When I was about fourteen or fifteen I saw an amateur production of Three Sisters at one of my local theatres. I knew nothing about Chekhov or the play, but I was enraptured from the first scene. This was partly to do with the bustling dresses and the audacious way in which one of the sisters, Masha, whistled in a most unladylike manner (which reminded me gleefully of Jo in Little Women), but it was mostly to do with the performance of a man named Roy Foster, who had an altogether different air about him than the others. Like for him there was no script, no process, but merely a truth he was choosing to reveal to you that night. Utterly natural and with such quiet authority you would do anything he said, even if it meant taking off your shoes and running over fields of just-ploughed corn.
A couple of years later, while studying A Level Theatre Studies, with the memory of Three Sisters still strong, I started devouring Chekhov, wanting to soak it all in and learn from it. I’d spend my free periods and lunchtimes in the school library reading all the playscripts they had, feeling like those words were the best thing I could ever do with my time – a feeling I still get when I see or read plays by great writers; that it’s an investment for my soul. I went to see The Cherry Orchard, cried. Went to see Uncle Vanya. Wept. The longing dark heart of Chekhov’s plays spoke to some latent part of me then as a simple teenager, which speak to me even more now that – doubled in age – I am far less simple. I write plays, run a theatre company, feel passionate about theatre because of all the fire that was stoked up in me during that period of my life. It shaped me.
The last play I saw Roy in was about three or four years ago. He played the ghost of Hamlet’s father. My ex boyfriend/dear friend George played a brilliant Hamlet, and I watched them both in my favourite play that brims with themes close to my heart. (Not so much ghosts and suicide and love for a dead father, but Danish military politics, obviously.) I thought how strange it was that an old face and a new love had come together in something that was so important to me.
It was an odd night. I had stupidly chosen to read my father’s last texts written in the last few days before he died on his old Nokia, which I fired up in the pub down the road over a gin (a bloody big one) before rushing down to watch Hamlet. A strange decision on my part; but something I couldn’t have delayed. Private reasons, but it was a strange night to watch a play about dead fathers & the effects they have upon us. Especially as the modern production made use of mobile phones. It rang with a new and searing relevance for me; almost too much to watch. I later wrote a bit in my book about it. If Roy, if George, had been lesser actors the pertinent meanings in the text would have been lost to my disgust; turned me all hand-wringing distraught Ophelia at what they’d done to ‘my play’. But they were brilliant.
Sometimes Shakespeare is like watching a stained glass window light up at sunrise. It starts dark and obscure and takes a while but god it’s worth it. When you become familiar with a play that’s when it really illuminates. I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets, and seeing Roy in it almost seemed somehow inevitable. He’d been there at the start of my classical theatre experience, half my life ago when he introduced me to Chekhov, and here he was again years later, as assured and accomplished as any actor on a professional stage.
Roy passed away a couple of weeks ago. I know many dear friends who are deeply affected by it, and who will miss him greatly. I’m sure there are those who cannot imagine life continuing in quite the same way without him. They knew him far better than I did, so this column isn’t so much a tribute to a wonderful man I wasn’t honoured enough to know that well personally.
However it is a respectful tip of a Chekhovian hat to a fine actor who brought words alive that stayed with me, that lit up a path, and a low curtsey to the ways in which people can make a mark on your lives without their ever knowing.