I was just looking back at the blog and realised it’s been a whole year since I last posted… well, it has been a little busy but that’s no excuse! Anyway, when I started this back in 2011 it was intended to be a general blog. Over the last few years it has been taken over (much like the rest of my life) by the making of the “Albion” movies. As we are on the latter stages of post production for “Tales of Albion” now and there is little to write about I can turn my thoughts elsewhere… to theatre (my other great passion).
As many of you know, theatre is a huge part of my life and I have been really lucky to have been involved with some great shows over the years but just recently – in fact in the last month – I have had some of the most intense, exciting times and just wanted to share it a little. It is a story of two contrasting shows, both in content and in process, both of which have left an indelible impression on me.
Firstly, R.C. Sherriff’s “Journey’s End”. I first saw this show when I was just 11 years old. We performed it for 3 nights at my school and I was providing the sound effects. As this was in the dark Ages, long before easy use of recorded sound we used to roll shot-putts along overhead wooden walkways to simulate the rumble of the distant guns etc. So for 3 nights I watched from above as the drama unfolded below and was totally transported. The show literally changed my life as I was caught up in the tragic story of young Raleigh and my view of just what warfare actually meant was transformed. For years afterwards I wanted to be involved in the show in some way – initially as an actor (first Raleigh, then Stanhope, latterly perhaps Osbourne) but then more strongly came the urge to direct it. I had a couple of attempts over the years but the rights were not available until finally, this year, they came free and we added the show to the 2016 programme at the Archway Theatre.
The first thrill came at the audition when literally every person that walked through the door was ideal for particular roles in the play. In fact, I was so spoilt for choice that I had to turn away a couple of actors that at any other time I would have been delighted to have cast in any show. I ended up with a pitch perfect cast, all the correct ages (or at least, correct playing ages, unlike other productions I have seen) and all first rate performers. The rehearsal period itself was a delight – everyone very quickly became wrapped up in the tone of the show and were obviously really invested in getting it right, and in paying homage to that generation who had suffered so much to preserve everything we hold dear. What was unexpected was just how much we laughed during the rehearsals… I suppose this was a response to the intensity of the emotions in the play and it certainly helped to bond the cast unlike many I have known. The set builders also seemed to get caught up in this atmosphere and also went that extra mile in making the set one of the most exciting and immersive spaces I have ever designed. Certainly the actors took to it straight away, the low ceiling by the entrance helping with the claustrophobic atmosphere in the dug-out.
One subtle, personal touch that no-one would have know about, Ben (playing Stanhope) wore my grandfather’s military watch and had his trench lighter in his pocket – both items had been in the Great War for real and this was my homage to him.
We opened the play on the 29th March (the day that would have been my father’s 95th birthday) to initially slightly disappointing houses but as the run went on we filled the auditorium and in the end played to 86% capacity. I would have liked more people to have seen it – not sure why they felt the need to stay away… perhaps they thought it would be a depressing play, rather than a moving and at times very funny one. It was certainly hard to promote.
Still, when it all was over, it felt like I had fulfilled a lifelong dream and we had put on the best possible version of the play that we could. From the responses we got back from the audience, I think the show touched more than a few in much the same way it did the 11 year old me, all those years ago. I hope so.
In contrast, on 23rd April, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death I put together a show I christened “Daydream” to commemorate the occasion. The plan – to rehearse and perform ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in just one day! I asked for volunteers to join me and 14 actors (originally 15 but we lost one a few days before the event, meaning a little frantic juggling of roles) stepped up to the challenge. I worked out casting and let them know who they were playing 5 days in advance, just in case anyone wanted to do a little prep and also decided on the design ethic – a Steampunk vibe – so that if anyone had any costume bits they could bring them along. At 9.30 on Saturday morning we all met in the Studio to begin the adventure…
After a quick chat and a coffee we got straight on with setting the show. Usually when I rehearse a play, I like to work slowly into it, not prescribing moves etc but letting it all develop organically, guiding and moulding the show as we go but there was no such luxury here. We needed to very quickly set moves and tone. It helped that this was the 3rd time I had directed the show, as well as having appeared in a 4th, so I am very familiar with it. I had encouraged the actors to adopt a ‘larger than life’ approach to the material as I felt an exaggerated performance style would suit the occasion and help cover any (inevitable) rough edges. I also encouraged them not to try and hide the fact that they had scripts in their hands but rather to use this as a part of the comedy. By 12.30 we had reached the interval so we broke for half an hour for lunch then pressed on. By 2.30 we had plotted the whole show and it was already looking very funny. We then gave ourselves 90 minutes to sort out costumes and props before starting a dress rehearsal at 4pm. This also gave me a chance to practice the lights and sound (I had prepared the sound cues in advance). We finished at 6.30 and quickly set out the chairs and table for the audience – who started showing up at 6.45, even though the doors were not due to open until 7!
We had sold 50 tickets online in advance but I had several people approach me that morning asking if I could get them in and as I had not yet bought the food for the buffet we managed to add another 12 to that number so we were VERY full!
At 7.45, the lights dimmed and the show began…
…suffice to say it went down a storm. The actors rose magnificently to the occasion, the performances were funny, emotional, committed – and when the inevitable small mistakes happened they carried them off with such aplomb that it almost made the show even better for it… even when one actor made a late entrance half dressed as they had got one scene ahead of themselves and was changing costume!
The buzz in the bar after the show was electric and everyone agreed it was the perfect way to celebrate the life of Shakespeare on that very special day.
So, 2 plays – 2 very different experiences. One was 44 years in the making, the other basically 13 hours start to finish! Both were hugely rewarding and will live long in my memory and in my heart.
And now? Well, the next day we started rehearsing “The Tempest” that I am directing to be performed in the open air this July… it has a lot to live up to but judging by Sunday’s read through, it stands a pretty good chance!