all of which, obviously, rotate a little more furiously whilst sharing a pint beside a roaring fire. However, the wheel most assuredly stops spinning whenever Shakespeare comes into conversation. I can see the look of apprehensive obligation descend upon you whenever the Bard is briefly mentioned. As if contemplating a particularly troublesome stool just as you’re sitting down to watch a film. While I gibber away like an excitable girl attempting to explain One Direction, you look on, a bemused, uncomprehending grown-up.

Now, to be sure, my adored old chum, you are by no means unusual in this respect: your relationship to Shakespeare is the standard relationship most people have with him. To revel in the glorious canon of our national poet can sometimes be to gurn & gyrate with a few like-minded souls  inside an enchanting but hermetically sealed echo-chamber. What a lot of actors forget is that listening to Shakespearean verse from a standing start is a wholly different beast to learning, rehearsing & honing it over & over again until the rhythm & meaning sit inside you pulsing away in lockstep with your heart. To a culture raised on the British grunt, the American wise-crack, or the indecipherable gibberish of social media, Elizabethan verse can seem distant, fusty, other. And it’s therefore our job as actors to shine the light of clarity & meaning upon this revered text using our bag of trusty theatrical tools: stressing the operative word, teasing out antithesis, not doing it pissed, etc. 

Here’s the point: to watch a play by William Shakespeare is to watch the extremities of the human condition represented largely in verse. That is to say, imagine a woman able to express a nervous breakdown in exquisite poetry. The darkest fear, the foulest ambition, the sweetest joy, the most tormented fury, in language that nails that feeling profoundly, precisely & immediately. Opera’s earth-bound sibling. An acquired taste, for sure. But it can be acquired.

And to give yourself a chance to acquire it, I think it’s handy to have a vague outline of the plot of a given play before you start. To watch Henry VI, say, with its blizzard of earls, lords & government functionaries rattling around in the opening scenes must be as anxiety-inducing to the Shakespeare neophyte as when a rookie MP first takes her seat in the House of Commons: everyone looks frightfully important but God only knows how you’re supposed to remember who the hell everyone is & what they’re supposed to bloody do. An exercise in clinging on by your fingertips, I’m sure.

But you know what? There’s an app for everything these days. And in the spirit of helping you to have the most enjoyable evening as possible, you can consider this blog post your Wars of the Roses app, old cock. 

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:

It all starts with a funeral. Superhero Henry V has popped his clogs leaving a nation bereft and an infant as heir to the throne. His brothers & cousins start a vicious spat over the coffin, during which a bloke turns up to tell them France is slipping through their fingers. Big brother Bedford swings into action, tools up & rushes off to save the day. Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (Lord Protector & Bedford’s brother), goes to change the Kid’s nappies, then crown him King Henry VI. Everyone else pops off to do some shopping. Leaving Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, alone, sulking & with nothing to do. He ‘secretly’ tells the audience he’s going to put a master plan into action to topple Gloucester & take power! Mmmwha-ha-ha-ha-ha. 

So far, so Eastenders for the posh.

Meanwhile, in France, Joan of Arc is seducing the Dauphin, Charles, by duffing him up then whispering sweet nothings to him in a broad West Country accent. And then offers her services to help rid the land of the imperialist English. Where did she learn to fight like that? Does she really have a hotline to God? And who in the name of Christ is her hairdresser??

  

Joan of Arc

Back in England, some young men are arguing over some flowers. Richard Plantagenet thinks he has a superior family tree. My dad’s better than your dad. The Earls of Somerset & Suffolk beg to differ. Richard picks a white rose & claims it for York. Somerset picks a red rose & claims it for Lancaster. And then strops off. Plantagenet gets in a total tizzy about all this. The Earl of Warwick tells him to breathe & count to ten. The whole thing’s ludicrous. Seen more mature behaviour in an incubator unit. The start of something beautiful. 

Plantagenet decides to check out his claim with the dying Earl of Mortimer, a wheezy old rebel who mounted his own challenge for the throne yonks back. And paid for it by spending the rest of his life behind bars. “It’s a mug’s game, sunshine. But if you must, you have my blessing. Now let me kick the bucket in peace.”  Plantagenet decides to give it a crack anyway. With the help of the Earl of Warwick, he will instigate a master plan to eventually take the throne! Mwa-ha-ha-ha, etc.

Meanwhile, back in France, it’s all going terribly for the Brits. Commander of the English, John Talbot (Bruce Willis/Monty of Alamein) loses Orleans & has a good whine about it to a quisling Frenchie, Burgundy. If it wasn’t for that blasted Joan whatsit, we’d be sitting pretty. She’s on drugs, I tell you. And a witch. And a trollop. And French. Rather pleasing on the eye, mind. He’s interrupted mid-whinge by the arrival of Bedford, who plans to cheer them on from the sidelines ‘cos he’s too knackered & ill to join in. 

Talbot & Burgundy then climb into Orleans through the bathroom window whilst the French are getting pissed, and bishes them good and proper. The French leave in a hurry and the English retake the city. Unfortunately, Bedford’s overdone the cheering & has expired. Another of the Agincourt old guard bites the dust. Baton being passed. 

After Talbot & troops have removed Bedford’s body, Burgundy ‘secretly’ tells the audience that he plans to instigate a master-plan to double-cross the failing English & take power in France. Mwa-ha-ha-ha. *Sigh*

  

Lord Talbot

Back in London, we meet the young King for the first time. And, rather unfortunately for Somerset’s pride, the first thing the idiot does is decide to return Plantagenet’s conkers, meaning the next time we meet him, he’ll be the Duke of blinking York. For Pete’s sake! Edging ever closer to the throne & no-one seems to notice. 

The Bishop of Winchester & Gloucester/ Lord Protector then have a row, but it’s all patched up by the King. As a conciliatory gesture, Gloucester gives away some of his power by saying he’ll abide by a majority vote of the council board. Crikey. Fledgling medieval democracy? My kinda guy. 

  
Duke Humphrey of Gloucester & the Kid

However, at the end of the meeting, a messenger arrives with news of Bedford’s death. Trembling lip, manly swallowing. Ok, in that case, let’s cross the Channel & crown the Kid in France. Clever. And let’s reinforce Talbot with forces under the joint command of sworn enemies, Somerset & new Duke of York. Not so clever.

In France, Joan persuades Burgundy to change sides. I’ll never drink the stuff again. Cheese-eating surrender monkey. 

In Paris, the Kid is crowned King. 

  

Talbot gets a medal, & York is officially promoted. Somerset & York have another set-to involving their stupid roses, & dopey King Henry forces them to be nice to each other & hold hands. Yeah right.

Back to war. On the Western front, Talbot gets encircled by Burgundy & the Dauphin, & sends a desperate message for reinforcements to York & Somerset. Good luck with that.

York says he can’t provide because Somerset hasn’t come up with the goods. Somerset accuses York of lying and … oh whatever … here have the bloody horses, you little prick. Too late: Talbot & his son go down fighting, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. The French appear to be rather pleased though.

Now returned to London, King Henry’s court gets wind of Talbot’s death. Trembling lip, manly swallowing, etc. Word also arrives that ‘the Emperor & the Pope’ (ie: the UN security council) would like the English & the French to call a truce. To help this along, Gloucester persuades the Kid to get engaged to the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac, a French bigwig. Savvy political marriage. Interestingly, that old rascal, the Bishop of Winchester, is to be the Pope’s ambassador in negotiations, after having been made a Cardinal by His Holiness. Amazing what money can buy. He ‘secretly’ tells the audience that his plan to get rid of Gloucester is going well. Mwa-ha-ha-ha. Again.

In France, Joan’s having a great time. Paris is in revolt against les rosbif now Talbot’s popped it. All we need now is a full-frontal assault by some brave Frenchies. But what’s this? York is on the way freshly reinforced by Warwick? Not so brave now. Ha, take that, you filthy garlic-munchers! Now let’s finish off the witch.

During the carnage, there’s an exodus of refugees. Amongst them is a sexy young princess called Margaret of Anjou. William de la Pole (pronounced Poole), Earl of Suffolk, spots her & rather likes what he sees. Trouble is, he’s already married. So he decides to give her to the King back home as a present. And then have his way with her behind the throne. And through her, control the King and gain power! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha – oh for crying out loud, they’re all at it.

  

Right, let’s put Joan the witch on trial, then burn her. But I’m not a witch. I’m nice. I’m pregnant. Please don’t burn me. Shut-up! Some petrol, some matches & some marshmallows: job’s a good ‘un. Right, now that’s done, let’s bargain with the Frogs. And here’s old Winchester to arbitrate. The Dauphin manages to cut a great deal and York’s gutted. After all, he was rather hoping to take a tour through these pretty French villages once he’s grabbed the English crown. Warwick tells him to breathe & count to ten.

Back home, Smoothey Suffolk delivers Margaret to the teenage King & smirks a lot. The Kid gets an instant stiffy: very pleased. Gloucester/Lord Protector: less pleased. Bang goes the Armagnac proposal, & Suffolk’s arranged an appalling deal for the Margaret marriage, handing over yet more crucial bits of France & a shed load of cash. And all for a woman whose dad is king of a garden shed in the middle of nowhere. Annoyed ain’t the word. Gloucester strops off. York’s quite cross aswell: yet more pretty villages down the drain. Furious with Suffolk. Old Winchester stays behind & suggests forgetting about Suffolk for now & instead forming a dastardly alliance to topple Duke Humphrey. Warwick & York agree. But when Winchester exits, Warwick tells York to breathe & count to ten. And let Winchester, Suffolk, Gloucester et al to hang themselves, ultimately leaving the field clear for York to take power! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. Yes, I think we’ve got the message now, you two.  

Mr & Mrs Gloucester/Lord Protector have a row in their back garden about a dream: she’s clearly got plans for, um, a bigger garden, so to speak. He tells her to pipe down. She then instructs a local crim to organise a seance so she can ask the Devil for help in her ambitions to be Queen! Mwa-ha-ha-ha. Streuth, her aswell. *rolls eyes.*

As it turns out, the crim’s being paid by Suffolk to stage a pretend seance to get Mrs Gloucester into trouble. Oops! Silly girl. 

Next, there’s a big meeting to decide who’s going to be Regent of France: Somerset or York. Margaret gate-crashes it. And look, she’s pregnant. Who’s the father??? You decide! Blimey, she’s got a tongue on her too. Turns into a right old argy-bargy. In the end, Somerset gets the gig & off to France he goes. And that’s the last of him we’ll see in this play. (Audience & cast devastated/must somehow carry on without him.) 

After the meeting, Suffolk & Margaret stay behind for a secret snog. The Queen’s pissed off with everyone, but especially Mrs Gloucester, Duke Humphrey’s proud, full-of-it wife. Suffolk calms her down. He’s set a trap for her. And through her downfall will Duke Humphrey meet his end, & then we’ll run the show and take power! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. (OK, suppose Margaret needs to have a go.)

The party trick to raise the Devil back at Mrs Gloucester’s place goes splendidly. Sound effects, dry ice, silly voices, the works. Also, Derren Brown with a mad beard & a Brummy accent. Police, led by smoothey Suffolk, barge in & catch Mrs Gloucester up to sommat devilish. Game over, lady. Caught red-handed. Right royal stitch-up.

Meanwhile, in St Albans, the court are out hawking when they encounter a blind cripple who has miraculously regained his sight after a visit to the shrine. It’s bollocks, of course, and the chap’s clearly on the make – but it’s a diversion of sorts, allowing the aristocrats a chance to laugh at the morons they’re supposed to govern. They’re interrupted by Suffolk who brings news of Mrs Gloucester’s naughty behaviour with a sea-side magician. Duke Humphrey is suspended from duty whilst everyone else (save the Kid) secretly rubs their hands with glee.

Back at the palace, they all gang up on Gloucester and have him arrested. Henry, the fool, just stands there & lets it heppen. Warwick starts plans to have Gloucester put to death – but impatient Suffolk thinks things should be given a bit of a push & decides to do the deed himself straight away. A messenger rushes in & declares Ireland to be having a massive rave without permission, so everyone decides York should be given charge of an army to close it down. York rather happy with this state of affairs: ‘Twas men I lacked, and you will give them me.”  Bloody idiots. Now there’ll be trouble. Once more, for old times sake: Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. Now stop, please.

Henry wants to try Gloucester straight away, but it’s too late. Suffolk returns to say he’s dead. The Kid faints. Warwick then enters & really stirs the pot by saying the mob are up in arms because they’ve heard Duke Humphrey’s been done in. Warwick goes to check the body. Then comes back & accuses Suffolk of murder. Cunning old fox. Fisty-cuffs. Daggers drawn. The kid not happy. Then Exeter enters to report that the proles now blame Suffolk for Gloucester’s death (they’re all clearly in the next room listening through the wall) & they want him dead or banished. The Kid complies. Margaret pleads – but to no avail: Suffolk is sent packing. He & Margaret are given one final tear-jerking send-off (it’s like the last scene in Brief Encounter, just a bit more shouty) and that’s it. Suffolk’s out. 

As he leaves, he’s set upon by some Cockneys and has his head cut off – which they post in a box back to the palace.

Meanwhile, Henry is visiting old bully, Winchester, who’s had some sort of a turn & now babbles like a lunatic in a wheelchair. And then cops it. It’s a hideous death. And then Margaret comes in screaming, clutching Suffolk’s head like a baby. Jesus, it’s like a scene from Saw.

So, this is how we leave them & prepare for the next play: Henry bereft, mourning his beloved uncle, Duke Humphrey, for whose death he partly blames his wife. Margaret distraught for her lover, Suffolk, for whose death she partly blames her husband. God, what a mess. God, what a marriage. I wonder if it could survive a civil war? 

I really hope this helps, old mucker. Read the above twice, then sit back & let it all wash over you. Meet in the bar afterwards.

Love always,

Owen

Wars of the Roses: The Roses Unfurl, Trilogy Day, Saturday 3rd October 2015

What follows is a running account of our big opening a couple of weeks ago. Apologies for the delay. There’s been a hangover to deal with.

  • 7am: Engrossing dream, featuring five enormous pieces of cheese, one sink-plunger & Trevor Nunn in a leotard. Dream rudely interrupted by wife holding cup of coffee and blonde toddler. “Darling, your turn. Need to get in the shower.”  Wife departs, leaving coffee on bedside table & blonde toddler on pillow. Am socked hard in face by blonde toddler. Rise & bloody shine.
Dream job
  • 8am: Skirting round kitchen attempting assembly of bacon sandwich whilst ducking porridge missiles from cackling blonde toddler in high chair = limbering up nicely for Richard/Somerset sword fight during show. Eventually give up on own breakfast and leg it out the door for train, swearing profusely & leaving blonde toddler to wife. I bet actual Earl of Somerset used a nanny.
  • 9am: Sat on slow train to Clapham Junction, inhaling novelty of journey – aswell as drunk man opposite. Have decided not to tempt providence on today of all days by risking Kingston’s maze of despair. (See previous post: Round & round & round we go.) Also, have feeling I’m going to fancy a drink tonight. Hence public transport & therefore pungent gentleman. Man sings lustily whilst scratching groin. Floor of train carriage suddenly absorbing. Breathe sigh of relief as train pulls in to Clapham Junction. Prepare to run like hell for connecting train to Kingston. Just as doors open, drunk man leans across & bellows: “Now is the winter of our discontent!” … and then laughs like maniac. Hairs rise on back of neck. Leave carriage as if departing key scene in horror film.  
  • 10am: Pass various members of paying public in Rose theatre foyer looking faintly scared. Sign in at Stage Door laden with microwave meals & bottles of water. Curious ‘de-mob’ atmosphere throughout building amongst cast & staff, a breezy recklessness that seems vaguely familiar. A feeling that seems to descend on extra-special days. Like Christmas morning. Like last day of school. You remember, where everyone gets pelted with flour/allowed to take almighty piss out of headmaster with impunity. Dangerous. Our headmaster’s still on premises, tying knots in his pointy beard, presumably. 
Trilogy Day
  • 10:30am: Due to day’s insane schedule, have to practice sword fights for all three plays in the morning. Which is fine – it’s just that by 10:35 and end of second rehearsal of Richard/Somerset altercation, I finish up flat on my back, gasping for air, utterly knackered, sorely needing massage & snooze – & this absurd effing day hasn’t even started
Knackered
  • 11am: Beginning of Henry VI. Company drift onstage/begin pre-show ‘casual’ yet unbearably self-conscious natter with each other to sound of Classic FM monks & assembling audience. Completely full house. Excitement bleeding off punters, up onto stage & washing over company. A mild, middle-class form of mania. Simultaneous mass delusion. Religious cult. Should be in Sainsburys doing weekly shop, not shouting ancient text in big hot room in front of super-keen people. As for actors, I reckon only time any of them have performed for paying audience at 11 in the morning is probably panto in Frinton. Actually, atmosphere right now = more than a touch of panto. Or Saturday morning cinema for kids. Audience quietly boisterous. If that makes sense. Expect someone to start chucking orange-peel at any moment. Bell starts tolling/lights dim, summoning us to front of stage to read out Henry V’s will. Deep breath. Moment of truth, people, here we bloody go. Let’s do this for Peter. For John. For Trevor. (Aswell as God, England & St George, obviously, assuming they managed to get tickets.)
  • 11:15am: Standing in wings alongside Mike Xavier in preparation for key Rose-garden scene. As usual, Earls of Somerset & Suffolk arguing about which entrance/exit they need. Scene comes immediately on heels of Joan of Arc giving Dauphin run for his money in day’s first sword fight. Very vocal fight today: much grunting/gasping/moaning from Joan & Charles. Suffolk & Somerset pause ongoing debate in wings to listen & ponder: was this what medieval porn sounded like? Look at each other, startled by resultant image in heads as we prepare to stride out in front of eight hundred earnest faces. Instantaneously double up in hysterics like two monkeys in fancy dress. Suddenly doors slide open/rose bushes trundle on. Recover just in time to stride on in character, looking stroppy as required. Professional to very fingertips.
  • Midday: Alex Waldemann (King Henry) going down a storm. Curious how a big day/big audience can hone a performance into even sharper relief. Just the fact of knowing there’s a substantial body of people seeing for the very first time a performance you’ve rehearsed to within an inch of its life can suddenly take it to the next level. Immensely gratifying when it happens to oneself. And lovely to watch in another actor. Alex initially plays Henry as a gauche young man utterly over-awed by his position – a wonderfully comic invention with the occasional nod to Mr Bean. Which slowly matures by way of the world’s cruel & merciless buffeting to meet his end in Edward IV with a monumental & tragic stoicism. A devout man utterly unsuited to a world populated by wolves. At the moment, in Henry VI, as the sweet-natured, clueless teenager: audience lapping him up.

  

  • 1pm: Council board scene in the second half of Henry VI, round the great table of state, where the new Queen Margaret gate-crashes proceedings and a decision is made as to whether Somerset or York is to be made Regent in France: a moment of high politics & procedural drama overseen by a supremely uninterested King & where various undercurrents threaten to up-end the entire meeting. A House of Cards for the Middle Ages. Except that today, it seems to play as high comedy. And it works beautifully. How about that?? A happy combination of playing at a lick and an audience who redefine the phrase ‘up for it’, and you have, occasionally, an engrossing political satire. If Armando Iannucci had been an Elizabethan playwright, this is what he would have written. Loving it.
  • 1:03pm Brief moment of ‘corpse’ terror where Andrew Woodall’s Duke Humphrey can’t quite pronounce my name, calling me the Earl of Shomershit, which was done once before in rehearsal and utterly destroyed everyone for most of the afternoon. Moment navigated successfully by heroically avoiding eye contact.
  • 2pm Lights come down on Henry VI, and we all file onstage for curtain call. Oh dear, the bloody curtain call. Have you ever tried to fit too many knives and forks into your cutlery drawer? It all looks beautifully neat & elegant until a tipping point is reached & said knives and forks spill over the sides and begin harassing the spoons. The ongoing British obsession: too many bodies & not enough real estate. We have nearly forty actors & community chorus to parade on this stage, I’ll have you know. So, to avert chaos, you re-order everything by taking all the cutlery out & starting again – in our case: interminable & pointless curtain-call rehearsals where we fine-tune things for the optimum result. Which presumably is the polite expression the Japanese use when squeezing the umpteenth poor bastard onto the Tokyo metro every morning. Makes no difference: it’s still an unholy mess. But no-one seems to care. The audience go bananas. One down, two to go. Sainsbury’s microwaveable spaghetti carbonara here we come!!

  

  • 3pm  By the time we’ve Krypton-Factored our way through the set to our dressing rooms & climbed out of our sweaty togs, we have literally ten minutes to eat something before we need to climb back into them. And before you can say ‘infringed break’, here we are, onstage for the beginning of play number two, the bleeding meat in the sandwich, Edward IV.  To kick things off, we greet onto the balcony for a royal kiss King Henry & Queen Margaret (& son), the most peculiar power couple since Liza Minelli & David Gest. Yet another botched smacker, and we’re off!!

War of the Noses

  • 3:30pm And here we are, the actual beginning of the Wars of the Roses, where white & red rose finally fight it out for the first time onstage. And it’s as if someone’s emptied out a jar of man-sized safety pins into a great big wooden shed, switched on a strobe light & told them to get on with it. Swinging our swords & shouting “Raararrggghhh!!!!”, we fly at our opposing numbers. A little bit of slow-mo argy-bargy ensues, until out of the melée looms a familiar orthopaedic shoe. Hello Dicky – looks like someone’s got the hump. Time to die, Shomershit. Now, me & Robbie have done this fight countless times, adjusting a lunge here, tweaking a lurch there. But doing it in front of an audience? Like doing it for real. Like kicking a wheelchair down a hill & hoping the invalid’s still breathing at the bottom. By the time I hit the deck & Robbie’s got his shield on my windpipe, this particular invalid’s gasping like a beached whale in a pair of boots.  

 

  • Mind you, I only have to do it the once: poor Robbie Sheehan has another two of these bastards and quite a few more lines & occasional skirmishes besides. Still, he’s built like a whippet. Survives on rabbit food. It’s the way they make ’em nowadays. Recent Brussels directive. New improved actor: hardly needs servicing – occasional change of oil & it goes forever. 
  • 4pm  The Duke of York is hunted down like an old fox and hissed to death by the Queen. Oh tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide. And lo, Alex Hanson gives his mighty, jaw-dropping finale as York, where he weeps the death of his little boy at the hands of Young Clifford. I’ve covered parents & the death of their children in a previous post – how parenthood & offspring is a recurrent theme with Shakespeare – but this is where the meat-grinder of civil war properly kicks in & children and parents start dropping like flies. It’s also where young William’s poetry takes flight in a way that will become his delirious literary signature throughout the rest of the canon. A barnstorming speech that is recognisably by the same bloke who’ll go on to write Once more unto the breach or Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I (or indeed any of the Sonnets), in ways that some other passages aren’t quite, it’s the most famous in the entirety of the original Henry VI trilogy, & given an utterly shattering delivery here by Alex. You the man, Hanson. Audience in bits. I certainly am, every time.

 

“Have you SEEN these reviews??”

  • 5pm: The ‘quondam’ King Henry (oh the joy we’ve had with that word – go on, look it up, we had to) gets discovered loitering behind a bush near Middlesborough by a couple of gamekeepers, myself & Andrew Woodall. Due to the combination of 1) our general attire; 2) Andrew’s decision to play his keeper as Bez from the Happy Mondays; and 3) Alex Waldemann’s now thoroughly chilled out, tree-hugging Henry, the three of us could well be mistaken for refugees from a particularly chemical rave in the early 1990s. I’m sure some assistant director at the RSC will one day do a version of the entire trilogy set on a New Age Travellers’ camp-site. The idea has a perverse merit.

Andrew Woodall

  • 6pm: Lights down on Edward IV, and everyone’s dead that needs to be: Prince of Wales, Henry, couple of Cliffords, Duke of York, Earl of Shomershit. And noisy old Margaret put on the ferry to France. Edward and his unholy gang now sit on the throne, and frankly everyone’s looking rather damn smug. That bloke with the limp looks like he could be trouble though. Pizza anyone?
  • 6:15pm: For the official opening of a landmark production, the ten cursory minutes between second and third show spent in a cold bare room at the top of the building, with community chorus and actors sat on a few plastic chairs nibbling on cold pizza, feels slightly the wrong, um, flavour. Still, I suppose this is how builders take their tea, and we are still in builders mode, erecting this monstrous day out of regurgitated lines, some music cues, lights and slightly damp costume. But oh sweet Mary, what I’d do for a drink right now. Indeed, what I’d do for a drink right now would probably demand its own show. And then get me arrested.
  • 7pm: Just gone the half, & our dressing room is quiet. Somewhere a man is sobbing. Another man calls for his mother. A third blithely reads last month’s Times & chews on an apple. A clock ticks. Life on a submarine. Up periscope…
  • 7:30pm:  Oh my God, the tension is unbearable. The next couple of hours are going to be hell to get through – but get through them we must. At the end of proceedings, there’ll be only one winner: England or Australia. Still, there’s a sure-fire way of dealing with the rugby: slog through another three hour play by William Shakespeare. Once more into your breeches, my friends, and heads down for the finale, Richard III. The company gather again on the boards, peer into the audience (utterly blasé by now about the temporarily broken fourth wall), let the cold pizza repeat somewhat via a gentle belch; then the drums kick in, we’re into another kerrazy fifteenth century two-step, and suddenly Robbie Sheehan’s on his own with eight hundred people & absolutely nothing whatsoever to offer them except startling good looks, great stage charisma and one of the most famous speeches in the English language. God only knows how he’s gonna pull it off.
  • 8pm: So, referee Romain Poite blows his whistle and Owen Farrell gets us underway. There have been some massive games of rugby at Twickenham over the years – few as important as this. Meanwhile, down the road, Lady Anne is buckling under the weight of Richard’s dark glamour beside the corpse of dead King Henry. And all of a sudden, the exquisite ironic confluence of a name, a flower and a brutal national sport hits home: a man called Lancaster lying dead & cold after leading England to ruin under the banner of a red rose. Now, if I were a superstitious type…

    

  • 8:15pm: England becoming a little more composed now after a nervous start. Farrell offloads the ball nicely to Anthony Watson who slices through the middle. That’s a little more like it from Stuart Lancaster’s men. And here I come barrelling through the audience leading poor old Rivers (Rufus Hound) to his moment of truth beneath the blade of an axe. And, frankly, he’s a mess. A sprat in a lake of sharks, it’s as much as he can do to put one foot in front of another. A sobbing, blubbering, heaving vessel of terror letting it all fall to pieces in front of me. By the time the scene’s over, it’s like a gigantic snail’s crawled across my chainmail. Rufus: great stand-up comic, great raconteur, great big blobs of gob. Also, seriously cool Dalek tattoo. The boy loves his Dr Who. *Fistbumps* An honour to lead him to his death every night.
Cry me a Rivers
  • 8:30pm: It’s been coming and finally Foley breaks through for Australia. He gives a little show-and-go and storms over as England run out of numbers at the back. Foley’s conversion is good and Australia’s patience has paid off. They lead by seven points. I stroll from stage left to stage right, scowling, saying nothing, accompanied by fellow-hoodlum Catesby & some soldier-types. Just the once. And that’s Ratcliffe’s entrance, right there. Now, a word about Ratcliffe: there happens to be a Lieutenant of the Tower towards the end of Edward IV who helps Richard, under duress, dispose of King Henry’s body. And then there’s Ratcliffe in Richard III, one of Richard’s henchmen. And Trevor had a devilishly good idea: why not make them one & the same person? So Lieutenant Ratcliffe is turned via a complicit act of accessory to regicide into a loyal attack dog that stays true to his master right to the bitter end. Which is great, and saves on costumes & that, but there’s a problem: the Lieutenant is written as a thoroughly decent cove doing a pig of a job; & Ratcliffe is basically Reggie Kray. I tell you, the acting prowess that goes into smoothing that monumental character wrinkle is worth its own website. It’s all done with the eyes, y’know. And some hair gel. Mmmm yah. 
  • 8:45pm: England have been sliced open by Foley again and they’re in big trouble now. What a 30 minutes for Australia. The conversion squeezes between the posts and Foley has 17 points in the match. Lancaster’s men have to turn this around otherwise England are dead & buried. Incidentally, Tim Walker plays Catesby, and he’s an evil looking sonofabitch & no mistake. (Catesby, that is. Not Tim. Tim’s a sweetheart.) Catesby resembles something foul-smelling with four legs you might find up a drain-pipe. Tim also plays Warwick the Kingmaker in the previous couple of plays, and he delivers him as a giant bear, flapping his jowls & growling at anyone who comes close. Warwick’s crest? Rampant bear chained to a ragged staff. See what he’s done there? Two weirdly brilliant/brilliantly weird performances. You know those visits to London Zoo that your drama school expected you to make for research? Well, that. Fabulous.

  
The Earl of Warwick

  • 9pm: A brilliant first half for Bernard Foley and Australia. And it couldn’t have gone much worse for England. They’re an hour away from exiting the competition and sending Wales through to the quarter-finals.There are some sour faces in the Green Room during the interval, I can tell you. And, sweet Jesus, that’s Erin calling for beginners for the second half. For Chrissakes, does she not understand?
  • 9:20pm England concede another penalty as Dan Cole and co are shoved backwards. And Foley bangs the ball straight between the posts. Bastard! Time for some girl-power therapy. A bunch of queens in Kingston slag each other off then fall to cursing everyone else. I adore this scene. Joely Richardson’s Queen Margaret starts her story in the first play as a biddable nervous coquette, becomes a smouldering thorn-bush in the next one, and finishes in Richard III a terrifying re-animated corpse yelling insults at all and sundry like someone you avoid on the High Street. Mad old Maggie: hell of a journey. Well, this scene is her finale, & it’s constructed like an opera, where soprano, mezzo soprano and contralto mourn their lost menfolk in counterpoint: Margaret mourning her husband & son; the newly widowed queen, Elizabeth (Alex Gilbreath), her husband, and two little boys in the tower; and old Mrs York (Sue Tracy), her husband and sons: little Rutland, Edward & George. Loss upon loss upon bleeding loss, and all spitting tacks at each other. Until Elizabeth does something quite extraordinary: she asks Margaret for advice on how best to curse. Which Margaret promptly gives. “See, you do it like this, stand like that, say this, and don’t eat much, got it?”  I ask you, the mind of this young writer: already as sharp and precise as a pin, that he understands women that intuitively. Even at daggers drawn & clawing lumps out of each other, the girls get in a circle and work their shit out together. High five, sisters. You should play rugby.
  • 9:45pm:  And it’s all sliding downhill as Foley’s penalty kick puts another nail in the English coffin. Australia have a 10-point lead with eight minutes to play. The calipers are coming off for Richard too as rebellion stirs in the country at large and the Tudors prepare to make their grand entrance into history.
  • 10:30pm So that’s it. The hosts, England, are out of their own tournament in the first round, the first team to suffer this ignominy in World Cup history. Meanwhile, in Kingston, England’s last purely English King is about to be given the heave-ho on his own turf by a Welshman. Poor old Dickie. Robbie’s Richard is a fantastically weird & malevolent creation, a shrill, slinking demon with the face of an angel, a “psychotic Peter Pan” as my friend Mary Roscoe perfectly put it. Playful, calculating, prone to terrifying rages & clearly pursued by the hounds of hell, he stalks around the stage like a gorgeous black tarantula, seducing & poisoning as he goes. He tries ever harder to stave off mental collapse as the play picks up momentum towards the end – all to no avail. On the eve of Bosworth, tormented by ghosts, he’s a fractured soul, as the ‘several tongues’ within him clamour for ascendancy. He has one more titanic scrap in him, before Richmond pins him to the floor & skewers him like a lamb shish kebab. It’s all over. The new King, Henry VII (awesome Larry Spellman: born to rule) finally unites the white rose & the red by tying the two banners behind him together and yelling at the audience: “You want chilli sauce with that???”
  • 10:35pm  And finally, the moment everyone’s been gagging for: the curtain-call to close the entire day. And boy, what a ride. There’s a standing ovation within seconds, whistling, roaring, hands held aloft. You sense they’re  applauding themselves aswell as us – We did it! Three bloody shows!! I can’t feel my arse!!! – but even so, it’s like someone opening up your ego & pouring in rocket-fuel. Here’s Trevor bouncing onstage, keeping it simple, soulful: “Five words – Peter Hall and John Barton.” More cheering, more roaring. Half the cast don’t know whether to keep bowing or to stop and just wave at people, grinning like idiots. Some of us feel silly, some of us feel like bursting into tears (you just do when faced with this kind of reaction), some are looking forward to watching the rugby on catch-up. It’s mental. But of course, it has to come to an end. The cast manage to judge the moment to leave with unerring precision using a theatrical form of swarm intelligence, and we all begin to file off stage to enduring hollering, stamping and clapping. Eventually, the audience begin considering their own journey home & the clapping subsides. Sadly, amongst the gathering quiet, it quickly becomes apparent that half the cast are still onstage queuing patiently to get the f**k off. Bloody cutlery drawer jammed. Beyond embarrassing. *Sigh*

  

Curtain call

  • 11pm Theatre bar, official opening drinks reception, wall-to-wall prosecco. Wearing paisley shirt bought specially for post-show knees-up. (Business expense.) I’m busy explaining the Wars of the Roses plot to a little old lady called Jean who fell asleep in the middle of Edward IV. She keeps calling me the Earl of Plymouth. Glimpse Caitlin & dressers standing at bar dolled up to the pins using selfie-stick. Clue’s in the title: ridiculous accessory to an absurdly narcissistic generation. Avuncular tut tut. Trevor walks past with two actors hanging off him like earrings. Attempt mid-air congratulatory embrace as the threesome pass, but miss and end up kissing bald patch of small man sitting at table by mistake. We both laugh, embarrassed. Small man moves away. Feel foolish. Turn back round: Jean still blithering away at chest-level about the Earl of Plymouth.
  • 11:30pm  Several glasses down & feeling altogether less foolish. Have been called over by professional photographer for statutory shot of cast-member holding glass of fizz. Paisley shirt: wise investment. Tatler editorial board will be pleased. See my friends, Jess & Alice, in distance. Jess played Joe Egg in production here at Rose two years ago, and now prospective babysitter as she lives just around the corner from me. Alice assistant director on Joe Egg. And here’s Stephen Unwin, who used to run the Rose. Back-slapping, hugs, silly faces. Oh, and his missus, Ginny Schiller, who cast Wars of the Roses. And there’s Samantha Bond. And the adorable Niall Buggy. Joely with her mum. And is that Jemma Redgrave aswell? And, blimey, that’s me! Oh no, just reflection in window. And finally I’m Trev’d: me, Trevor & Olly Cotton in big hairy hug. One gigantic happy family. Love them all. Love everyone in this room. Intensely. Also rather love this bubbly. Must get some more.
  • Midnight Attempting suitable angle to position head for group photo using Caitlin’s selfie-stick. Important to take this seriously & get right. For Twitter. For FaceBook. For my son: one day he’ll see photo of his father in paisley shirt looking sophisticated around young people & feel proud. Party going well – feeling remarkably charming & interesting. Everything I say appears to be an ingenious witticism. Frankly, not surprised so many people wish to take my photo. Yes, I will have another prosecco thankyou. *Hides glass* My glass? Haven’t seen it for a while. Tell you what, love, just pass us the bottle. Yes, I’m sure it’s fine – I’m the Earl of Shomershit, y’know. Or was it Plymouth? *Laughs, swigs*

  

Self self self
  • 12:30am  Room appears to be slowly thinning out. Difficult to tell at this angle. Under piano, for some reason. Am being shouted at by someone. Harry Egan, possibly?  Something about the Viper Rooms. Remember blearily some arrangement made by Roger, our company manager, regarding post-post-show drinks at infamous Kingston flesh-pot. Nod assent at young man & dribble. 
  • 1pm  So, the Viper Rooms. Kingston’s answer to a question that no-one in their right minds should have asked. If I was sober, then this might have been an objective description of a fairly run-of-the-mill provincial nightclub. But since I’m not, it won’t be. A more impressionistic account for you. Which begins with a long, low, dark corridor, enveloped with flashes of light, and throbbing away to a subterranean engine. Occasionally a very nearly naked young person will lurch into my vision, scowl contemptuously, then disappear. Subsequently, a big, bald, fleshy man will pop up & ask you rather scarily not to sit in a particular seat/manner/coat. At regular intervals, I observe a hand bringing up a glass of cheap white wine to my lips. My own hand, I assume. It’s rather like being in a video-game. Black-Out In Ebriated Evil Resident 5. Or something.
  • 2pm  After talking to the back of a cushion for 20 minutes, thinking it was Rufus’s wife, I look confusedly around. Nightclubs are such strangely alluring and yet deeply horrifying places. All glass, air-conditioning & tantalising suggestion of vomit on the wind. On top of a relentless throbbing. Like being caught inside a dying cyborg. Mmm, not a bad simile for someone this worse for wear. Still got it. Grunt with satisfaction. Then slowly topple off sofa onto floor. Pick myself up, hoping no-one’s noticed. Immy (Imogen Daines) gently leads me to a door, imagining it to be an exit to somewhere more tranquil. We open it & witness a vision of hell. Thousands of bodies writhing & gyrating like maggots in a tin. Like the Battle of Bosworth. Like one of our curtain calls. We join them. Soon, word gets out that the Earl of Plymouth has finally shed the last vestiges of his dignity and is giving his Leo Sayer. Various members of the community chorus get wind & come to watch. It’s like a bloodsport from a less enlightened time. People in a circle cheering on an individual clearly having some kind of disturbance. My friend Jess is the last to join, takes one look and rather brilliantly decides to call a taxi. Then, like the good & faithful babysitter that she is, she takes me home to my wife and child. It’s over. Our revels now are ended. And these, our actors, as I foretold you, are utterly out for the count & will probably need a couple of days to recover. A dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

  

The Earl of Plymouth

Wars of the Roses: Geoff Leesley

The hour approacheth when the traps are opened to release our three hounds of hell into the world, and the actors’ thoughts turn to the most important and pressing aspect of an official opening: what gifts to buy for one’s colleagues’ first night.

At a time  of mounting tension, when the make or break moment of irrevocable public exposure hoves into view, this consideration often becomes a weirdly overriding one – usually because we’ve left it to the last bloody moment to sort out. Which, as a strategy, just about works at Christmas, but certainly not when we need to be much more usefully employed. Like, for example, standing in a corner of the dressing-room, banging our head against the wall and gently moaning.

As your basic, common-or-garden acting tradition, it’s also vulnerable to the ever-present demons of ‘compare-and-despair.’ This mental state occurs when you realise you’ve completely misjudged the level of mutual generosity on a given show when upon you’re dressing room table arrives an exquisitely crafted Renaissance etching accompanied by an intricate poem emblazoned on a gold-embossed scroll written in the delicate hand of one’s colleague – the one with the burgeoning film career. And you’ve bought everyone a hastily scribbled postcard and a pack of polo mints. Always a tricky judgement.

This exercise is made yet harder when you need to accommodate a company the size of this one. Imagine Christmas Day with 22 actors pulling a cracker. The drinks bill alone would bankrupt you. (And can you imagine the charades?? Doesn’t bear thinking about.)

So, our Yummy-Mummy-in-Chief, Alex Gilbreath, has had a brilliant idea. Why not have a ‘secret fairy’, where names go into a hat? We each pick out a name, then lavish all our bounty on this one actor. Pressure off your wallet, your time and your writing hand. Simples.

So, I pulled out Geoff Leesley’s name, who plays the Duke of Exeter, Lord Mayor and a dying Mortimer. And I thought, what better first night gift than to dedicate a whole post in this blog just to him? Original, and doesn’t cost a bean. (Actually, I’ve bought him some posh booze as well, cos he’s worth it.) So, here goes:

  

Geoff utterly melts me. He is a permanent smile on legs, with a bluff, generous laugh to go with it at whatever damned stupid comment I come out with. I don’t think any of our Roses brethren would disagree when I suggest that he is the warm, beating heart of the company, a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, and an enormously reassuring presence in rehearsal, in the canteen or on stage. 

“Mr Leesley, you are off.”

I really hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning that, during this production, he has passed his own important milestone when, during the repressed chaos of an Edward IV preview, he was officially ‘off’ (missing his entrance) for the first time in a forty year career, leaving the nine-year-old actor playing young Richmond, Sam, to say Geoff’s line for him. So, even when in error, he makes it possible for a brave little boy to shine in his stead. The man is a God. 

Vote Geoff Leesley!

Geoff is not only a wonderful actor and verse-speaker (he brings an impassioned, crystal clear clarity to the verse, no doubt honed during his time with Northern Broadsides, Barry Rutter’s Shakespeare powerhouse), but also a proper subversive: in his home-town of Frome, he waves the flag for a group of like-minded comrades who have organised themselves into an alternative to the Labour Party – and they now have several local council seats. I mean, Corbyn’s alright, but Geoff’s lurch to the left will be achieved in iambic pentameter, so I know who I’ll be voting for.

Duke of Exeter

Without a doubt, Geoff is the perfect fit for Exeter, who is himself the warm beating heart of the first two plays. Exeter has, for my money, the defining line in the entire trilogy when, towards the end of Edward IV, he wearily slaps down the Earl of Oxford’s facile claim of divine partisanship with the line: “I am a-weary of such heavenly helping.” A good and decent man who has seen too much bloodshed to believe that God can have any hand in it. Throughout the plays, Exeter relentlessly tells the truth, regardless of how difficult it is for others to hear, brilliantly arguing to let sleeping dogs lie in spite of conceding York’s apparently superior claim to the throne. The straight-shooting, upright English statesman and peacemaker, an honourable and often sorely needed presence in our history. And a character type that Shakespeare adores: the calm, loyal, practical voice of reason. A Kent, an Horatio, an Enobarbus, a Gonzalo. The voice you need to hear come the apocalypse. 

Personally, I’d be delighted to hear Geoff’s voice amongst the din at the end of the world. Indeed, I reckon his sturdy, comforting Northern brogue will steady a few nerves on our own, more modest Day of Judgement this Saturday. 

Cheers Geoff. You’re a treasure. See you on the green. 

Wars of the Roses: Round and round and round we go

Tea-break during never-ending technical rehearsal, urinals in the Gents, Rose Theatre, Kingston:

Robbie Sheehan, Karé Conradi & I stare blankly into the middle distance, emptying our bladders, yawning, minds a tired void, indulging an occasional fart. Suddenly Robbie grimaces, flicks a considerable corkscrew fringe and declares in his sweet Irish burr: 

“It’s like one big f*****g wheel, isn’t it? And it’s like you can’t get off. Ever.” 

I look down and, in my mind’s eye, ruminate on the horrific cycle of birth and death, creation and butchery, triumph and loss that these awesome plays express and describe, how the tumultuous century we’re chronicling can be seen as an epic example of humanity’s binding to the remorseless wheel of history. Karé and I nod sagely, dribbling away.

Then Robbie says: “I mean, just an extra fifteen minutes on the lunch-break would be f*****g something.” And with that, he shakes, zips and departs, harrassing that riotous fringe as he goes. I realise, with just the slightest twinge of inward social embarrassment, that Robbie is, in fact, referring to Trevor’s rehearsal schedule.

Nonetheless, as I follow him back to the dressing room, wiping my hands on the Earl of Somerset’s fabulous medieval tunic, I consider Robbie’s statement. And think: dammit, I’m snaffling that for the blog. Like the rest of the world’s relationship to the invention of any number of English ball-games, it’s sometimes necessary to take a manly hold of someone else’s metaphor and show it what it’s capable of.

For indeed, the whole experience of staging this pageant of poetry and simulated slaughter seems to resemble one damn metaphorical wheel after another, with metaphorical mice on Equity-minimum contracts scurrying round and round trying to find the metaphorical sodding exit. But I’ll address the design of the Rose theatre backstage area in a moment. *Grinds teeth*

  

Two weeks ago, we tech’d Henry VI, dress-rehearsed it, then ran it round the block in front of a paying audience a couple of times. We then tech’d the next one, Edward IV,  without dress-rehearsing it (yes, I know, how cool are we???), before giving it a spin at the beginning of last week. And then, finally, it was Richard III‘s turn to be tech’d, dress-rehearsed & wheeled out into the sunlight last Friday & Saturday. It’s been a gruelling, exhausting, utterly momentous fortnight for the company, noses to the grindstone as the wheel turns. But, you know what, never mind all that. Before we even mention the production, we need to talk about Kingston’s bastard one-way system. Devised at first to keep the strong in awe, this cruel & unforgiving maze of despair simply has to have been dreamt up by the same comedy genius that designed the Rose theatre backstage area. But I’ll address that in a moment. *Screams into cushion*

Wheel of Doom # 1 

It all starts rather splendidly on a bright Monday morning, joining the A3 at Wandsworth, sun shining, engine purring, John Humphrys & Sarah Montague wittering away about nothing on Radio 4, road ahead awash with promise and diesel particulates. I should take this opportunity to point out that  my relationship with Angela, the disembodied American lady on my SatNav, is akin to the one Inspector Clouseau has with his terrifyingly unpredictable man-servant, Cato, in that she sees her job of getting me somewhere I haven’t visited in a while as a means of keeping me on my toes. Ultimately, this is achieved by profoundly challenging my road-worthiness, blood-pressure and sanity. By the time I hit Kingston, she has already sent me on a number of lunatic goose-chases in search of the perfect shortcut, one of which involves a startled gentleman in pink slacks, and all of which succeed in adding at least twenty minutes to my ETA.

Eventually, Angela relents after the atmosphere between us has deteriorated to a sour silence, and before you can say: “What’s wrong with an AA road map, for Pete’s sake?” she has me confidently shooting into Kingston with barely minutes to go before I’m due at the theatre. I soon begin to recognise landmarks from when I was last at the Rose two years ago performing in ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’.

Yoga with Ralf Little, Rose Theatre, 2013

Yoga with Ralf Little, Rose Theatre, May 2013

However, at a critical roundabout, Angela is distracted by a handsome young traffic light, and I find myself on the road out of Kingston and over the bridge towards Teddington without even realising what’s amiss. I now have a substantial line of vehicles on my tail and nowhere to turn round. It is at this juncture that I start to give in to my inner Basil Fawlty by yelling profanities at micro-circuitry in the curious pretence that it a) has an autonomous consciousness; b) has knowingly underperformed and must therefore be punished; and c) remotely cares what you think even if a) and b) were true.

Suddenly, mid-rant, I spy a cheeky side-street and executing a manoeuvre that would make your mother blush, find myself quickly heading back in the opposite direction over the bridge into Kingston. I breathe a sigh of relief as once more I race like Noddy on drugs back along the A308 into the melée of retail. Unfortunately, my composure doesn’t last, as the road singularly refuses to play ball and allow me anywhere near the Rose. Chewing my cheek with mounting fury, I observe various signs for the theatre sail past, the ones with those irritating happy/sad Greek drama masks on them, one of them gutted at something, the other pissing himself laughing, the civic gods of acting taunting me on my road to nowhere. You’ll never make it, they seem to mock, either to the theatre, or in your wider career. You’ll be forever lost in a small market town wondering what might have been if you’d chosen a different turning. 

“Bastard gods of acting!” I scream into the windscreen as I lurch past them.  

 

Irritating bastards

Angela now chooses this moment to regain her poise and suggest, in her preposterous Californian drawl, that I bear left when every fibre in my being pleads for a right hand turn to bring me level with the theatre. I realise with mounting horror what Angela’s point is: that the theatre car-park can only be attained by another comprehensive pass all the way back round and through Kingston, the English highway equivalent of Hilary almost reaching the summit of Everest before having to head back down because he’d forgotten the bloody flag.

I am now officially late for my call by five minutes. “Damn you, Angela & Kingston!” I roar at the dashboard. “Damn you both to hell!”

Now in a cold sweat of impotent wrath, I stiffen my jaw and stamp my foot on the accelerator, meaning business and to hell with the consequences. Unfortunately, I miss and hit the brake instead, stalling the car and almost causing a double-decker bus to lie down on top of me. I grimace apologetically at the bus driver in the rear view mirror, Avenging Angel Of The Road reduced to Fool Attempting To Start Small Car In Traffic. I turn the key. Nothing. Now it’s the Fiesta’s turn to sit in sulky silence. In the middle of an A-road with a line of honking vehicles behind it. Sweet Jesus, but my staff choose their moments. 

After trotting through my professional repertoire of contrite facial expressions, the engine finally starts – and I’m off like a hamster that’s been set alight. However, inevitably, as in the most godawful nightmare, I hurtle past the necessary turning near the theatre that might provide succour to my torment, and once again find myself falling back into the maw of the Royal Borough on a soul-sapping third pass. I am now nearly half an hour late for my call, and am becoming tearful. Oh, hapless little mouse. Oh holy Mary. 

Swearing liberally, I hurl the car half on and half off the pavement, whack on the hazards and roll down the window. Surely a Kingston native might know a secret underground tunnel, perhaps involving code words and initiation ceremonies. Frankly, right now, I’d be happy to sacrifice a goat in a graveyard to save me from this bunch-backed toad of a one way system. Surprisingly, the good burghers of Kingston seem remarkably averse to helping a sweaty, wild-eyed man who’s leaning out of a sad little car on a busy highway and is babbling something about being late for the Wars of the Roses. They scurry past, as if avoiding illness.

Suddenly, I spy a no-through-road in the distance which seems to be vaguely in the direction of the Rose, and in a moment of clarity born out of a longing for mother, I slam the car into reverse, spin it round on the handbrake and storm towards freedom. To a rousing crescendo of  saxophone and bass guitar, I drive at ninety miles an hour down a narrow, prohibited back-alley sending trash cans and the homeless flying like skittles. Bellowing in triumph, tyres smoking, I hurtle round the corner to the Rose, ultimately smashing through the glass doors and coming to rest in the bar.*

(*This is all bollocks, obviously.)

Wheel of Doom #2

So, like an occupying army with incredible diction, the acting company move into the Rose on a sunny Monday morning, taking up positions in their dressing rooms. (Some with more poise than others, needless to say.) One of the first obligations attendant on us all is to be shown round the theatre. We start with a tour of the set. 

This is a model of the set as introduced to us on the first meet ‘n’ greet way back in July.

image

And here’s the real thing. In the flesh, as ’twere.

image

Truly a monumental achievement (congrats John Napier, Mark Friend & everyone else involved), it now feels very much like an indoor Globe but using a ‘lozenge’ as opposed to thrust stage. In the right light and in a suitably dramatic context, it makes for a befouled medieval street, an incense-laden throne room, a gloomy church or a murderous field of battle. And, keeping faith with fifteenth century standards of house-building, it’s also an utter death trap, as most of the stairs are at an unequal tread with occasional panels & balustrades missing, foxing the careless actor in unforgiving cloak.

After the guided tour of the set, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: ladies and gentlemen, I give you … the Rose theatre backstage area. (*punches self in face repeatedly*) 

Now, before I get stuck in, it’s important to note that I love working at this theatre. The team who run it are a wonderfully warm & immensely committed body of people, from Robert O’Dowd & Jerry Gunn, chief exec & producer respectively; all the way down to our gorgeous & heroic dressers who keep us buttoned/laced/zipped/cocked/loaded, all within a maniac’s schedule and extremely limited space. None of these people are to blame for the, erm, quirk that I’m about to describe. No, I’m afraid responsibility for that lies at the door of Blundell, Thompson & Hargreaves, the Bromley-based architectural practice who were commissioned to design the Rose way back when, and who therefore must hang their heads in considerable shame for the following egregious fuck-up. So here goes:

There is no access backstage between stage left and stage right. (Or indeed vice versa.) Once more with feeling: there is no access backstage between stage left and stage right. Friends, if you’re an actor, and you are performing in a production at the Rose theatre, Kingston, and during said production you entertain the not entirely unreasonable desire to cross from stage left to stage right (or indeed vice versa) without being seen by the audience, then friends, the only conceivable way of doing so is to run like hell upstairs to the dressing-rooms, peg it the full length of the building, fly down a substantial staircase, hot-foot it through the bar and foyer, sprint past the box office, hop through both front & back (preferably open) doors of a lift (praying to God it’s not in use during your show), before finally skidding to a halt at the door for backstage right whilst enduring a brief attack of angina. And then do your scene.

Now, bearing in mind that the original Rose Theatre Trust (tasked with driving forward the proposition of building a new Rose theatre after the discovery of the foundations of the original Rose on Bankside in 1989), included two Olympian gods of the British stage, Laurence Olivier & Peter Hall, I am frankly mystified as to how this could have happened. Did someone spill coffee on the plans? Did someone in the architect’s office get dumped by an actor at some point in his or her life & thus tendered for the contract with a view to taking revenge on the whole profession? Did they forget that they were planning a building for actors at all?? Whatever the cause, the most accurs’d effect is the sight in 2015 of a number of the Wars of the Roses company, some of them well struck in years and in full medieval battle armour, going round and round the full circumference of the Rose, skidding and bouncing their way across every shiny, reflective surface like so much loose change in a washing machine. I haven’t had so much fun since watching It’s A Knock-Out in the 1970s.

Oh hapless, sweaty, heavily armoured mice.

Wheel of Doom #3

Oscar Batterham, Freddie Carter, Harry Egan & James de Lauch Hay are four eager mice fresh to the wheel and far, far too young & unblemished. They must therefore be punished by being worked like dogs. Straight out of drama school, they all had their theatrical debut on Wednesday 16th September in Henry VI, venturing forth on their awfully big adventure to the enormous advantage of the rest of the company. Frankly, without the four of them doing a regular 200 metre sprint in chain mail round the building every night, being an occasional French king, English earl, Prince of Wales or messenger of your choice, the Wars of the Roses would probably never start. We salute you, boys, & wish you well as you join our gaudy charabanc.

  

Crickey, One Direction have let themselves go.

Kingston local, Caitlin Rose Webb, also made her bow in Richard III as Elizabeth of York (that’s Henry VIII’s mum to you), and is fresh (ish) out of the Rose youth theatre. Truth be told, she carries herself around the place with more self-possession than the rest of the company put together. Must be something in the water.

Holding hands across the generations, we have the father of the company, Olly Cotton, who regales his extraordinary stories of auditioning for Laurence Olivier at the fledgling National Theatre when it was housed at the Old Vic in the sixties, of working with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, you name them – he’s shared the stage with them.

The most wonderful thing about our profession is the sense of its own living history. Olly’s entry into the profession was presumably accompanied by raucous tales from his senior colleagues of the venerable & mighty actors of their early years, from the early twentieth century & beyond. There’s a glorious thread that feels very tangible when performing Shakespeare which ties us all firmly to each other and to our forebears, and that keeps our gorgeous theatre striplings grasping the spectral hands of their ancestors in a chain of ghosts all the way back to Burbage, Keene et al, when these plays were first staged further up river over four hundred years ago. 

One day, Oscar, Freddie, James, Harry & Caitlin will tell great theatrical yarns about an awesome production they happened to be in at the Rose in Kingston when they worked with the great Oliver Cotton and Trevor Nunn, and spent every performance sprinting from one end of the building to the other because of a hilarious & mystifying design fault.

One of them might even end up writing a blog.

Wheel of Doom #4

Lest it be deduced from the strangulated tone earlier in this post that I’m in any way fed up with this gig, I should set the record straight forthwith. I am so not. Whenever I do a Shakespeare, in whatever context and whatever the part, it always feels like coming home. But, y’know, we’re also being directed by Trevor bloody Nunn. And I love these plays, always have. And I adore the company, who are not only an incredibly relaxed, sweet-natured & funny bunch, but some of the best verse-speakers I’ve had the pleasure to work with. And I’ve met Vanessa Redgrave. What’s. Not. To. Love. Yes, the last two weeks have felt like a fortnight shifting heavy furniture whilst reciting poetry down a coal-mine, topped off by a nightly shot of adrenaline to the heart under dazzling lights. But hell, that’s what I came into this profession for.

Oh contented little mouse.

To reinforce the point, here are some generally recognised milestones on the road to a town called Happy Actor, all of which I’ve passed at some point in the last couple of weeks:

  • The first time walking onto a phenomenal set.
  • The first time looking at yourself in the mirror in costume, in this instance, looking seriously kick-ass in sword, tunic & boots.
  • Settling in for the first proper pint with members of the company in the pub next door.
  • Part way through the first preview and the thrilling heart attack of not quite knowing what your next scene is, moments before your next scene.
  • The ‘click’ moment when the scene takes flight for the first time and you’re suddenly right inside the world as your character, not as the foggy-headed actor who can’t quite get the lines out.
  • The first moment of delicious sensory recall that occurs when stood in the hot, dark embrace of the wings, surrounded by fear and dry ice.
  • Falling into a gorgeous swoon with your fellow actors, which usually happens roundabout the tech. 

You’d think I’d be blasé about all this stuff after nearly twenty years in the business, but you show me a middle-aged actor with back-ache and a mortgage who’s not secretly on fire every time he flicks his cloak and fondles the hilt of his sword before striding onstage like death on two legs, and I’ll show you an actor who seriously needs to consider a change of career.

Of course, you can get addicted to it. My year is generally now defined by two or three turns of the theatre roller, and if it doesn’t happen to turn, then I can be a pig to live with & no mistake. 

Doing these specific plays more than usually pins me to the wheel though. There seems to be a generational need to stage the Wars of the Roses in some form or other over the last fifty odd years, and I happened to be in the first Michael Boyd rendering of the unexpurgated tetralogy at the RSC fifteen years ago. 

(Nick Asbury played Somerset in that one. He kept a blog. Far superior to mine. It got turned into a book called Exit Pursued By A Badger. I understand that the bloke who played Somerset in the original production in 1591 kept a blog as well. It’s one of those impenetrable theatre traditions.)

Now, obviously the Rose & RSC productions are different from each other in a legion of ways. There’s the extensive editing & textual revising in ours courtesy of John Barton, for starters. Boyd’s was a labyrinthine, sprawling vision of hell, à la Hieronymous Bosch, ours more a cold-eyed study of power & legitimacy in a disintegrating society. But they share enough similarities – in costume and in atmospherics, principally – to occasionally bring me up short in the wings, as if I’m listening to ghosts. 

After a backbreaking & interminable tech – some actors were reportedly seen with faces pressed up against the glass of the foyer doors, pleading for release – we are now in the thick of previews, and now surely have the measure of these magnificent beasts. We’re still rattling around like tacks in a tin getting to grips with the insane marriage of backstage area & multi-level set (seriously, one false move on this thing & you’re lost for life in an etching by M.C. Escher), but a few more runs & we’ll be doing it in our sleep. By which I mean recurrent nightmare.

But hey folks, we have a show. Or three shows, to be precise. And it’s gripping, dramatic, heartbreaking, occasionally funny. And the more we do it, the more it appears to speak directly to our own riven world, of backstairs politicking, collapsing institutions, the fragility of principles in a jungle of selfishness, fear & cynicism. All distilled through the finest language brought to bear on the vexed topic of power. 

Oh, and the fights are jaw-dropping. Whisper it, but some of the swords have made it across the chasm of the years to end up in our version, courtesy of some vaguely fraternal transaction between the Rose, RSC & National Theatre. At some point over the course of the full nine hours, I’m probably holding exactly the same weapons I used back in 2001 & 2006. 

Oh, happy mouse brandishing a sword. 

  Old friends

For sword, read Shakespeare, for Shakespeare, read life. We actors see ourselves as sculptors of other people’s souls moulded roughly to the shape of our own at a given point in our life. Then, imperceptibly, the world turns and without really noticing, we’re in a new town under an autumn sky, soul-sculpting afresh on a mould that has subtly changed shape, wielding an old sword in a new fight. However, beneath our shifting lives and careers, always there is Shakespeare: a constant river flowing beneath, the unchanging text which seems forever changing, his meaning deepening and widening as we grow, not only as individuals but also as a culture. Our companion, our guide, our great interpreter of ourselves. Shakespeare rocks – and he’s yours for a fiver tonight in the cheap seats. 

And if that doesn’t persuade you, maybe this lot can.

   Phwoarr of the Roses

(From left to right: Sue Tracy, Imogen Daines, Alex Gilbreath, Joely Richardson.)

Wars of the Roses: Warming the bench

So, goodbye, Alford House Youth Club, Vauxhall. It’s been emotional. (Yes, this is where we’ve been rehearsing for the last eight weeks but we’ve had to keep this a secret lest we be besieged by ravening members of Robbie Sheehan’s fan base.) And hello, Rose Theatre, Kingston.

We’re now into the final furlong with merely hours to go before the tech: a time of dishevelled hysteria dressed up to look like polite anxiety in an office skirt. Ten days ago we started running the plays. Or at least one half at a time. This, after a lengthy period immediately beforehand coaxing items of stage furniture on & off stage between scenes in order to get our transitions right. Next, we spent last weekend being chased around the rehearsal room by a bunch of strangers, a body of men and women we shall herein term ‘the community chorus’. And finally, this week, we’ve been running these mutant theatrical war-beasts in their entirety, amongst costume fittings, fight calls & notes sessions from Trevor that go on longer than the Lancastrian family tree itself.

So, transitions: a general flavour of this exercise can be captured by imagining some gently sweaty yet determined stage-managers purposefully transporting an occasional throne from one end of a dusty rehearsal room to the other. They do this whilst skirting round various actors clustered onstage, listless & hesitant as if dangling from strings, grasping wrong ends of benches/swords/other actors & asking politely of no-one in particular: “Sorry, erm, where should I … erm …?” Meanwhile, more of the cast are seated round the edge of the performance space staring pleadingly into their scripts as if somehow said scripts can provide the answer to any number of knotty theatrical riddles: do I enter upstage left or downstage left? What bloody character am I playing in this bit? Is Jeremy Corbyn such a good idea after all? Meanwhile, a world-renowned theatre director in a blue denim shirt and pointy beard mutters occasionally in a corner: “No, that’s not going to work – hopeless.”

Everyone has a basic idea what they’re supposed to be doing, but not necessarily when or in what order. The result is subdued chaos. In occasional iambic pentameter.

Michael Xavier: face of chaos.

By the way, I bally well worship stage managers. They are the rocks to which we flailing actors cling in a storm. Specifically, the rocks in this particular nine hour Shakespearean typhoon, erm, well, rock. If the performers think they’ve got their work cut out on this thing, then stage management have their work baked into jagged pieces and forced down their throat every night whilst doing algebraic equations in Latin. And for an actor like me, likely to get lost on his way from dressing room to stage ultimately to end up in Cleveland, à la Spinal Tap, they’re as indispensable as a care assistant to an imbecile. So, all hail Roger, Erin, Naomi, Ellie & Jack. This is for you, courtesy of Henry Rollins:

For me, a surprisingly salient item in our maelstrom of endeavour over these weeks has been the dreaded bench. Various pieces of furniture in these plays are required: thrones, coffins, tables, wheelchairs, camp-beds, stretchers; but it’s the bloody benches that seem to give me particular jip. A ‘council board’ is introduced as a concept towards the beginning of Henry VI, where England’s top brass sit at a table debating/voting/shouting at each other. And in order to gather round said table, one or two benches need to be hauled up close. And then sat on. With possibly a dangling sword to take into account whilst doing so. Or indeed a robe. Or indeed a pair of feet with a highly developed sense of their own autonomy.

Picture in your mind’s eye, if you will, a table with a bench before it. It is necessary to first step over the bench before one can sit on it. See what I mean? Thus, theatrically speaking, it’s a stroll in the (royal) park to stand proud and erect before a bench in readiness to be seated, nursing your two lines, looking frankly splendid, but a different set of cannon-balls entirely striding over it to actually sit on the bloody thing. Oh, the helpless, clattering indignity of it all. I fear for the previews.

Curiously, the benches in our production seem to be pieces of furniture exquisitely finely tuned to the physical profile of the actor attempting to use them. By way of example, if you’re Joely Richardson, say, and a magnificent thoroughbred race-horse, you can sit at this supposed council table as if breezily taking a fence at Haydock Park. If, on the other hand, you are me or Michael Xavier or Oliver Cotton, it is highly likely you will resemble three Sunday morning drunks in dressing gowns attempting to scale a garden shed.


Thoroughbred

I’m being terribly unfair to Michael Xavier and Olly Cotton, both of whom are well co-ordinated gents with luxurious hair. Michael in particular clearly spends his time away from rehearsals developing his body somewhere sweaty & beset with mirrors, as befits a bachelor in his thirties with a sideline in musicals. Built like a classic 1950s British saloon car updated by the Germans, he’s a terrific actor and a complete & utter delight. He puts me in mind of an old-fashioned English matinee idol. Debonair, elegant, occasionally naughty. A bit David Niven-ish.

 David Niven. Ish.

His problem is, he’s been paired with me for most of the first half of Henry VI. The Earls of, respectively, Suffolk (him) and Somerset (me), spend the first half of the play picking flowers together in rose gardens, muttering in crowded rooms and playing with their pet hawks. (The Earls are clearly an item.) And, frankly, I’m doing my best to bring him down to my level.

Now, when it comes to colliding with actors, upstaging oneself & dressing as if dragged through a charity shop backwards (when out of costume), it’s a level I’m proud to have made all my very own. If you’re even remotely in my slipstream in these plays, the two (ahem, nine) hour traffic of our stage is liable to become a major theatrical pile-up. Which is unfortunate for Michael: I bet he’s accustomed to gliding serenely round a stage like 007 in a casino. Unfortunately, whilst we mouth at each other in the wings frantically attempting to establish at what bloody point in the dialogue we enter this next sodding scene and from which cocking entrance, he bears a closer resemblance to a rather dapper Stan Laurel to my hairy, unkempt Oliver Hardy. I’m afraid I often notice him quietly breathing a sigh of relief once the Earl of Somerset buggers off to France, leaving him free to elegantly snog the face off Margaret of Anjou unencumbered by the clueless idiot in the shorts.

Last Saturday, we slotted our community chorus into the production. These are a troupe of hardy souls who will be soldiers and citizens standing on ramparts or swarming across the stage, bellowing like a herd of zombies in a Danny Boyle horror movie. They gathered in the rehearsal room at the crack of dawn eagerly brandishing their notebooks, preparing to lay down their weekend for us all. But, Jesus God, this was a hard day.

Over the ensuing ten hours, Trevor stood before us all like Wellington at Waterloo, carefully placing his troops in meticulously plotted detail, a gruelling, exhausting campaign that had supernumeraries, stage management and actors wilting into their smartphones by close of business. Through it all, Trevor stood sentinel, energy and inventiveness never flagging for an instant, twinkling charm & good humour on legs, bustling round the rehearsal room, enthused and enthusing for ten hours solid. He is 75 years old. Extraordinary. The man’s a theatre machine.


Trevor Nunn

His involvement with these plays is so complete, he is so alive and responsive to every line of text, his command of every nuance and dramatic inflection so awesomely assured, that the only explanation has to be that he spends every waking moment plotting, shaping, revising, tweaking, eating and shitting this damn stuff. Imogen Daines, our Joan of Arc and Lady Anne, happened to stumble across him during a lunch break splayed on his hands and knees, plotting a number of scenes on a piece of A4 paper, in the middle of the council estate playground a block away from the rehearsal rooms. As Imogen passed, he glanced up, smiled and said sweetly: “It’s the only place I can get any peace and quiet!”

One day, a young child from that estate will come across a fragment of Trevor Nunn’s indecipherable chalk jottings beside a municipal see-saw, and be inspired to follow a career on the British stage. Bringing theatre to the streets! Man the barricades.

Talking of which, Trevor told us a delightful anecdote about Judi Dench. When she was starring as the Countess Roussilon in Alls Well That Ends Well with the RSC in the West End a few years ago, she managed to do her opening scene, then sling on an overcoat, rush round the corner to Les Miserables at the Queens, sneak in through the back door, and appear as Madame Le Farge alongside the flag-waving chorus singing along at the back. After which, she would scurry back to the Gielgud to finish off her Countess. And here’s the proof!


Go Judi!

See more wonderful photos here.

Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject of grandes dames of British theatre going undercover, following a staff shortage, Joely’s mum has offered to help out as a dresser on Wars of the Roses.* I understand the Rose management are looking over her CV. Will keep you posted.

* This is not a joke.

Wars of the Roses: Lost on the M40

  

 

What follows is a dramatisation (very) loosely based on real events during rehearsals by members of the Wars of the Roses company for the play, Edward IV, on Friday afternoon, 21st August, 2015.

King Henry & court have removed themselves north following an uprising in Kent led by Jack Cade. At the start of the scene, the devastatingly handsome Earl of Somerset bitterly informs the King and Queen of the loss of most of the French territories. However, the scene is interrupted by Clifford & son who have galloped hot-foot from the capital to notify His Majesty that the rebels have been apprehended and their insurrection put down.

… (Enter OLD CLIFFORD and YOUNG CLIFFORD)

OLD CLIFFORD  Health and glad tidings to your majesty.

KING  What news, my lords? Is Cade discomfited?

OLD CLIFFORD  Ay, he is fled, and all his powers do yield: and humbly with their halters on their necks expect your highness’ doom, of life or – actually Trevor, can I just ask, these rebels, are they with us, right now? I mean, are they, you know, sitting in a van outside, or something?

TREVOR  (Drily) No, Olly, I think that’s highly unlikely. There’d be rather a lot of them. Are you suggesting you’ve dragged hundreds of prisoners all the way from Southwark?

Laughter

OLD CLIFFORD  Well, I don’t know. Erm, where are we now exactly?

TREVOR  Kenilworth. The King is in Kenilworth Castle. Near Warwick.

YOUNG CLIFFORD  Oh. I thought he was in Killingworth

TREVOR   Killingworth? That’s a town in Tyne & Wear, isn’t it? Why would the King be all the way up there?

KING   Why not? Nothing wrong with Tyneside. Good nightlife.

More laughter

YOUNG CLIFFORD  It’s just it says in the opening scene that the King’s going to Killingworth.

QUEEN  There’s a Killingworth Castle. In Oxfordshire. That’s quite close, isn’t it?

SOMERSET (helpfully) Same motorway, different junction.

TREVOR  Look, I’m sorry, folks, it very clearly states at the top of the scene, Kenilworth.

YOUNG CLIFFORD  Then why in the last scene have I just told everyone that we’re going to Killingworth? Brief away-break?

Pause as Trevor scrutinises script. Then…

TREVOR  (sighs) Look, chaps, I think what we’re dealing with here is a classic Barton-ism. A side-effect of squeezing four plays into three. For our purposes, your journey up North has been diverted to the Midlands. Ok?

QUEEN  What are we doing in Kenilworth anyway?

ALEXANDRA GILBREATH (not in scene, just happens to be watching)  Well, the Castle café does a very good cream tea, as I recall.

Laughter becoming rowdy

TREVOR (patiently, ignoring Alexandra) You’re waiting for news of the defeat of the rebellion, Joely. At Kenilworth Castle. In Warwickshire. Not the Tyne and Wear. So could we now please –

YOUNG CLIFFORD   Hang on, are you saying we’ve come all the way from South London with a bunch of lags via Newcastle-upon-Tyne??  We must be completely knackered.

Laughter getting out of hand

TREVOR  (remarkably patiently) No, Newcastle doesn’t come into it, Larry. You never go near a Geordie the entire play. Focus exclusively on Kenilworth, please. In Warwickshire.

SOMERSET (unhelpfully) So we could all pop up the road to Stratford, I suppose. Take in a play? Guided tour?

TREVOR  (commendably patiently) Can we just content ourselves with the Cliffords leaving their prisoners back in London and crack on with the rest of the scene? So, Olly and Larry, from your entrance please…

[Cast adopt aristocratic stance/clear throats/resume scene]

…Enter OLD CLIFFORD and YOUNG CLIFFORD.

OLD CLIFFORD  Health and glad tidings to your majesty.

KING  What news, my lords? Is Cade discomfited?

OLD CLIFFORD  Ay, he is fled, and all his powers do yield: and humbly with their halters on their necks expect your highness’ doom, of life or – sorry Trevor, whereabouts in London exactly?

TREVOR  (patience of a saint) Tower of London? London Bridge? London effing Eye? Supremely unconcerned, Olly, to be honest. I merely long to watch the scene.

EXETER  (suddenly chipping in) Let’s not forget that York’s just come over from Ireland. 

Startled, cast turn round, look at Exeter.

QUEEN  Afternoon Geoff. Aren’t you supposed to be in Brittany?

EXETER  No no, I pop over there in a couple of scenes. Still with you for now, Joely.

YOUNG CLIFFORD  Good point about York, Geoff. Where would he be right now? 

EXETER  Angelsey. Ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, I would have thought. (Winks).

SOMERSET  And Warwick’s gone to meet him, hasn’t he?

EXETER  Yes, I’m about to make my entrance and inform you all of that.

SOMERSET  Right. Sorry Geoff, who are you at the moment?

EXETER  (checking script) Erm, Duke of Exeter. You?

SOMERSET  (also checking script) Earl of Somerset. I think. Although I’m about to be someone else fairly soon.

EXETER  Yup, me too. Gotta keep your wits about you in this thing, haven’t you?

Laughs

OLD CLIFFORD  So, just to be clear, the Cliffords are visiting Lancaster, Somerset and Exeter in Warwick, and Warwick’s meeting York in Wales.

QUEEN  Correct.

OLD CLIFFORD  Christ, the tailbacks must be horrendous.

KING  Yup, like a Bank Holiday weekend when it’s pissing down.

Cast collectively hold sides, guffaw. Not big, not clever. 

Eventually …

YOUNG CLIFFORD  Erm, where’s Trevor? Anyone see him go?

  

With special thanks to GoogleMaps.

Wars of the Roses: Crash course history lesson

So, the Wars of the Roses: an interminable generational feud that leads to the collapse of government, the slaughter of innocents, bloodthirsty warlords, foreign intervention, an extremist insurrection and mass beheadings. I blame Tony Blair.

How the hell did we get here? Well, like most problems in life, it all starts with 

  

William the Conqueror (French-ish) invades in 1066 after a punch-up outside a pub in Hastings, giving a bloke called Harold one in the eye. 

  
Blinding shot

His sons, William Rufus & Henry, then rule one after the other, until 1135 Henry’s daughter, Matilda, ascends the throne. However, the nobles detest the idea of being ruled by a Roald Dahl character, so ask her cousin Stephen to step in. An unseemly tussle ensues until Stephen allows Matilda’s son, Henry II, to have a go. 

So far, so linear.

Because his dad, Geoff, is the Count of Anjou, it is widely accepted that Henry II is the first of the great ‘Angevins’. Remember that all of them up until this point rule a sizeable chunk of France as well as England, but it’s in the twelfth century that the combined territories come to be considered as a full-on, no-messing empire with stoomtroopers & droids & Lords of the Sith & stuff. 

  
The court of Henry II

Crucially, you can also now bring over a donkey duty-free on the ferry from Calais. Good times.

Geoff is also one for wearing a plant (Planta) called ‘broom’ (Latin: ‘Genista’) on his T-shirt. So Henry II unofficially adopts this as his surname: Plantagenet. Pretentious but memorable. It’s a name we’ll be returning to in our great trilogy in Kingston – as is another convention that gets its first outing under Henry II, namely the pain-in-the-arse prelate who thinks he’s God’s gift and who can’t keep his mouth shut. (Oliver Cotton plays the ‘pestiferous, lewd, licentious’ Bishop of Winchester for us.) Henry II eventually has his turbulent priest, Thomas Beckett, silenced by some squaddies in Canterbury Cathedral. But by now, it’s too late: a precedent has been set, and we’ll be putting up with gobby bishops taking potshots at the executive for the next nine hundred years. 

  
Turbulent priest

After Henry II comes his son, Richard the Lionheart, who’s memorable chiefly for being one of the first in a long line of deluded young men to travel to the Middle East to help impose a religion on some poor sods who merely want to get on with their lives. Thankfully, he’s prevented from returning after the authorities take away his passport, leaving his idiot younger brother, John, to balls things up entirely. With pleasing constitutional consequences all round.

  

With Magna Carta, John places himself and England’s future sovereigns within the rule of law. This means that, in theory, English kings & queens can no longer do whatever the hell they like. (In public at least.) 

  

Obviously, this theory will be tested to destruction a number of times – not least by one Richard III, child killer, tyrant, war-pig, car-park. But I run before my horse to market.

Son of John, Henry III, takes over in 1216, but he’s only nine years old, so OFSTED-registered childminders tend to the nation while he plays with his X-box. We have a Magna Carta now, of course, so the thing pretty much runs itself – until Henry grows up and it all starts to go wrong. His voice breaks, he starts spitting and swearing and getting into porn, and before you can say ‘fledgling constitutional monarchy’, he’s shoved the charter down the back of the sofa & started picking fights with his barons again, just like his dad. (Oh, and having a pop at the French, ‘coz that’s what you do when you grow up.) Still, he gives England it’s very first parliament. Which is nice.

Next up, the first of many Edwards. Son of Henry III is Edward I, Hammer of the Scots. A bit of a thug, he wanders up and down the M1 picking on anyone unlucky enough to get in his way. 

  

He first has a go at the Welsh, ultimately stealing all of Wales and stashing it in a couple of suitcases in Westminster Abbey. In the process, he slays the Prince of Wales, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and gives the title to his son, Edward – who is at least a damn sight easier to pronounce. Other notable scraps: he executes Scottish rebel William Wallace (Nicola Sturgeon played by Mel Gibson with a blue face.) And meanwhile, the Irish are having to pay for all this exorbitant fighting. So, a fairly unpleasant period for everyone apart from the English. Thank God someone invented rugby union.

Edward II succeeds Edward I. He is his fourth son, and only succeeds to the throne in 1284 when his elder brother, Alphonso, dies. In spite of the fact that Edward is clearly hopeless at being a King and has a boyfriend called Piers Gaveston, the general public are just relieved at not having someone called Alphonso on the throne, so are happy to put up with their new King’s deficiencies. Ultimately however, their antipathy to someone named after an indigestion remedy becomes even harder to put up with: Gaveston is executed, and the King kidnapped and buggered with a red-hot poker. 

 
Which really does give him heart-burn.

Edward II’s son, called, startlingly, Edward III, succeeds to the throne in 1327 – and this is where it all starts to get pertinent to us & our endeavours in Kingston. (This is also where you need to concentrate because this gets effing complicated from here on in.) Indeed, you could argue that Edward III is the root cause of the unholy car-crash that is the fifteenth century:

a) He starts a war with the French which effectively is still being fought a hundred years later at the start of our Wars of the Roses trilogy. (Hundred Years War.) 

b) He has lots of sons. Look at this. (But not for too long, otherwise your eyes start to bleed.)

  

The eldest of these sons is Edward, the Black Prince. (Not to be confused with the Black Death, another gentleman quite popular at the time). The Black Prince dies young (not of the Black Death but of amoebic dysentery, a different complexion altogether), which means that his son, Edward III’s grandson, Richard II, inherits the crown in 1377. Three other sons of Edward III that survive and have kids are, in order of succession: 

  • Lionel, Duke of Clarence (who has a daughter, Phillipa);
  • John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, yes that’s right, folks, LANCASTER (who has a veritable blizzard of progeny from various wives and mistresses, all of whose offspring go on to populate our production, Lancastrians & Beauforts galore, principal and most important among them being his only surviving son from his first marriage, Henry Bolingbroke);
  • and Edmund Langley, Duke of York, yep you got it, York, once more, folks, with feeling, YORK (who has two sons, Richard of Cambridge & someone else, I forget).

Richard II turns out to be yet another waste of royal space more interested in his wardrobe – and doesn’t have any kids. Foolishly, he nicks all Henry Bolingbroke’s conkers following a playground competition and passes them round his mates. And so in 1399, said Bolingbroke returns in a fury & boots Richard off the throne, claiming the crown by right of (and here, a dangerously modern concept is introduced into proceedings) superior merit. Bolingbroke starts off by merely demanding his conkers back – but ultimately finds kingship to his liking and stays put, putting Richard to death (probably), but allowing him a glorious closing speech by William Shakespeare.

So, as Trevor is very keen to point out to the cast, here is a gigantic fork in the road, one which will have everyone apologising, praying and paying with money, sanity & lives throughout most of the next century. The line of royal succession all the way from 1066 to 1399 has been uninterrupted, father to son or grandson for 333 years. But here, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, the crown is physically wrested from a sitting king and handed on to a junior branch in the bloodline by force of arms. 

Henry Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, and spends the rest of his reign putting out fires & being embarrassed by his delinquent eldest son who spends his time getting wrecked with an obese unemployed painter & decorator on a nearby council estate. So, payback of sorts for the usurper, you might think. However, all comes good when the delinquent glue-sniffer graduates from Hooligan Hal to Henry V: superman, war-machine, Olympic gold-medallist. 

  

Hal starts (continues?) a fight with the French and returns in glory, having breathtakingly won on penalties in extra-time. He then jumps the French Kings’s daughter’s bones, and hey presto, she gives birth to a baby boy. Result. 

So, England victorious, the new Lancastrian line secure, and the French shown who’s boss. Sweet as. And then Henry ruins things by kicking the bucket. 

I feel an opening scene coming on…