30 August 2010


For years after I had played Vershinin in Three Sisters, one of his speeches would come back to me like a snatch of an old tune and I would speak it aloud wherever I happened to be:

I often think: what if we could, consciously, begin our lives anew. If only a life that had been lived could be the rough draft and the new one the fair copy. I think then each of us would try, most of all, to have a different setting for his life. He'd have a room like this with flowers and blazing sunshine. 

With Suzanne Bertish as Masha in Trevor Nunn's production for the RSC's first small-scale tour in 1978. Designed by John Napier.

I’m currently sorting and doing searches in the attic, in which some of you saw me rhapsodize despairingly in my webcam film, Aloft (aka Bringing Home the Bacon).

The question, 'What would you change about your life?' rings out of the jumble of my memory (an even more cluttered attic). It is in the voice of one Vernon Dobtcheff, film actor, who told me he'd used it successfully as an ice-breaker in the conversations we were both having one day with a party of Soviet artists and academics we were helping to escort round Hampton Court years ago. (I would change by developing an enthusiasm for filing!)

Apparently the director of the Moscow Art Theatre had said, 'What would I change about my life? Everything, or nothing.' You have to imagine the statement in a Russian accent, spoken by the interpreter. But the diminutive, melancholic Moscow professor gave the most candid reply. In his slow, lugubrious, accented English he said, 'My wife, my job, my apartment.'

I have found a few scraps of paper dated Sunday 23rd July 1984, written when I was alone in the National Hotel, Moscow, Room 126, which I had to move out of because the water wouldn't work. By impulse I was taking advantage of a week off from playing Faulkland in Sheridan's The Rivals at the National Theatre. I had realized that I could change my life, at least for a week, and fly with ease the three-and-a-half hours to the capital of the Soviet Union, but more to the point to the very epicentre of what I was then working on in my spare time. Simon Callow and I were trying to write a play about the production of Hamlet (or Gamlet) that Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig had planned from 1908 and finally produced at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1911.

A contemporary impression of the first Ghost scene

Our separately composed scenes of the abandoned work lie in my attic, but here is the account of my arrival in Moscow in the summer of 1984:

The careful checks at the airport took about one hour, forty-five minutes, including the age it takes for one’s case to appear on those luggage roundabouts, identical in Japan, Malaysia, the USA – everywhere …

Caroline [Blakiston] had told me to expect birch trees. 'Dear, modest birches, I love them above all other trees', I had said as Chekhov's Vershinin in Three Sisters – but the approach by air it seemed was all fir trees, a grandiose landscape of broad waterways and lakes with sprawling patches of dark forest and clearings where a neat control had been at work, communities of blocks of flats and adjacent, cut off by belts of trees, compounds of low dachas with garden plots in comfortable formation. There were isolated buildings in their own clearings; one I noticed had the unmistakeable green-blue square of a swimming pool. Later as we descended, groups of old wooden houses with steep roofs, little plantations and fields of crops, but mostly firs and water, then at last birch trees and the landing.

A small clapped-out Mercedes was my taxi – the radio removed, leaving a little hole. The thirtyish driver stopped for 'Benzene' at a very shoddy petrol station along the broad tree-lined road to the centre of Moscow – more fir trees and gradually more blocks of flats, the kind one imagines Moscow to have, but then suddenly at the corner of a big field near one side of the road, two men with a huge scythe and, on the other side, two men driving tractors – country and city mixed. Then older apartments with pediments and columns like old New York, and suddenly an exotically graceful Art-Nouveau block, obscured by trees, sped by – bus stops with huge shelters with a few waiting people, dressed as they might be in Camberwell. Now the road became enormously wide, the buildings set back and screened by trees, then yes! Glimpsed for a second an onion dome or two and some towers – Red Square? And a giant Russian version of a Victorian town hall – prosaic pragmatical building of a capital.

My diary scraps from the National Hotel continue:

I think I just heard the word ‘Britain’ on the hotel-room radio, followed by a slightly scratchy recording of Elizabethan music – all sackbuts and recorders, followed immediately by a French pop number.

My stroll up to Red Square started with a daunted look at the 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution Square. What did they pull down to celebrate the anniversary with this agoraphobic space across which little dots of cars speed alarmingly? What looked like a subway entrance turned out to be one, leading right under the square. This is the prelude to Red Square, not a hint of litter, graffiti or urine, not a poster of any description: part of the length mud, part white tiles and fluorescent lighting. I find I am walking behind four youths conversing in deaf and dumb language; they are wearing running shoes and jeans, but one has a very nice T-shirt, moccasins and the latest cut of lightweight trousers. Their movements in conversation are eloquent, dramatic, completely unselfconscious with the expressiveness that can only come of freedom and conviction. A marvellous chest-exploding gesture, like a heart burst, lots of combative gestures. I get halfway to the top of the stairs at Red Square behind them and they notice me, but continue their conversation. Suddenly, the most stylishly dressed boy looks straight at me and simply gestures, ‘Jeans? T-shirt?’ by subtly plucking his own garments between finger and thumb and looking questioningly at me. Having no spares, I shake my head, wondering what they might offer by way of barter. They go on smiling and conversing together.

A closer look at the odd group of onion-domed towers that is St Basil’s Cathedral, the twirly painted flowers on the walls. It has the mystery that all good buildings have – no logic perhaps, but somehow you can’t argue that it isn’t the perfect set of masses. I long to go in, but it is firmly locked. Another time perhaps.

Remembering back now, I made a friend in Henrietta Dobryakova, then a curator of the MAT Museum, who helped me trace so much intriguing information. We would take breaks together on the stone landing of a staircase where she would offer me Soviet cigarettes whilst telling me stories of the high security surrounding Stalin’s twenty visits to see Stanislavski’s production of Bulgakov's The White Guard, which I could have seen certainly once more in the recent production at the National, so much did it seem like a visit to early nineteenth-century Russia. The theatre's stage was going to be gutted and modernized. The builders were at work already. One day, Henrietta and I stood on the darkened stage and peered out into the auditorium, seeing nothing, but at least we were standing upon the boards, soon to be torn up, which had been graced by the legendary first productions of Chekhov, and had carried the experiment of the Craig-Stanislavski Hamlet of 1911.

Here, under the scaffolding, you can see the façade of the Moscow Art Theatre, with its famous seagull emblem.

And here is an image of B. M. Alfonin as Lucianus, the posioner, in the Craig-Stanislavski Hamlet. It is a role I played at Northampton Rep in 1958, just two months before I saw the Moscow Art Theatre perform The Cherry Orchard at Sadler's Wells.

Something I had forgotten is in the scraps of paper:

The customs lady was a young Russian beauty – short blonde hair, dark eyes with dark make-up; a self-contained beauty, sure of her rhythm, steady as she used economic gestures to bring the already cringing tourists to heel. The elderly Midwestern American doctor, ahead of me, arrived for a health conference, had already perspired and gasped as he misunderstood every gesture of the uniformed customs man who signalled his orders, his misconstructions leading him to perform ludicrously maladroit and servile actions, after which he had to mop the inside of his big beige hat. The blonde beauty coolly brought him to order with a tap of her Biro and then perused his medical brochures for subversive material and scanned every page of his newspaper.

I had a copy of Hamlet in Moscow and she looked at the title page. Was the publishing house on the black list, the author a known reactionary? She even sampled two or three bits of text – for anti-Soviet sentiments? At last, with a sideways movement of her hand measuring six inches, she waved me on and I felt clean and fit for Moscow. 

On the flight back to London I sat once again with the distinguished Nigel Nicolson of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Our small talk was halting; no doubt I seemed to him as green about literature and publishing as he did to me when he attempted to stray from his speciality, though his achievements were obviously wide and his social sphere stratospheric. 'Does the director', he asked, 'demonstrate how he wants the lines to be said?'

It wasn't until some time later that I saw a film of the Soviet director Yuri Lubimov rehearsing the English cast of Crime And Punishment at the Lyric Hammersmith, doing just that and demonstrating the business too. The romance of Russian theatre took a knock, as it still does when I read of Stanislavski, working on the script of The Seagull in isolation, ahead of rehearsals, and prescribing the number of seconds per pause – I would have perspired inside my hat!

* The photographs above are among several I took on that trip in 1984 - I may find more!

23 August 2010


If this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?
                                                               J. B. Priestley

Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse, London, 2010

The Roses and the Bear, Northern Children's Theatre, 1956

Fifty-four years separate the two theatrical events depicted here. The more sober, dramatic scene took place at a dress rehearsal of a children's play I did when I was nineteen. I got the idea to turn a fuzzy black-and-white photograph somebody took of us rehearsing the last scene into a colour painting, showing not only the stage, but also the kind of theatre we often played in, and the rows of children to whom we played. The scale is a little exaggerated, the actors look large and the children small, but that may be how it seemed at the time. Our faces on the canvas are no bigger than half the size of my little fingernail, and I don't have the technique to do features accurately at that size. Perhaps the figure on the right is the one most successfully depicted in the approximately on purpose style of the Camden Town School. But I remember them all in high detail as people, having gone through two years training with them at the Northern Theatre School in Chapel Street, Bradford, and toured the big Moss Empires variety theatres in the North and Midlands for the best part of a year with the Northern Children's Theatre production of The Roses and The Bear, a play by William Baines. In Bradford alone more than 5,000 children saw the play.

In the painting, I am centre stage with hand outstretched and my first wife is in kingfisher green, playing a pageboy. She had a beautiful little tune composed for her to whistle whilst she guarded Rose White and Rose Red in the forest at night; it was never heard because the Bear appeared and the children's screams astonished us all at the first performance. 

I have promised myself to portray in pastel a scene from the second show we toured, The Dancing Master's Kit, to form a third piece in my Sickert-inspired collection.

The Northern Children's Theatre was the pride and joy of our principal Esmé Church; she founded it in 1946, using her final-year students. Esmé had the status of a minor goddess in Chapel Street, and no wonder: she had been a West End and classical actress for years – not a star, but she had directed the famous Edith Evans-Michael Redgrave As You Like It the year I was born; acted with and directed Laurence Olivier; and run the Old Vic School of Acting. She'd toured the North during the war when the Old Vic Company was avoiding the bombs and taking the classics to remote industrial and mining towns. Peace came, she arrived at a certain age and, with her designer Molly McArthur, bought a part-Elizabethan, part-Georgian farmhouse in the dales outside Bradford on an old Roman road. Amazingly Esmé assumed the professional directorship of the amateur Civic Playhouse, and from this connection developed the Theatre School.

Esmé Church

A day of art! I finished the painting this afternoon (it needs a tidge more work) and then went to see The Illusionist, the brilliant animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet and based on an unproduced script that Jacques Tati had written in 1956 (the year I was touring in The Roses and the Bear). It is the tale of a magician, one of the dying breed of music-hall turns.

A scene from The Illusionist

I worked on the same bill with Tati once, on a TV programme, and he was a wonderful live comic turn. Oddly, I first saw him on film in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, when I was still a drama student – it was at the Civic which was also an art-house cinema.

This is a picture I took of Chapel Street, my Mecca in those days and the street to which we returned our touring scenery. It had at least one of its gas lamps at an angle that even Charlie Chaplin might have thought exaggerated until handled by one his villainous roughs. It is perhaps not a thoroughfare you would associate with art, or even with roses and bears and gilded theatres and enchantment, but that is where I found them.

I should add a few words about where I saw The Illusionist on Sunday night; it was in the Hampstead Everyman Cinema, a building that started life in the late nineteenth century as a drill hall for the Hampstead Rifles. By the 1920s it had become what we would now call a fringe theatre, and Noël Coward, just short of his twenty-fifth birthday, had his first hit there in 1924 – The Vortex. He described the basement dressing-room area with its frowsy comfortable sofa, and the auditorium with its iron-girdered timber roof: 'The whole place was carpeted throughout with coconut matting and a pervasive air of artistic endeavour.'

 Circa 1920 and today

I missed the chance to see the recent revival of The Vortex with, I gather, Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens being seeringly consummate as mother and son. 'Any production of Coward that has you thinking in all seriousness of Sophocles and Strindberg [which sounds artistic enough] has clearly achieved something pretty remarkable', raved Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times. 'We do not need this filth in the West End', fulminated Gerald Du Maurier in 1924, probably helping to ensure a long run for the transfer. It was Du Maurier, a Hampstead resident, who opened the Everyman Cinema in 1933.

Lilian Braithwaite and Coward in The Vortex

There are two screens at the Everyman, one in the basement and another under the iron and timber roof. Now the whole place is carpeted throughout in Wilton one notices, before sinking into immaculate scarlet sofas and having drinks and snacks brought to one’s little table.

I counted, amongst the lengthy credits for The Illusionist, thirty-two names under the heading ‘Ink and Paint’ alone! Go to this film just to see how Edinburgh is depicted, for the amazing flight over the city, the poignancy of Tati’s gentle story: for Artistic Endeavour triumphant in fact.   

16 August 2010


The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests ...

Bean (our dog) gave the seal of approval to our new Afghan carpet – yes Afghan, and from the province of Kunduz. Not a mile away from Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre, where I saw the twelve plays about Afghanistan I've spoken of so recently, there is a carpet shop which is having a closing-down sale. The sales talk revealed yet another facet of life in that troubled country: 'You won't get these carpets in five years' time – they are made in people's homes, and people are out working in offices, working for NGOs, sitting on plastic chairs, looking out of the office window, issuing forms: you can’t park here, you can’t go there.' The young man who carried the carpet to my car told me he had lived here since he was five years old and gone to school here, but I noticed he still spoke English with an Afghan accent.

As soon as the reassuring classic pattern was laid, woven I had been assured in wool of the first shearing, Bean began to loll and luxuriate on it. The old, coarse-weave carpet it replaced was going to grace our little conservatory, which had been paved with, by now rather challenged, cork tiles on a concrete base. A man came to lay some underfelt; as soon as that was down, Bean celebrated by running round on it excitedly in small circles.

It is a truly international effort, the modest refurbishing of our house; what with the new carpet and, not before time, the outside window frames being repainted and the conservatory roof, never leak-proof in its twenty-two years, repaired (already it has stood up perfectly to the wet weather), all thanks to a team of men from Romania, the painter and, from Poland via Chicago, one of the roof repairers. Clearing the way for them, I found a bird's nest on a high ledge, obscured by the grapevine that forced its way inside three years ago. I was harvesting the ripe crop, and there was the small songbird’s abandoned mud and straw home, brought inside by us as an ornament, still with some fragments of shell from its young. Astonishing that the tool used to construct it was the bird's beak – I don't know what kind of bird or whether the male and female both do the work, but I surmise they were international too, annually migrating impossible distances.

Impossible to muse on these things without remembering the unprecedented havoc and suffering caused to homes and livelihoods by the monsoonal rains in Pakistan, and what a difference we who have, so far, safe homes can all help to make.

09 August 2010


Helen: The spotlight was on you and you alone, and you weren't even young men; you were children. ...
David: All right, then. Go on. What did we do with this spotlight?
Helen: You did what any child would do. You danced in it.
                                                                (Terence Rattigan, After the Dance)

That special performance of the Afghanistan plays, The Great Game, which I was talking about last week, was described by General Sir David Richards, Chief of the General Staff, as 'fascinating, entertaining and historically accurate of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan since 1840. … Nothing learnt in the classroom will have the same subliminal effect as this. It is crucial that all of us out there have a more nuanced understanding of the historical background that got us to this point.' (The Times, 3 August)

Unfortunately my great nephew was not among the fifteen officer cadets from Sandhurst who attended the day-long performance at the Tricycle. The theory of fifteen degrees of separation comes pretty close though, and who knows how much closer than a mere fifteen degrees it sometimes comes without our knowing. However, a few days after my own three-evening induction course in the 'nuanced understanding' the general wrote of, I was at the National Theatre for a Saturday matinée of Terence Rattigan's second West End success, After the Dance, rarely staged since its premiere in the summer of 1939. The play is both a bleak indictment of and an elegy for the Bright Young Things, a generation of whom G. B. Stern observed, 'They were suffering not from shell-shock but from the echo of shell-shock.' Rattigan, in my very young day, was the apotheosis of the West End, and I can tell you that West End theatre felt further away this last Saturday from Kilburn High Road than its Tricycle Theatre had seemed from Afghanistan the week before. Such is the theatre's ability to create a potent sense of an era, a place, another world.

Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch in After the Dance.
Photo by Johan Persson

As it happens, I have, this past week, been preoccupied by the West End, feeling I must revise one of the early chapters in my book, an essay entitled 'Keeping it West End' in ironic homage to the company manager of Worthing’s weekly rep where, in 1957, I was appearing in The Case of the Frightened Lady. Over a drink in the bar of the Connaught Theatre, after the Monday opening night, Melville Gillam issued what I had been warned was his habitual injunction: 'Keep it West End.' I knew then just how far away we were from getting it West End – let alone keeping it there!

But what is, or rather was, the essence of West End theatre? Noël Coward was once addressed about it at a party: 'Oh, Noël, the West End isn't what it was!' ‘It isn't', The Master replied, 'but then – it never was.'

Watching Rattigan's play was for me spellbinding, the theatrical equivalent of being absorbed in a good book that one doesn’t want to end; and if it was not an utterly perfect performance, it seemed to have all the verities on so many levels – in the writing, staging and acting – the sort of theatrical quality of spell I almost imagined I had not witnessed, and had been missing, since I saw the pre-West End tour of Rattigan’s Separate Tables in Leeds as a teenager in 1954 – with Margaret Leighton and Eric Portman in the leading roles.

Afterwards, I was astonished to spot a familiar name on the cover of a newly reissued Rattigan biography on display in the NT bookshop: Michael Darlow was the author. I knew him, as he had been two years ahead of me at Esmé Church’s Northern Theatre School in Bradford. His substantial book (over 500 pages) is so far fascinating. A surprising contribution comes from, of all dramatists, the radical playwright David Rudkin:
I think Rattigan is not at all the commercial middlebrow dramatist his image suggests but someone peculiarly haunting and oblique who certainly speaks to me with resonance of existential bleakness and irresoluble carnal solitude.
Terence Rattigan, 1949. 
Photo by John Gay. National Portrait Gallery

Since Saturday I have talked to one actress who found the play predictable and the performances somewhat pedestrian. I also bumped into a contemporary of mine, a director, who was in a very bad mood about it: 'Most of the actors have no idea of The West End Style!' Was there ever such a thing? I am going to attempt to anatomize that question in my aforementioned chapter. Meanwhile, here is my more or less finished pastel showing the inside of one West End theatre (the Playhouse to be exact), which you saw in embryo last week.

Dreamboats and Petticoats (Click image to enlarge it)

In 1958, an eighteen-year-old Salford girl took two weeks off work to convert a novel she was trying to write into a play, partly because she was so disgusted with Rattigan's Variation on a Theme which she had seen on tour in Manchester. For her, Rattigan and the 'West End Style' symbolized 'safe, sheltered, cultured lives in charming surroundings – not life as the majority of ordinary people knew it. I had strong ideas about what I wanted to see in the theatre. ... Usually North Country people are shown as gormless whereas in actual fact they are very alive and cynical.' Her play was produced by Joan Littlewood in the East End in May 1958. The following year Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey transferred to Wyndham's Theatre, where it became a West End hit. 

Oh, Noël!

A scene from the 1961 film adaptation of A Taste of Honey

02 August 2010


     All I have is a voice
     To undo the folded lie,
     The romantic lie in the brain
     Of the sensual man-in-the-street
     And the lie of Authority
     Whose buildings grope the sky:
     There is no such thing as the State
     And no one exists alone;
     Hunger allows no choice
     To the citizen or the police;
     We must love one another or die.
                                             (W. H. Auden)

I can't imagine how Lorna Want rehearsed herself into the all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting Dreamboats and Petticoats in the last fortnight of The Fantasticks. It is the 1960s nostalgia show to end all and I found it alluring and touching, not only in its boundless lyric drive but in the many touches of prosaic, everyday detail. I recognized many of the numbers, though I was hardly a fan of Top of the Pops at the time, being a cultural snob, a father by 1965 and preoccupied with holding onto the rungs of the ladder at Olivier's National Theatre. I did buy three Beatles LPs, but that was on the strength of there being such respectable features as violin and trumpet solos in 'Eleanor Rigby'.

This show is all about the dreams of very ordinary people expressed through an extraordinary flowering of musical energy. It does not seem like a showbiz con that the rock groups, lady brass players and dancers next to a youth club ping-pong table have a hard-edged West End professionalism to their period charm and exuberance. There is nothing original in the interwoven love stories, yet it never seems like the cynical ticking of effective boxes. The performers exude sincerity, energy, belief and commitment, and their delight is all, carrying with it an elemental conviction.

At the end, as the audience rose to dance, I looked across the stalls of the Playhouse and there was a life-size Grecian maiden in gilded plaster adorning a stage box, gazing at the stage with a beatific smile; it was as if she had been waiting for this moment since the days when audiences were mere gloomy blurred figures in the paintings of Sickert. I decided I had to paint that scene and herewith is this weekend’s work in progress:

The hero of Dreamboats and Petticoats is a shy schoolboy dealing with O-Levels and acne (we have to imagine the latter! In fact he is fresh-faced as well as very good looking). He has an Estuary accent, complete with Fs for Ths, but when he bursts into song he enters another language entirely, another state of being in fact – confident, passionate (even in his laments about being unloved), from the heart and, of course, American. The audience almost takes the transformation of his personality for granted – after all, how else would you sing 'Do You Wanna Dance?' or 'Dream Baby Dream'?

The programme notes remind us of the ecstatic smashing of suburban cinema seats when 'Rock Around the Clock' went on release and that, with the new liberty and comparative affluence, juvenile crime doubled in a decade. But 'Dreamboats' is in the title, and in the show no one so much as lights a cigarette or has a glass of beer. The oldies in the audience purred audibly – I did – with nostalgia, hearing the characters' aspirations to have an American milkshake ('They're 1/6') or a Knickerbocker Glory at the local Wimpy Bar. (Emblematic of this period of cultural transition was the fact that the first Wimpy Bar in the UK opened in 1954 at the oldest Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street.) Were our Happy Hours so innocent?

People still express surprise that I ever had a working-class Bradford accent, but I simply acquired another voice to 'sing' with, and since it was a speaking voice, I spoke with it in life as well as on the stage. The great teenage liberation of the 50s and 60s was all about utterance as working-class boys and girls were released into song and the romance of the classless American idiom and, on a less noticeable scale, countless provincial working-class acting students learnt the West End Drawl and the heroic, noble way of handling verse – their passport into 'The Profession', insecurity and unemployment.

Dreamboats and Petticoats was bookended by two return visits to Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre and its current festival exploring Afghan culture and history. The Tricycle Cinema is a comfortable place to spend a civilized evening. The Art Deco Gaumont State Cinema down the road, which I remember as a vast auditorium, has finally morphed from a Mecca bingo hall into a Ruach Christian Ministries Centre, its grandiose carpeted foyers busy with happy, well-dressed people who seem to be at home in their own community centre.

Spirited, charming children reduced to shadows. The film I saw there on Monday night was a fly-on-the-wall study of a poor family living on the outskirts of Kabul, in wasteland resembling a bomb site. Even the mother, an almost toothless single parent, old before her time, admitted taking heroin herself and offering it to her boy to save him from being bored because ‘there was nothing in the house’. The problem of child addiction is widespread. Follow-up captions told us that the three youngsters, two boys and a girl, all around ten years of age when the film was made and in and out of rehab programmes, were now, two years later, back on the drug.

Q&A afterwards with the Afghan director of the film, a young and cheerful English head of an NGO, and two other Afghans. It emerged that there were also some Afghans in the audience. One’s picture became more confused as the questions and statements from the audience went on, one man asserting that the biggest market for drugs in the country was the American military. I talked to some Afghans afterwards and one told me that the Taliban are blamed for the poppy growing now, but that when they were firmly in power there was no problem with drugs.

How did we ever think we could help? The evening ended uncomfortably and inconclusively.

The ‘stars’ of the film had never been able, we realized, to go back to their Winnebagos, have their make-up and costumes removed, enjoy a good meal and wait for the next juicy role. No, they are still acting out their harsh reality – even now as we consider these words, even now as we contemplate the irony that the only way the children would agree to being filmed was in exchange for the promise that the film would never be shown in Afghanistan. It would, they said, bring shame on them!
On Friday night I caught Part 3 of The Great Game: Afghanistan. As I expected, the previous evening the Army had proved a good comedy house (like the bishops at Hadrian VII). I wonder whether my great nephew, who is at Sandhurst, was there; many of the officer cadets were. General Sir David Richards wants to rewrite one of his speeches (a verbatim quote). Much of the material in the twelve-play anthology has been rewritten to bring it up to date, since it was first performed some months ago. The officer cadets were astonished at how much they learnt about Afghanistan. TiE (Theatre in Education) comes to Sandhurst! Not before time.

The Q&A that night was a letdown: two banners advertising the Guardian were brought on stage and the paper’s 'Security Editor', along with Nicolas Kent, Artistic Director of the Tricycle and begetter of the whole project, sat and held forth. They were but pale figures after the vivid realizations we had witnessed; truth is not always stranger than fiction. In any case, how, sitting in a theatre in the Kilburn High Road, could we tell the difference. Who held the truth about Afghanistan, was it expressed by these real, or the imagined real people of the play? Certainly I utterly believed that Jemma Redgrave was a passionate NGO worker, and was there, determined to force a deal over some commandeered land to save 100 farmers from starving, accepting the betrothal of two preteen girls as part of the bargain: ‘Graham, listen! You know perfectly well that there's no such thing as right and wrong in this business, there's only culture. It's not our job to impose our values. You've put your mother in an old people's home. Have you ever seen anyone homeless in Afghanistan, any old people abandoned? You judge them, let them judge you.’

 Jemma Redgrave, Tom McKay and Nabil Elouahabi in On the Side of the Angels by Richard Bean. Photo by John Haynes

I began my Sunday wakening to a morning service on Radio 4 from Eton College Chapel. We were treated to some history of the beautiful chapel, the construction of which was halted when the College's founder Henry VI was deposed by Edward IV. Eton is presently host to a large number of choristers, forming a summer school, and they began with a Spanish motet sung so – ravishingly is probably not the word, and what the text of the motet was I forget and, of course, didn't follow in Spanish at the time – but 'heavenly' style wins over content in such music. The sound was sacred and made one believe in … what? Just now I am remembering Laurence Olivier saying a line in, of all plays, Strindberg's Dance of Death, a searing portrait of marital Hell. At one point, during a duologue with a friend, Olivier had to say words to the effect that he sometimes had thoughts of 'something better'.

Olivier was a past master at this kind of moment, expressing from a great well of weary, defeated anger and grief, a yearning, a faint hope, the more powerful because it was so understated. This morning the 'something better' was associated with Eton's Chapel, which I found I could not remember, and a host of nebulous sensations that there might be a divine being who inspired in humans such music and who might be listening with us now.

But the vision faded with the prayers. Why should we ask God to send us a good harvest? Did he not send the rains which, as this morning's news told us, have devastated the lives of countless people in Pakistan? I do not want to offend: it has been a week of extremes in which I have been privileged to return from my cultural adventures to sleep safe and well fed, a sort of liberal dilettante in a desperate world. What to do?!

Tired, I must go to bed, but I did promise myself to make a better job of those dark figures in the foreground of my pastel drawing first; it seems like a retreat into the cosy morality of the Sunday-school hymn I recall, 'Jesus Bids Us Shine'. What was it? ‘You in your small corner, / And I in mine.’ Even dark figures can be helped, I trust, to shine.  

Emboldened by your comments last week, I have posted quite a long blog this week and here append the promised image I chanced upon on my way home from the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross – the curious amalgam of Disney and Picasso on high: