Nov. 4th 2017
A black box. That’s how most theatre studio spaces are described – and indeed, that is what they usually are: a box. Painted black. Within which one tries to create a little bit of magic.
That’s what I’ve been performing This Evil Thing in, these last few weeks – black boxes – apart from the few schools, where I’ve been perched rather high on an old-fashioned-style stage looking down on the students below…and then, a complete one-off, on Friday 27th October – the Eastern Lady Chapel of Bristol Cathedral, ancient, ornate, multi-coloured, with an altar of course, and a carpet, on which I set the crates in readiness to perform the play as one of the events running alongside the ‘Refusing To Kill’ exhibition (focusing on Bristol’s WW1 conscientious objectors).
The Cathedral vergers, Tom and Nigel, are SO helpful – the only problem being they can’t locate the speakers which they assured me I would be able to play my soundtrack through. When they do locate them, they can’t find the right cables, and are not at all sure how to get them working.
Is there anyone who knows? I ask, patiently.
They’re very new, you see, they tell me.
Yes, but is there anyone who knows?
Oh yes, my boss, says ever-so-friendly Tom.
Is he around?
No, he’s gone to Gloucester for a meeting and is stuck in heavy traffic.
Tom sees the perplexed look which flashes across my face and then beams at me with the seraphic smile of an angel:
‘Listen, I’m certain that tonight will be a glorious success.’
‘Not without speakers to play the soundtrack back on it won’t,’ I think to myself, trying hard not to grit my teeth.
To the rescue then cometh young Sam, who I’m assured is something of a technical wizard (I’ve met quite a few of those on this tour). He fetches cables galore, and wires up first one speaker then the other, and it’s all looking good until…he can’t find the right plug for my Mac-mini computer – which is where all the sound effects for the play have their home.
He is rather disgruntled, the ever-so-young-assistant-verger-technical-wizard-Sam (to give him his full title) at not being able to solve the problem. I try to reassure him that we’ll think of something, and wonder to myself like what exactly? Will I have to act out the sound effects myself? – do my impression of a violin, (what impression of a violin??); click my fingers and pop my cheeks to give some semblance of battlefield gunfire; then somehow try and create the high chirruping of skylarks far overhead?
Sort of wishing now I’d paid more attention to the late great Ken Campbell, when I took some improvisation sessions with him and that day that he tried to teach us ventriloquism…
Then I remember! Of course – in the van I have a box containing two little speakers from home – they’re pretty good quality and create a really good rich sound – in my living room. But in a medieval cathedral??
I set them up and we give them a go – not bad, not bad. Not great, but not bad.
As the clock ticks and the audience begins to arrive, not bad will have to do.
David Lloyd, long time friend of mine and a Bristolian, gallantly offers to operate the sound.
The Dean has given the go ahead to the army ‘crucifixion’ scene taking place in front of the altar, but he’s not keen on the excessive bad language of the army sergeants – so David has to keep his wits about him to skip one particular foul-mouthed recorded cue which it was not possible to alter on the soundtrack.
We’re ready. 80 seats are set up in the chapel. The audience are looking at the Refusing To Kill exhibition in the adjacent aisle and are so engrossed in it (it IS fascinating) that they don’t seem minded to watch the play.
So vergers Tom and Nigel temporarily become shepherds guiding their flocks, as they herd the audience away from the exhibition and into the chapel.
I retire to my dressing room to change into my costume for the play, and take a few gulps of water and a few deep breaths. It being a cathedral it’s not actually a dressing room but a side chapel, across the aisle.
I enter it through a large wrought iron gate , which has a plush red velvet curtain to pull across, enabling a little privacy…and that’s when I see them. Asleep in the corner of my dressing room.
I’ve shared many a dressing room over the years with an older actor snoring peacefully between a matinee and evening performance on the one bed or mattress provided, (or on the floor if none are provided) causing me to tread softly so as not to wake them.
Now I must tread extremely softly (for I wish not to tread on their dreams) as there are two folk asleep in the corner of my dressing room. Not actors however.
Some actors will place a notice on their dressing room door saying something like, ‘Please do not disturb, sleeping till six o’clock.’
I find out from the marble slab above this sleeping twosome that they went to sleep in 1399, 618 years ago in fact, and that they’ll be sleeping pretty much for eternity. Sir Henry and Lady Newton no less, late of this parish.
Ah. So that’s why it’s called the Newton Chapel, this temporary dressing room of mine.
I change, drink water, take a few calming breaths; check that I’ve got Bertrand Russell’s pipe in my right trouser pocket and Fenner Brockway’s specs in my left trouser pocket and then tiptoe out, blowing the Newtons a kiss, as I step into the Eastern Lady Chapel onto the carpet, and onto the wooden crate representing the ten-feet deep pit which James Brightmore was put into in 1917, because the army couldn’t find a cell for him – and away we go.
The ‘crucifixion’ scene is powerfully resonant, and thanks to David adeptly skipping the one offending cue at the right time, there is no bad language in this particular performance of the play to offend either the audience or the Dean… or the sleeping couple in the corner of my dressing room across the aisle.
Oh, Michael. I don’t know whether to be upset I did not see this performance in front of the altar or relieved. I’d probably have wept like a child at Field Punishment No. 1 being re-enacted in a cathedral setting.
There’s something terribly, horribly, axiomatic about swearing being suppressed in the performance of a crucifixion-style punishment of an absolutist pacifist in a Christian house of God. By all means let the Newtons sleep, but not the living, not the Deans.
Your message is Good, Michael. Good with a capital G.