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, 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.
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.
And here’s the real thing. In the flesh, as ’twere.
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.
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.
(From left to right: Sue Tracy, Imogen Daines, Alex Gilbreath, Joely Richardson.)