28 February 2010


My blogs, including my first Bard Blog, have been variously criticized for not being blogs at all, far too long (never far too short), and even, for resembling every other blog. So I thought if I featured a short piece of footage of me speaking Shakespeare in my one-man show of 1999, at least it might not be too long and, whatever else it looked like, it wouldn't look like any other blog. I suppose it might risk looking like any other one-man show.  

For good measure the show was called Mr Dickens/Mr Shakespeare (more of Dickens's Doctor Marigold in a fortnight's time, a performance predating Simon Callow's by the way). I had a Volvo hatchback at the time, packed my busts of Dickens and Shakespeare and various small props into Doctor Marigold's trunk, somehow found room for a crewel work screen and a folding chair, and drove alone from London to Edinburgh to launch the show on the Fringe. There is a blog connection, in that my little show was essentially personal, solitary almost, the result of a cottage industry, the speeches selected and learnt under a tree in the garden, rehearsed in the sitting room, the poster designed and sketched on the kitchen table, its sky background a patch of sky photographed one day in London NW6. 

Before you look at part of the result, I am going to risk quoting Kenneth Tynan on a full-scale performance of one of Shakespeare's plays; it says something about the manifold mysteries of speaking the Bard:
The jewel of the evening is Peggy Ashcroft's Portia, a creature of exquisite breeding and uncommon sense. She speaks the poetry with the air of a woman who would never commit the social gaffe of reciting in public, with the result that the lines flow out newly minted, as unstrained as the quality of mercy itself. (Evening Standard, 20 March 1953)

Kathleen, my editor, discovered this extraordinary clip from 1955: Leonard Bernstein demonstrating how the 12-bar blues employs iambic pentameter. He begins with a rhyming couplet from Billie Holiday's 'Fine and Mellow' and ends with the 'Macbeth Blues'.

I finished my show with a song (though not a blues rendition) - Feste's bittersweet, slightly melancholy final song.

21 February 2010


This week, the first of three 'Bard Blogs'. And, after all last Sunday’s talk of England, my inaugural Shakespearean post takes its cue, literally, from a speech I made nearly two years ago on St George's Day:

Madam Mayor, my lords, ladies and gentlemen, such is the honour of being asked to speak at this the final fundraising event of the mayoral year in Reigate and Banstead, on the august occasion of the double celebration of St George's Day and William Shakespeare's birthday, that you will sympathize with me, I am sure, when I tell you I've been rather exercised by the weight of the responsibility – the duty to hit an appropriate tone. In fact, I have gone so far as to take advice. That is to say, I wrote a letter of advice – to myself.

I hope, for your sake, it has proved useful.

I have it about me. (Takes a letter in an envelope out of inside pocket.) I read it through on my way down in the train this evening, having failed to get the Evening Standard. I thought I might do worse than read it to you. A device, you must admit, that will let you in on the act. (Opens the unsealed envelope and reads out the letter.)

Dear Edward,

My first advice about the charity dinner at which you have so recklessly agreed to speak is: check your dinner suit well in advance. It must be five years since you wore it and, although it's been kept in the condition it was in when you last wore it, the same might not be said for you. If it will not do, there are five charity shops to choose from in the High Street that might fit you out, and you could start your preparation for this charity dinner with an act of charity.

I began my researches on your behalf by enquiring of Google – a lot depends on how you phrase your enquiries to Google – I tried 'Shakespeare and Reigate and Banstead' and there was some confusion while Google tried to match the Bard with a comic double act. There seem to be several Shakespeare Industrial Estates (one near Epsom Downs), and I was furnished with a J. B. Shakespeare, a family business in Croydon – Undertakers and Monumental Masons.

But the human brain itself is an awesome Internet and its speed and breadth of thought rival cyberspace. For example, the phrase 'monumental masons' put me in mind (to use a psychological term) of the 16th-17th-century monumental mason Geerhart Janssen (though I had to get his name from Google). He was the sculptor responsible for the monumental bust of the Bard in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church. His workshop was in Southwark, near the Globe Theatre. You'll probably go right under the site of it by the Jubilee Line Tube on the night, on your way to catch your train for Redhill at London Bridge.

Imagine: Geerhart must have looked into the face of William Shakespeare, drunk with him at the tavern, watched him act the Ghost in Hamlet or the little part of old Adam in As You Like It. Did he realize how privileged he was? Had he read Socrates' advice to sculptors in Xenophon's Memorabilia to represent 'the workings of the soul' by accurately observing the way 'feelings affect the body in action'?

Think of it! executing the noble art of sculpture and able to take the afternoon off any time to see, a stroll away, a performance in the most profoundly exciting theatre in the world since the palmy days of Athens and Epidaurus.

I'm afraid it did Geerhart Janssen no good. The bust he created for Shakespeare's monument in the Bard's own parish church gets no nearer to a living portrait of the great dramatist, supporting actor and our nation's pride, than your Jubilee Line Tube train will get, however near it zooms to the foundations of the vanished workshop in Southwark where it was made.

Might I suggest that you tie this thought up with 'thought' – not the speed or breadth of thought necessarily; rather the portrayal, the expression of it – as Socrates advised – represent the workings of the soul by accurately observing the way feelings affect the body in action.

That bust at Stratford, you will remember, is looking dead straight ahead, but you could tell your distinguished assembly about the movement guru who taught you at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s, and how he confounded a class by saying, in his Swedish accent, 'Just remember; thought is expressed diagonally.' And then you can pause in your speech, looking dead straight ahead, and you will immediately look as if you’ve dried and it will make them nervous. Then do another pause – tilting your head onto a diagonal – or two or three – and immediately you will appear to be thinking. This will have a reassuring effect. It might almost carry an air of profundity, even inspiration; the point being that a similar tilt would certainly have improved the bust of the Bard at Holy Trinity Church. He'd have looked as if he'd just thought of something, instead of being sculpted into a state of writer's block for nearly four hundred years.

I don't suppose you'll want your speech to be too locked into the historical. The title of the influential book on the interpretation of the plays in your time has been Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott, but I blush to remember it was first published as far back as 1961. It influenced Peter Hall.

Google presented me with the website of Hall's new Rose Theatre at Kingston, where I read of the building: 'Unlike the Globe, it eschews twee traditionalism [!] in favour of clean and unpretentious modern design.' That's an example of denigrating the competition worthy of a US presidential campaign.

I also read: 'There are cushions on the floor right at the foot of the stage which create a noisy informality.' They stage the classics, of course, but there’s a reference to evenings of 'stand-up comedy'. So we're back to our old friends Reigate and Banstead and you, standing up, freshly dinner-jacketed and, hopefully, setting the tables on a roar.


That's part of my letter of May 2008, but I can bring this blog more or less up to date by referring to a phone conversation I had last Sunday, the 14th February (though I am tempted to break off and try on that charity-shop dinner suit I wore at the St George's Day dinner, to see if my waist is a little slimmer). My friend Caroline Blakiston, celebrating a senior birthday, had been to the aforementioned Rose Theatre at Kingston the previous afternoon to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in which her friend Rachael Stirling, being tall, was playing Helena, and Dame Judi Dench, being ... Dame Judi Dench, was playing Queen Elizabeth I playing the Queen of the Fairies, Titania.

Rachael Stirling, Caro said, brought a delicate, almost ethereal fragility to Helena; and it was a pleasure to hear Judi doing Titania's long speeches, playing being in love better than she'd seen anybody play being in love on the stage. The ass's head is borrowed from Glyndebourne Opera and Caro said it is a head easy to be in love with. In the dressing room afterwards Judi said that her favourite, much-loved cat had fur like the ass's head, so she just thought of her adorable cat.

Production Photograph by Nobby Clark

That reminds me of another cat that assisted in the portrayal of a Shakespearean woman in love. Olivier writes of it in an essay on his production of Antony and Cleopatra in which he and Vivien Leigh played the name parts:
She followed her instincts like a cat, and a cat's instincts are as easy to observe in life as Cleopatra's are in the play – but what of her premeditations, her calculations? I remember a cat once, when I was small, that ran up a tree in order to avoid my too boring attentions. I followed it up the tree and when for a second it seemed that I would achieve my purpose of catching her, she started to purr and rub herself against my outstretched hand in order to give me false confidence. I put my hand back on the branch to steady myself for a second, and the cat was down the tree and across the field before I knew what was happening.

This kind of cunning is patent in much of Cleopatra, in her buoyant variations of opposites according to Anthony's moods, in varying degrees of subtlety and obviousness throughout the tragedy, and most blatantly in her pretended death; but on the whole it is the enigma that tells, the enigma that holds us.
 Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Leigh played Shaw's Cleopatra and the Bard's, of course. She once said: 'Shaw is like a train. One just speaks the words and sits in one's place. But Shakespeare is like bathing in the sea – one swims where one wants.' (Quoted in a letter from Harold Nicholson to Vita Sackville-West, 1 February 1956.)

Did Will, walking on Bankside, put his arm round a boy actor's shoulder and tell him stories of cats? Or did he explain how his lines were meant to be spoken?

Rachel Stirling had some sessions with Peter Hall on the text, after which she felt at last she knew how Shakespeare should be spoken.

Caroline and the friend she went with remarked to each other at the end of last Saturday's matinee that they felt the same satisfaction as one experiences after hearing a good concert.

Perhaps musicianship and animal instinct are prerequisites for acting in Shakespeare.


There was nothing 'twee' about the Globe when I saw Richard Olivier's production of Henry V in 1997. The company may have been seeking modern resonances in visiting and even rehearsing on the RAF airfields from which 'The Few' flew in the Battle of Britain, but on the rainy matinee I saw, a more immediate, if historic, effect was the rain running directly off the thatch onto the necks of the groundlings who had 'prime' front-row positions with their elbows on the very stage, the gutter and drainpipe not having been invented in Shakespeare's England.

The purists have been defeated and gutters installed, and who knows if a Wimbledon-type rain roof may follow, but from my seat undercover in the second balcony round the side, the management of rainwear and even umbrellas was part of the show, and the age-old jokes by the French about the English weather can seldom have gone better since a wet afternoon in the Golden Age. There were cessations in the rain. It surprised me that there are no battle scenes at all; three comics take a Frenchman prisoner, as I remember, and yet one believed in Agincourt, merely on the strength of a beaten drum sounding from somewhere behind a door or curtain.

When Mark Rylance prayed quietly and alone on the eve of battle he had walked to the very front of the platform and knelt with his head bowed and his fingertips placed at the top of his forehead. The lady in the trendy mustard-coloured rain cape, the couple who had been crouching under a broken umbrella so as not to block anyone's view, in fact a small detachment of groundlings stirred themselves and, unobtrusively, stepped back from the centre of the platform to give due reverence and room to the King. Miraculously, I, leaning over the balcony, and slightly behind Mark, heard every word of 'O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts!'


A New Slant on the Bard
This picture enhances my blog
It features a bust and our dog
Both part of the family 
And thinking diagonally
Aren't you all slightly agog?

The bust I 'rescued' from a market, and repaired its chipped nose with polyfiller. After scrubbing the grime and moss off it, and daring to use sandpaper, I took it on tour. It got smashed during a show on the Edinburgh Fringe and I had to pass the mishap off as part of the performance by making a quip about breaking the mould. It is still in need of loving attention, as you can see, though the old stager managed the next and subsequent performances in various cities and towns, including Stratford-upon-Avon at the Other Place.

Although his hollow head has not a thought in it and he is a replica (1886 is the date on the back), he has his very own pensive smile of experience and a superior expression, I think, to the priceless bust in Holy Trinity.

Bean understands  a few words but cannot think in them. In fact, my son Arthur and I found it rather a hilarious challenge when we attempted once to envisage how she does think – since we both tried and couldn't manage without words.

14 February 2010


This week I want to take you to a very precise and, at the moment, highly sought-after spot in London, surrounded by pink plasterwork inside a building that seems to be posing as a cake, iced ambitiously by a master confectioner with theatrical aspirations. I had managed to procure H20, the end seat on the left facing the stage, halfway back in the stalls of the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The theatre holds just under 800 people, some of them in the third tier above us, reputed to be the steepest gallery in the West End, and that's saying something.

The elderly lady next to me was reading the programme note, an excerpt from the book Real England: The Battle Against the Bland by Paul Kingsnorth. A girl dressed as a fairy with wings walked onto the stage before the front cloth and began to sing the hymn 'Jerusalem' in an artless voice. My neighbour in Row H put her programme in her bag and closed the substantial zip, with no concession to the delicacy of the moment, and checked the time on her wristwatch.

The last time I saw a fairy open a show was at my first pantomime in 1943 and I couldn't understand then why all the other children seemed to be chattering as the glittering spotlit lady in ballet shoes addressed us in rhyming couplets underscored by the tremolo of the violins. Why weren't they listening? What could they have to talk about? Clearly, some of them have grown up to own zip handbags and watches.

When the opulent curtain of the Bradford Alhambra rose in the severe winter of 1943/4, it revealed the quintessential first scene of the English pantomime, the ladies of the chorus, some showing a lot of leg as 'boys', dancing on the village green. I can see it now from my vantage point in the steep gallery: Olde England, Merrie England, epitomized by the painted thatched rural village and the chorus girls ring-o'roses choreography, which might have struck me as a touch perfunctory even at that tender age.

When Ultz's (the designer's) front cloth, emblazoned with the cross of St George, rose on Friday night at the Apollo, it was on a rural English night scene of a real caravan amongst very realistic trees, seen in strobe lighting, with a rave-up in progress to the accompaniment of what, in my innocence, I would describe as hard rock at a volume you could feel in your breast bone. Next, in daylight, Mark Rylance started his 'morning after' by executing a handstand on the sides of a water trough, the better to give his head a reviving dunk, and breaking an egg into a beaker of milk; that, and a freshly rolled joint, was his breakfast. I forget precisely the first words he spoke, but they presumably do not feature in English pantomimes.

Production shot from the play's website:

Now I take us back to 1983 and another precise spot in London, reputed to be below sea level, a small concrete-walled rehearsal room in the bowels of the Barbican. The RSC is rehearsing Peter Pan there, with Mark as Peter. I am playing the Storyteller, J. M. Barrie really, a part cobbled together from the storybook version and the witty stage directions included in the published version of the play to make it come alive for readers. It is that in-between time when every single prop and stick of furniture has been taken out of the room. The stage is being prepared for the technical rehearsals and there is nowhere for the actors to be, except that John Caird, who is directing the revival, suggests that we should do a last rehearsal on our own - without him or stage management, or beds in the nursery, Tinkerbell's firefly, a crocodile skin, or even the most basic props of rehearsal, simply under the stare of the fluorescent lighting in the bare room.

We all watched one another and a better performance of Peter Pan I cannot imagine; Peter and the children flew without their feet ever leaving the ground, and Never Never Land in all its colour was there in that grim basement.

We had one more rehearsal in that room, a speed run - a favourite with some directors - when the play is rushed through at breakneck pace, but, in this case, in the second act, everyone had to do the lines, still at top speed, in a different characterization whenever a whistle blew. Mark was consummate at this exercise and when I ask myself if the perfect Peter Pan or the exquisite Richard II can possibly have had anywhere in them the seeds of his drug-dealing 'gypo', Rooster Byron, in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, I answer no; but he was there in embryo several times at that crazy speed run.

After the interval the lady with the zip bag had gone. By then I had bought my own programme and noted the pretty drawings of hyacinthoides and Allium next to the paragraph from Kingsnorth's book. There were no illustrations of cannabis or coca leaves. The programme note I've referred to described the English as being 'strangely quiet about their deep past.' Did I catch the elegant, eloquent Mark saying in a TV interview that they had found Kingsnorth's book very helpful, and also that Rooster is not a particularly destructive influence on the young people who visit him in his Dionysian domain?

I have booked a box for three so that my wife, younger son and his girlfriend can see this play, wonderfully acted by everyone, compulsory viewing for anyone not too attached to zips and the time. But I thank God that my nearest and dearest haven't yet escaped the blandness of modern English life by befriending a real-life Rooster, unless, of course, they are being strangely quiet about their deep present!

07 February 2010


'They' would rather I did not divulge any news of the part I have landed until the project has been officially launched. However, having, since the launch of my Weekly Post, promised a glimpse of my painting in progress, 'Sophie and the Unicorn', I thought it fitting this Sunday to compose two blogs, a double bill, as it were; the second offers a sneak preview of a little anthology I'm preparing to commemorate our production of Artist Descending a Staircase, including two details of the painting at different stages in its development.

Two rare events for me this week involved commerce and art. I was engaged to do a commercial voice-over (a corporate in-house job, so you won't hear it) and found myself walking to a studio through Soho just after nine on Thursday morning. At that time the Windmill Theatre, now a table-dancing club, is firmly closed - and somehow forlorn, as are the 'specialist' bookshops and the locked doorways whose stairwells are not yet revealing their handwritten 'Model 3rd Floor' notices. Fresh and Wild is showing signs of life, but that is a classy organic food emporium, and there is a heavily railinged Victorian elementary school nearby, always thronged by inner-city children when I used to pass it on my way to perform matinees of The Woman in White at the Palace.

There is any number of casting suites, not with couches, but lines of plastic chairs where actors, more distinguished than you might think, sit and wait their turn to be filmed going through their paces with freshly learnt 'sides' in small white rooms, return home and, as like as not, hear no more.

The 'real' world is further represented by a small builders' merchant with a window display of brass door fittings and tools.

My younger son held down a demanding and stimulating job for a year at a voice-over agency on an airy top floor within sight of the tops of the plane trees in Soho Square. One day, out of the windows, he saw some tree surgeons amongst the foliage in St Anne's churchyard. That changed everything and today he is out, felling a sick tree in Islington, and will soon be starting a course in arboreal craftsmanship.

Voice-over studios are swish places; their foyers have deep leather sofas or Bauhaus stainless-steel chairs, chic framed posters, selections of the day's papers, coffee, croissants, muesli and fresh fruit. The voice booths are equipped with bottled water, tissues, smart containers sprouting sharpened pencils, and a microphone sensitive to the most intimate nuance. Through the glass is a highly practised technician on an awesome sound deck and up to three or four people to monitor the choices of interpretation one offers. The high-tech equipment will pick up the slightest hint of insincerity or phoniness in one's rendering of, perhaps, less than a dozen words, and it occurred to me that, proportionately, I could have done with the same amount of rehearsal of my lines in Stoppard's sparkling script of Artist Descending as I got the other morning for the voice-over.

My wife Emily tells me that when she was in Charley's Aunt with Tom Courtenay at the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue in the early 70s, she didn't appear until the second act, so on Wednesday nights used to go and spend an hour in an adult lace-making class at the elementary school round the corner.

I recorded my voice-over by 9.50 (having started at 9.30), strolled to Piccadilly and, by five past ten, was entering the forecourt of the Royal Academy. Inside, the Van Gogh exhibition was already crowded.  I found his early drawings of peasants, when he was teaching himself to draw, very impressive and skilful, and earthy as he wanted them to be. His mature paintings have an increasing sense of movement and rhythm in the way that he applies the paint like so many waves.I bought Emile Zola's novel The Masterpiece to read and the Tube journey home flew by.

Went out in the evening to catch the Tube again, being careful to take Zola in the pocket of my best overcoat which I can't have worn for ten years. I had been invited to attend a reception in the Peers' Dining Room at the House of Lords: this was the Liberal Democrats embracing the Arts. It turned out that the candidate for my district had put me on a list, hence the gilt-edged invitation, leading inevitably to having one's underpants checked for explosives after a long wait in the cold. Politics apart, I wanted to see the Peers' Dining Room.

Nick Clegg spoke and quoted from Maynard Keynes's description of the purpose of the Arts Council: 'The artist and the public can each sustain and live on the other in that union which has occasionally existed in the past in the great ages of a communal civilized life.' Only occasionally: Van Gogh hardly sold a painting in his lifetime.

The last time but one I was at the Royal Academy it was to see the Anish Kapoor exhibition with its tons of red wax, some of it shot from a cannon, and baked concrete. I was impressed by how much the brochure offered by way of elucidation, even quoting the artist, although he, at one point, says, 'I have nothing to say about art.'

I wrote a verse about the experience:

The Richer for Kapoor?
(With thanks to the RA's explanatory brochure)

Tautologically speaking, deliberately mincing my words,
A scatologist's 'stuffness' obsession displays an abundance of turds
'The resulting objects challenge traditional notions of form'
So states the loquacious gloss brochure,
Devoured by the patrons who swarm
Round the rooms of the Royal Academy
A sell out in more ways than one
To see this cement in abundance
This 'hyper-material' dung
A computer-controlled 3D printer
'Excreted' these 'preordained' forms
Well, if nature abhors a vacuum
Art must, perforce, abhor norms.
Impossible, now, the satirical
In the face of empirical facts
The critics have mostly waxed lyrical
Canonized the tons of red wax.
I crept round the piled ammunition
Curious to take a quick look
At the boy who had just 'pulled the trigger'
He was sitting there, reading a book ...


A Liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people.
(Nick Clegg MP in 'The Power of Creativity')


Donner's Painting

The wayward paint and wilful sable brush
find me, unable, undeft, laborious,
not the ideal painter of a fable -

'A naked woman sitting about a garden 
with a unicorn eating the roses.'

Inching, dragging, dabbing, staring,
caring and correcting, and revising
these poses of derivative devising -
how many yestermorns must there have been
since someone painted the first of unicorns.

As I go, so slow, Sophie and her companion
sit and seem to know
how they should look and be; they see,
their perfect likeness; waiting
'till they feel they are acquainted
with what it is I've painted.

Patient, the delicate beast, waits for his floral feast
rises above his Daler Rowney Acrylic
already musing on something - more idyllic
than the daubs and drips of green
surrounding him, knowing what he has seen.

And Sophie, unabashed, waits to be dressed
in perfect nakedness.
Her destiny and destination
closer by each brushstroke's intimation,
strives to catch her breath, its inspiration.