Oct. 22nd 2017
33 years ago, I was being crucified nightly (twice on Thursdays and Saturdays)
in the haunting ruins of the old Cathedral in Coventry – in a production of the Medieval Mystery Plays – an extraordinary experience. Nuns, monks, and countless dog-collars were clearly visible in the audience – ‘Will I live up to these peoples’ ‘image’ of Christ?’ I asked myself each night before the plays began. My dad who, while he was alive, loyally followed me in productions all around the country, said of this one to a friend, ‘You know, it’s very hard watching your son being nailed to a cross so convincingly…’
A very El Greco Christ I made: tall, slim, darkly-bearded…
At the end of the play’s run an envelope was waiting for me at the stage door. Inside was a note – and something wrapped in tissue paper.
‘It’s been so lovely having you around the last few weeks, Michael – please take the enclosed little gift with you on to wherever you go next. Yours, with affection, a secret admirer.’
Inside the tissue paper was a little Winnie the Pooh, hanging suspended from a balloon, which had a pattern of blue sky and clouds on it. Who? Who was this secret admirer? I never found out.
But I took Winnie the Pooh with me on to the next job and the next and the next – all the way to here, 33 years later and the Salisbury Playhouse Salberg Studio – where each night this week I have again been ‘crucified’ (not by audiences and critics, thankfully) – but as a rather barbaric army punishment used on COs and unruly soldiers 100 years ago. No nails – but arms outstretched and strapped by the wrists to a fence or rail – feet tied up too – and left like that in wind and rain for two hours each day up to a maximum of 28 days. (This was long ago outlawed as a punishment I am relieved to report.)
Being in Salisbury is (almost) like a holiday – playing one venue for a whole week. It’s (almost) like a normal acting job. So now is maybe a good moment to explain, as fellow performers have often asked me to do, the various good luck charms I carry with me wherever I perform.
I’m not particularly superstitious – though if someone mentions the M word ( Macb-th) backstage, I do ask them to leave the room, turn round on the spot three times and chuck some salt over their shoulder (preferably the finest quality seasalt) before being allowed back in. Not even sure that’s the right ritual.
But no, these ‘charms’ of mine have been with me for decades now and it would simply feel…well, ODD not to have them there in my dressing room.
A small wooden box – given me on my professional debut 39 years ago by the late Margot Thomas – with her note still inside the box- ‘for pins and clips and all those bits and pieces you may need from time to time…’
Black and white good luck garters, given me by my best friend Marci, with the command: ‘Take these wherever you go in your professional life.’ And so from time to time she’s received a phone call in Canada, her home for many years, from me, saying ‘Your garters have made it to the RSC!’ or ‘Guess what? Your garters are now gracing a dressing room at the National Theatre.’ (Next week the garters will accompany me into the Bear Pit, Stratford.)
A small wooden piece with Japanese writing on it – the Japanese for ‘Michael’ – given me by Takashi, the Japanese Catholic pilgrim I met when I walked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago in 2003.
A tiny yellow chick – given me by a very friendly and charming Lithuanian lady – who was on security at the stage door of the National Theatre when I worked there.
A heart-shaped stone, in a heart-shaped box, given to me by my beloved.
And finally, a greeting card I saw in a shop just before I premiered my first solo play Tomorrow We Do The Sky in 1991. It depicts a young man, which I myself was (almost), walking on a tightrope from a rooftop towards the moon. But what’s special and strange is that he is paying out the rope in front of himself – he is creating the tightrope as he walks forward. A fantastic image of the creative process and performing, I feel. And heading towards the moon.
Oh – and Winnie the Pooh, of course, suspended from a balloon…
The Salberg Studio at Salisbury is an almost perfect space for the show. Mark Noble, my brilliant young sound designer, and Ros Hutt, my skilful talented director, visit me here, and create some extra special lighting and sound bonuses, which are flawlessly executed by Emily Gow who ‘cues’ the show. I’m (almost) worryingly relaxed…when two women decide to swap seats just AFTER the play has begun, I call up to Emily in a loud voice, ‘Can we go back and start again please…two ladies are just changing their seats!’ I wait for the ladies to settle, then call up, ‘OK, Emily, we’re good to start now.’ Worryingly relaxed. I blame it on the LC effect (Leonard Cohen).
Very good houses all week and on Saturday night it’s almost full – including the Bishop of Salisbury and his wife. I’m told by my sources that his wife is a Quaker, and that as soon as he stops being the Bishop, he will probably become one too (but don’t quote me on that.) I have at least four groups of friends in that night, travelling from various corners of southern England.
In the Q and A, someone asks me what the hardest part of the job is. I answer, trying to say hello to all my friends, most of whom don’t know each other, at the end of a performance when I’ve hardly any voice left. But I’m chuffed they’ve all come. I’d be even more chuffed – well, flabbergasted actually – if someone came to a show and introduced themselves to me afterwards as ‘Your secret admirer – the one who gave you Winnie the Pooh many years ago.’
But that’s the stuff of fiction. That won’t ever happen. Or will it? Are you on Facebook, by any chance, oh secret admirer?