20th December 2017
In 1916, the world-famous philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was ousted from his lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge, because of his work for the conscientious objectors – more specifically, because of the scandal of his arrest for having written an article about one CO in particular (the much-abused Ernest Everett).
That summer, the government also denied Russell a US passport, preventing him from lecturing at Harvard, and banned him from speaking in certain parts of the UK – especially near coastal areas – ‘For fear I might signal to enemy submarines,’ as he sourly commented.
Just over 100 years later, I and my wooden crates roll into Cambridge to portray not only Russell, but the other ‘Bert’ too, Bert Brocklesby, a CO willing to go all the way to the firing squad rather than betray his most deeply-held beliefs. (Where are the people of such character and conviction in our world today? Not governing our nations, to be sure.)
The final two performances of THIS EVIL THING in 2017 take place in the Corpus Christi College Playroom, where many a luminary, such as Stephen Fry and Hugh Bonneville, trod the boards in their early days.
Here am I, in my latter days, treading these same boards. Well, treading the floor. The floor of an L-shaped room. Most unusual. The stage area being a square, the audience sits in two blocks, the two arms of the L. I can see them all, and they can all see me. But they can’t see each other.
The crates require some careful thought and repositioning in this tricky but intriguing space, and Becky, who has just travelled up from London on the train, gets cracking on making something interesting with the relatively few lights that are available.
I’m aware that these blogs have been full of extra-curricular details, so to speak, the minutiae of daily life – but here, in the last blog of this tour, I want to remind myself, and you reading this, that the play’s the thing. Every so often when I get bogged down in details of travel arrangements, which B roads to avoid, where the best sandwich can be found, how to avoid stepping on rabbits while pouring out my muesli, I can almost feel the play’s personae tugging at my elbow.
What about us? they seem to be saying. Could you pay us some attention, please?
The days are so full of travel and arrivals and settings-up, locating where I’m staying, looking for an ironing-board, etc etc, that I often have little time left to consider the play itself. Once I start the performance I find myself fully engaged in it – and I know the piece so well now. But when I feel this strange little metaphorical tug at my elbow from the characters of the play, it compels me to put aside some time to meditate on it afresh. The result is that I find that the next performance often has a subtle new depth or level of engagement. Of course, I endeavour to make every performance equally good – but it’s so helpful if I can stop ‘sweating the small stuff’ for a moment and just concentrate on the world of the play.
The two performances go down very well – a smallish audience on the first night but a bigger one on the second, by which time I feel I’ve really got the hang of how to play this L-shaped room. An excellent Q and A takes place while Becky quietly does a bit of tidying up before catching the train back to London – and there are no crates to pack up till the morning – as I have been allowed to leave them there overnight.
Hurrah! This means I can have a relaxing drink with friends in the atmospheric Eagle pub (where one lunchtime in 1953, Crick and Watson announced they had discovered DNA), and then head back to my hosts Andre and Sean for some excellent cheese and a glass of superior red wine to celebrate the end of the tour.
This really has been an adventure…such a great adventure for me – okay, it didn’t involve sailing single-handedly round the world, nor trekking through the Amazon jungle, just trundling round the UK in a white van. But it has been an exhilarating and enriching experience portraying these men and women each night – and enacting their epic and gripping life-and-death story from 100 years ago – and in such a variety of venues and locations…a huge tent, a large hall built of wood, the medieval chapel of a cathedral, and numerous theatre studio spaces and arts centres.
I have tried in my performance to give every voice and character their moment in their light – a fair chance to argue their case – even, or rather especially, the military, certain politicians and others whose point of view I don’t myself share. Golden rule in acting – always play each character from their own point of view. There are no villains. Just people with passionately opposed views and beliefs.
As I clear up some bits and pieces after the final performance at the Playroom, Hal, a tall young steward, asks if he can pose me a quick question:
How do you play all these different characters and switch from one to the other so rapidly and what is it that goes through your mind, what is it you’re thinking of, as you make each transition, that is, how do you click into each new character and enter each new situation?
I thought you said a quick question.
I mutter something about lots and lots of practice – taking small slow steps at first, isolating and spending time on each character separately, before beginning to put them together…
It’s not easy to describe the process in words. The main thing, I say, somewhat vaguely, is to do the work, do the preparation, loads of it – and then, to trust, and to…well, the main note I give myself is to then stand aside, and open the door, so to speak, and let them all come through. All the people you’ve been working so hard to bring to life. Stand aside and let them through. If that doesn’t sound too mystical.
No, that’s helpful, Hal says, thanks.
It’s tipping down with rain the morning of my departure from Cambridge.
Great. I get soaked as I load up the crates, then load up myself with some delicious scrambled eggs and coffee at the Indigo Café next door – then set off down the M11, feeling a tad melancholy, as I negotiate the oceans of spray caused by the thundering London-bound lorries.
The rain has ceased by the time I reach my flat in south-west London, and I unload the crates for the last time this year – not into a venue, but into my first floor flat. I give the van a quick sweep and a final wipe-down, then drive it to the van-hire place, hand the keys over, and walk to the nearest bus-stop to wait for the number 77, feeling strangely empty.
Bus? I haven’t taken a bus for three months.
I get home and flop on to my large deep sofa. In the Q and A last night, a woman had said, ‘If I’d given a performance like that, I’d have to sleep for a month!’
But no, doing this play has made me feel fitter, stronger, have more energy – I mean the performance itself is like a 75 minutes full-on aerobics class – and I’ve lost a little weight too (‘Where from!’ I hear folk cry).
Ah well, its Xmas soon – with all its pies, pudding and panettone, that’ll put a few pounds back on.
What a lovely thought…panettone! Being half-Italian, I don’t half love that Italian Christmas speciality.
And so, as the daylight fades, I drift off on my sofa, dreaming of panettone and recalling that woman’s comment – and I wonder if I will…sleep for a month?
Of course, if I do, I’ll miss Christmas…