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.