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: Round and round and round we go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

Wheel of Doom # 1 

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

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

Yoga with Ralf Little, Rose Theatre, 2013

Yoga with Ralf Little, Rose Theatre, May 2013

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

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

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

 

Irritating bastards

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

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

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

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

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

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

(*This is all bollocks, obviously.)

Wheel of Doom #2

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

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

image

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

Oh hapless, sweaty, heavily armoured mice.

Wheel of Doom #3

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

  

Crickey, One Direction have let themselves go.

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

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

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

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

One of them might even end up writing a blog.

Wheel of Doom #4

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

Oh contented little mouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, happy mouse brandishing a sword. 

  Old friends

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

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

   Phwoarr of the Roses

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