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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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*
- 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*
- 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