Lockdown Labour of Love

I had been hard at work on my new project, a play about Hiroshima – which was due to be performed by myself and UK-based Japanese actress You-Ri Yamanaka, and all set to be directed by Jatinder Verma, and I’d spent a good chunk of time trying to secure a venue for the play at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as a tour of the play in the autumn to many parts of the UK…when along came a certain virus…

Like everybody, I was knocked for six when lockdown was introduced. The previous week, I had been sent reeling by the closure of the theatres and all other live performance venues; festivals began to be cancelled one by one and soon it was the turn of Edinburgh to suffer this fate.

As the weeks rolled by, as well as being deeply concerned about the impact of the virus on people’s lives, health, and livelihoods, I have been increasingly concerned about the impact of it on my own profession. I have been wondering when I might next be able to ‘tread the boards’ again and when I might next be able to earn a living from this most precarious of professions. Probably not this year. My play will now premiere (all being well) at Edinburgh in 2021, and my autumn tour for this year has had to be postponed to 2021 as well – one year later than intended.

So, what to do while ‘holed up’ alone in a two-bedroom flat during lockdown? Staring at me in my study were the nine wooden crates, neatly stacked, which I had taken round the country in the back of a white van at various times during the last four years, to perform my play THIS EVIL THING, about the WW1 conscientious objectors. Having performed it over 100 times, and now occupied with my Hiroshima project, I assumed I would not be touching those wooden boxes again anytime soon.

But then, out of curiosity, I pressed a button on my i-phone which I had not explored in the two years I’ve had the phone – a button, or app, called ‘i-movie’. And within the hour I was off – whisked away on a wave of enthusiasm for a new project – to film a lockdown version in my flat of THIS EVIL THING, using some of the boxes, while trying to be as simple and yet also as creative as I could be in finding interesting corners of my home to double as prison cells or a conference hall, a Methodist chapel or even a quarry in Aberdeen.

Finding these nooks and crannies, and finding a plain wall as a background which wasn’t festooned with pictures, proved to be an absorbing task. I would never have imagined that the corridor which links the front and back of my flat
could prove so adaptable as different locations – I turned one corner of it, near some stairs, into a solitary confinement cell; another part of it doubled as a prison corridor. Of course, during lockdown, in a sense this was literally true.

Also, the walls of the corridor – painted a tasteful grey – appeared on my phone camera so dull and drear that they doubled perfectly as the overcast background of a quarry in the far north of Scotland.Michael Mears in lockdown version of THIS EVIL THING

In my small bedroom I created a makeshift hospital tent using sheets and blankets; and a walnut cabinet in my living room, which I’ve had for years and looks rather worn when viewed close-up, seemed to work well as a background for Prime Minister Asquith in Downing Street.

Although I’ve worked on many a TV and film set over the years, I had never truly appreciated what every member of a film crew does until now – when I had to do every single thing myself. (As well as act, of course…) I was cameraman, gaffer, best-boy, key grip (you’ll see these words in film credits); I was also lighting technician. In the scene on Armistice Day when I imagine Bertrand Russell walking through London with fireworks going off all around him, I acted the scene while holding (out of shot) a lamp-switch which I flicked on and off while speaking the lines, to create the effect of flashes. This wouldn’t have been possible had I not known the play so well. As Bertrand Russell in THIS EVIL THING online version

Occasionally I would do the equivalent of painting myself into a corner. I would set the camera up on the tripod I’d purchased, then carefully construct a corner of a prison cell with my wooden boxes and some bits of hessian, then sit myself down into it thinking yes, this feels good, let’s start filming, only to realise…I needed to turn the camera on. A camera which was well out of reach.

There were other errors I made on my steep learning curve. I assumed only the top half of me would be in shot for the anti-war sermon Bert Brocklesby gives in his local chapel. So I put on his shirt and jacket and didn’t worry about what I was wearing on my bottom half. When I looked back at this particular footage, a week or so later, I realised you could see some of the black track-suit bottoms I was wearing …and in particular the small unmistakeable logo of ‘Reebok.’

Hmm. Reshoot required, I realised. There’s no way I can justify Bert wearing a Reebok tracksuit in a Yorkshire chapel in 1915.

Each day when lunchtime arrived, unlike on a film set where excellent catering is always provided, I had to make do with my own ‘catering’ (and then do the washing up) before being ‘called back to set’ to film the next scene on my list.
Equally, I had nobody to run out and ask the very noisy children playing in the park outside on occasion, whether they could be a little quieter as ‘we are shooting a film in that flat up there.’

In the evenings I would take on the role of the editor. This proved to be immensely enjoyable: assembling and assessing the material I’d accumulated, and transforming certain scenes into black and white or even into ‘silent-era style’ – magically, all at the touch of an i-phone screen. A glimpse of THIS EVIL THING online version

I’d add on extra sound effects as well, where needed – finding a particularly beautiful skylark online to use at the end of the play.

I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by how the whole thing turned out – at times it seems obviously ‘home-made’ but at other times it really looks surprisingly polished. It also comes across as a more intimate rendering of the story and therefore, at times, more intense and personal – though I still think the play’s true home is onstage with all nine crates and an engaged audience living through the events of the play with me there and then.

But one of the main outcomes of this lockdown labour of love was that it got me through the best part of a month. In that time no cleaning got done, no tidying of papers or sorting out of old clothes, as I had enviously heard a number of friends were achieving. But I’d made this film, learnt some new skills – and could now consider filming other pieces of work – for example, some extracts from my Hiroshima play, which could be shared online this August, prior to its full stage production next year. I also thought to myself that there’ll be plenty of time before the summer is out to clean, tidy and sort. I’m pretty certain of that.

To see THIS EVIL THING online go to: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLctnbV_-mfzu_ZF5xxN9VtzTXEP2mAfem

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