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.