31 May 2010


There has been an unexpected coda to the Picasso owl episode which you may remember from last week's blog. It was played out this Saturday night in my dressing room after The Fantasticks. As I opened a card from my old Actors' Company colleague Sheila Reid, I was faced with this remarkable real-life version of Picasso's painted terra cotta -- a complete chance -- Sheila, as far as I know, is not a follower of my blog:

Before Sheila went into the night to her after-show supper, and I to mine, she expressed the hope that nothing would happen to compromise the lightness and delicacy of the way we did the show. Perhaps it is a good sign that the delight of the production appears a little fragile.

I have known Sheila since 1964 when we met in a tiny ante-room in the temporary headquarters of the National Theatre, the long-vanished ex-Coal Board's 'suite' of offices (all ante-rooms) housed in a hut situated in a yard off Aquinas Street, near Waterloo Station. We were both auditioning (successfully as it happened) to join Olivier's NT at the Old Vic. Latterly she has become famous for her Madge Barron in the television series Benidorm, but I will take this as my cue to show her in a different light from the sun-drenched, sun-creamed vision scheduled yet again for the autumn and beyond on ITV. This earlier rare glimpse of Sheila is from David Munro's 1975 film version of my stage revue of R. D. Laing's Knots, bits of which already appear on my website and YouTube channel (see Clip 1 and Clip 2). Incidentally, for me, the film, because of its radical adaptation, failed to capture the essence of the show. Sheila is preceded here by Mark McManus who performs one of Laing's more nihilistic knots:

On a prowl round the shops in the area surrounding the Duchess Theatre last week, I came across a large and splendid framed photograph of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, circa 1899, on sale in the window of Pleasures of Past Times in Cecil Court for £495. By the time I had returned from delivering a first-night card to Olivia Darnley for All My Sons at the Apollo, it had already gone!

I am fascinated that the Divine Sarah's Hamlet played Stratford-upon-Avon, amongst other dates on her extensive tour, but I had no desire to possess the portrait. Tonight I have settled for seeing on YouTube her duel scene with Laertes in a snatch of film shot in 1900 for the Paris Exposition: Le Duel d'Hamlet. In this excerpt Sarah's Hamlet omits to kill Claudius, the Queen is nowhere in evidence and the two duelists do not exchange forgiveness -- and, unlike my Old Actor in The Fantasticks, does not get to say 'And flights of angels sing thee to they rest'. It is a ludicrously worthless record. In the available recordings of her voice coming to us in, I am ashamed to say, to me inexplicable French, we hear the all-too-familiar nineteenth-century chanted utterance with liberal vibrato, as in the English use of the same style in Ellen Terry's recordings. We can only believe that Bernard Shaw and the public at large were right to be in love with Terry's talent, and that it is time, not talent, that is at fault when we cringe at the recorded evidence of these great stars.

My own 'period' acting style as employed in the histrionic efforts of the Henry in The Fantasticks, who remembers former glory but very few lines, does not, I passionately hope, strike anybody as such a dead cliche -- but then, as Sheila feared, the delicate and light quality in the theatre is, of its nature, perilously evanescent.

Sheila and I both remember with awe our first NT rehearsals when Olivier was creating his Othello before our very eyes in the Aquinas Street rehearsal room. I still recall, after I had left my small parts in the production, standing at the back of the Vic's dress circle to see it. His was an extraordinarily consistent performance with which I was intimately familiar, and yet I further recall the hairs on the back of my neck rising on three occasions!

Olivier was a consummate, magical film actor but I heard at the time his Othello was being filmed that he knew he wasn't finding the trick of adapting his stage performance for the camera, and indeed he didn't; perhaps it is the film version that Richard Eyre is criticizing when he says Olivier's Othello is 'ludicrous'. I suppose that even when we did a special Equity matinee and the whole audience seemed to rise to its feet, there might have been dissenters.

I close simply with R. D. Laing's words, from Sheila's song, set to music by Martin Duncan:
Yes, there are moments, sometimes there is magic ...

23 May 2010


London, Saturday, 25th October 2008
I was abroad, filming my part in Pope Joan, the legend of the woman who lived in disguise and became the Supreme Pontiff in the ninth century. Last Saturday I woke at the Park Hotel in the small Rhineland town of Euskirchen, which I had christened 'Munch Binding',  Euskirchen meaning 'the church in the marsh' – hence Munch-Binding-en-das-Marsh. (This private play on words will only be explicable to those who remember the classic BBC Home Service comedy show which ran from 1944 to 1954). My first action, without getting out of bed, was to play God, letting in the new day by activating the electric curtains which spanned the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows: 'Let there be light, and there was light.' Despite the glare through the net curtains, which mercifully blurred the view of the train station opposite and its adjacent McDonald's, I could still 'see' (and can at this moment) the owl that had visited my pre-waking dream: it was a night owl, of course, but pale pink in colour and perched on a low wall, looking out of place in the dream’s daytime urban setting. As a man attempted to get hold of it, the owl took flight and came to rest on the top ledge of a two-storey building but, startled again, spread its wings and, in the same movement, metamorphosed into a rearing ram with horns. It was then that I woke.

By 11 a.m. I was speeding to Cologne, driven by the tallest of the film unit's drivers, who must have been 7ft (though his name was Smike). I was being given a perk on a day off by Constantin Film; Smike took me to the Museum Ludwig, part of the postwar reconstruction of the area surrounding Cologne Cathedral. The Cathedral, which remained standing throughout the Allied bombing of the city, is still a dark Gothic presence with its patina of grime, apparently unchanged since the black-and-white photographs of that appalling time.

On the journey, Smike had told me about his upbringing in East Germany, how the only imported fruit was oranges from Cuba that used to remain unsold and shriveling in the shop windows, because they were poor, unjuicy specimens. There were two realities, home life and the life outside. He remembered in the conversations his parents had in company the moments at which his father would say to him, 'Don’t mention that outside.' After the wall came down, Smike said, there was a cartoon of East Germans eagerly eating bananas, like monkeys, and indeed he himself recalled the delightful novelty of the fruit. I asked him what other changes he remembered. 'We learnt how to use our elbows', he said succinctly. 

In the modern magnificence of the Ludwig’s white galleries, I went in search of the Picassos, kept very happy the while by the haunting subtleties of Kokoschka, Chagall, Emile Nolde, and August Macke. Upon finding the Picasso rooms, I was admiring the way he could lurch between exquisitely drawn ‘naturalism’ and the outlandish and wayward, marvellng at the ‘crudely’ painted figures, distorted creatures aggressively executed, asymmetrical, obscenely bulbous or with the exotic angularity inspired by African masks, when I saw it ... an owl. It was carved I thought in wood, or it might have been ceramic, painted white with black markings, though its base was pinkish; yes it was terra cotta. Its wings were spread, it was no more than a foot in height and placed under a Perspex case on a plinth. 

I said to myself, 'The next thing I see will be a sheep.' Barely altering the angle of my gaze, I looked beyond the Perspex box to a print on the wall eight feet away, one of a series of four (from his Suite Vollard); unerringly I approached it and found it was a group of figures – classic, contemplative yet Dionysian. One of the figures was a man with his right hand raised pensively to his chin, and then I realized his horned head was that of a ram.

What sense could I make of the fact that my dream had been prophetic? None at all. Is the owl a symbol of wisdom? Is it simply a bird of prey; why did my dream show it in a city in daylight? And the metamorphosis; why a ram, fertility symbol or sacrificial animal? The half-man development was a shock; what were the odds against my confronting, within a couple of hours, the very images of my waking dream? Even the direction from which I came upon the owl dictated that the next thing I should see would be the ram's head.

Did an East Berliner dream of a wall being torn down, lines of people eating bananas, and using their elbows whilst repeating, outside, things they'd heard at home? Before its realization, a dream as surreal, perhaps, as one of Picasso’s wayward distortions; as unimaginable as a hotel room with electrically operated curtains; as inconceivable as a female Pope.

London, Sunday, 23rd May 2010
Today, on the eve of the opening of The Fantasticks in the West End, I have been confronted by another Picasso owl. You’ll see we are both referred to, the owl and I, on the first page of The Sunday Times Culture supplement. Fantastic!

Click to enlarge

In her blog, Cocktails and Feminism, Ruth Johnston is quite right to point out that I'm the last person in the world to know who Cheryl Cole is, even though we are both featured in today's Sunday Times. But then Ms Cole, I'm sure, hasn't a clue who I am.

16 May 2010


On the way home from The Fantasticks rehearsal room today, having said a temporary goodbye to our platform stage which has by now gone ahead of us into the Duchess Theatre where we will tread its boards again on Wednesday, I thought back on the journey thus far: the songs getting more tender and limpid at every repetition, Paul Hunter and I in our short comic scenes applying a passionate intensity worthy of tragedy, comedy being a serious business. I bought some Omega 3 capsules, two kinds to cover my needs – one for joint care and the other for 'brain performance and memory'. I suppose I will take them on alternate days. If you see a performance you might be able to guess which pill I have taken. You'd have thought there would be a fish oil to lubricate the voice to complete the pre-performance therapy.

I've heard from a gentleman who tells me he watched my webcam film Sheer Genius, Part One, on his iPhone, whilst standing on a crowded bus going into Belfast. (I'd be interested to hear of any other unusual viewing conditions.) It reminds me that I must make another webcam film soon. I have an idea prompted by BBC Radio's inspiring History of the World in 100 Objects. A modest history mine would be, taken from perhaps a handful of objects in my possession. I have, for instance, one of the coins I tossed at every performance of Stoppard's brilliant stage debut, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead from 1967 to 1970 at the Old Vic.

We went to see Sir Tom's The Real Thing at the Old Vic the other night, I going straight from rehearsal, and by chance met him on our way in as he was skulking by to the stage door. Then it turned out that he crept into the stalls to watch and sat two seats away from us, a little air around him in the otherwise crowded house, his tiny electric torch occasionally and discreetly illuminating his notepad. It was an exciting, deeply satisfying evening. Now I think of it, I am reminded of my days at the Vic from 1964 to 1970, when so much of my time was spent play acting – rehearsing by day and playing or watching by night – but then, as now, there never seemed to be a shortage of 'real life'. Toby Stephens and Hattie Morahan, both children of National Theatre actresses whom I played opposite, were brilliant, demonstrating vividly that blood is thicker than water. 

Toby Stephens and Hattie Morahan, programme image

But to return to Radio 4, you might have heard the news item on the Today programme about the book which asserts that it is practice, as much as aptitude and talent, that is the important thing; practice is what develops the brain (London taxi drivers have a prodigiously developed brain in the area dealing with location). Well, I will keep taking the capsules of course, but practise, practise like mad – we open The Fantasicks on the 24th after all!    


Apropos of last week's post, here is a photograph I took today of what may very well be be the soot-blackened bricks of Henry Irving's burnt scenery storage in Bear Lane, Southwark.

09 May 2010


Now that my Weekly Post is marked in red letters on my home page, I feel abashed not to be launching a new webcam film or at least a weighty and well-considered essay. Still, red-letter days can come in modest garb even though judges and academics traditionally don their scarlet glad rags. You see, my younger son instigated a clear-out and rearrangement of our understairs cupboard two nights ago and I was drawn to help. There is a glory in such unremarkable domestic achievements – the crooked being made straight and the rough places plain; prepare ye the way of the Lord indeed, though it seems a pity to exalt every valley and to see every hill made low, or so I thought looking at the attractive undulating English landscape photograph adorning Ian Bostridge's YouTube feature of the famous aria from Handel's Messiah.

Lurching from George Frideric Handel to Paul McCartney, via the understairs cupboard, you will be ahead of me if last week you heard the red-letter day on which the former Beatle was on Radio 4's Today programme for over eleven minutes, reminiscing about the dear dead simple days when houses had a single telephone under the stairs, 'and if you weren't in you weren't in.' Paradoxically he was promoting his essay published by Ether Books, a new iPhone App that enables you to read short stories on the train without carrying a book – or, in McCartney’s case, an essay entitled 'Meat Free Monday'. 'Not a veggie thing,' he said, telling us that meat production creates a bigger carbon footprint on earth than transport! Most of my immediate family treats every day as meat free, so we are doing our bit in a big way.

As well as the understairs cupboard being put in order, The Fantasticks rehearsals are looking shipshape and we are due to run the whole show this coming Monday afternoon. Our Southwark rehearsal room is not only quite near where William Shakespeare rehearsed, but even nearer Bear Lane where there is still a scenic supply company utilizing a couple of railway viaduct arches under which the actor-manager Sir Henry Irving stored his scenery for forty-four Lyceum productions in the 1890s (260 scenes in all). Many of them Shakespearean scenes of an elaboration that would have astonished Shakespeare and his actors almost as much as the coal smoke, hiss of steam and thunder of the engines running by above. Irving lost the whole of this precious stock to a fire in 1898.
Scenery is long, unhandy stuff to handle. That of the Lyceum was forty-two feet long when the cloths were rolled up round their battens; the framed cloths were thirty feet high and six feet wide in the folding plaques. In the first ten years of Irving's management we had to keep the scenery stored in all sorts of places and the space available in the theatre was packed solid. We were always on the look out for a really fine storage; and at last we heard of one. This consisted of two great, high railway arches under the Chatham and Dover Railway, then leased to the South-Eastern. It was a part of Southwark where the ground lies low and the railway line very high, so that there was full height for our scenes.
Bram Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving

Lyceum souvenir programme of King Lear, one of many productions whose scenery was lost in the fire.

Bear Lane, Southwark today

Our Fantasticks is more in William Shakespeare’s tradition: there is a bare platform and a cut-out moon, but I got home today after rehearsal as if I had witnessed a sumptuous spectacular. I had sat on the Jubilee Line Tube train from Southwark, where usually I need a book or newspaper, not an iPhone short story, to while away the dull journey, but I simply sat in a kind of Fantasticks theatrical afterglow, fragments of tunes in my head making me forget the noise of the train. And in no time, I was at Waitrose buying some fish (organic farmed Scottish salmon) for tonight’s supper – eschewing Peruvian asparagus, but risking early English strawberries – leaving behind me as light a carbon footprint as Paul McCartney can only dream of! 

Original Off-Broadway Cast Album Cover


In 2008 I photographed the special luggage entrance and exit at the Midland Hotel in Bradford, the passage down which Irving's body started its last journey back to London in 1905. The night before, he had spoken his last line on the stage of the Theatre Royal as Tennyson's Thomas à Becket: 'Into thy hands, O Lord, into thy hands.'

02 May 2010


Two remarkable first entrances are my subject this week.

First the professional debut of a young actress I saw at Birmingham Rep last Saturday in Lutz Hübner’s controversial play Respect, directed by Rae McKen. Rebecca Loudon appears dancing alone on an empty stage; it is an emblematic moment, though, from the realistic point of view, one gathers she is in a club amongst others. Now there is a famous passage, written by Gordon Craig, about Isadora Duncan’s solo dancing, but, before I go any further, I suppose ‘everyone’ knows that Duncan, at her peak around 1905, was considered to be the inventor and genius of modern dance, or an amateur, depending on whom you believe.
‘She was speaking’, Craig wrote of Isadora, ‘in her own language, not echoing any ballet master, and so she came to move as no one had ever seen anyone move before. … She was telling to the air the very things we longed to hear and until she came we had never dreamed we should hear.’ In 1905 there was a lot of shock value in a scantily dressed woman doing her own thing, as we would say.

Lori Belilove, Artistic Director of the Isadora Duncan Dance Company
Photo by David Fullard

My point is not that I witnessed a young genius of the dance in Birmingham last week, but that the ill-fated heroine of the play, before uttering a word, was clearly speaking in her own language – telling to the air … what? Not the things we longed to hear, though she was very soon propositioned by a young man who needed to ‘hear’ more. Actually she might well have been alone, communing with herself, doing her own thing for the hell of it. In fact, it is her determination to make her own rules, her raunchy independence that is the death of her. The tragedy of the play is that the two young men she and her girlfriend meet are bound by ideas of male ‘honour’ that have not advanced since well before 1905.
The whole evening seemed to render redundant the premise of my little webcam film of last week, Sheer Genius. The admittedly tongue-in-cheek idea that young actors at the beginning of their careers might need advice from a veteran seemed entirely ridiculous, even in jest. This particular Birmingham Rep quartet seemed to be telling to the air, and one another, what they wanted to say, as actors not bound by any superimposed or adopted style, and as characters, determined to invent themselves, freed they hoped by the credibility won by the right car or clothes label, the right friend. It is a particular genius belonging to the contemporary young actor to know the secret of playing a lost soul with Street Cred.

Rebecca Loudon, Jessica Clark, Naoufal Ousellam and Simon Silva in Respect
(Photo by Robert Day/Guardian)
An eighty-two-year-old actor is to make his entrance again tonight (Saturday, May 1st) as an old actor, out of a box in an off-Broadway theatre in a show he co-created over fifty years ago.

 Tom Jones (under the stage name Thomas Bruce) as the Old Actor 
in a 2006 revival of The Fantasticks 
(Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

I must declare an interest, because the show is The Fantasticks in which I am rehearsing to open in the same part in the West End later this month (see the production website) – we too have a box. I hope I am above advertising in this blog: in fact I have to report that we have not got as far as rehearsing the second half yet, which may have its special problems, but on the strength of work so far it has been refreshing to rediscover what a place of delight a rehearsal room can be and that my own character’s jokes, already antique in 1960, polish up and gleam classically, especially because I am working with a clown of such credibility as Paul Hunter.

It would be nice if I were placed more centrally in the time scale between the Birmingham youngsters and the octogenarian Tom Jones. Nevertheless, it is heartening to find how wise the young can be at playing fools, and how playful the old.