Gin & Time

I’m sitting in The Swan, the pub attached to Shakespeare’s Globe, waiting for a friend to arrive. I can tell I’ve been broken by our nation’s capital when the Frenchman behind the bar tells me my gin and tonic is eight pounds and I think to myself “Huh. That’s not too bad.”

There are actors in here, having their drinks and letting their voices fall from BOOM to mini-boom. Some city boys have straggled with loose ties over the river and are devoting themselves to making it difficult for lone women to get to the toilets without having to squeeze and bend themselves between their leering grins. I shoot them evils over my notebook. They don’t notice. Couples finger their oversized wine glasses over mild conversations about prospective furniture and which of their friends are planning cripplingly expensive weddings; table-top designs and plans; life’s blueprints being unscrolled in the amber glow of a riverside pub. People wrap up their days in boozy duvets before stumbling home to bed.

I wait for my friend to arrive, whom I have just seen being enthusiastically disembowelled in a Christopher Marlowe play round the corner. Bankside’s historic Rose theatre, home to the first outings of many of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s plays, is being peeled back to its original glory by a slow trickle of funding and tentative archeology. It smells gloriously gritty and dank in there, like it’s just been found and the ooze of the ground is our olfactory narrator of all the sleeping centuries, unfurling in our nostrils and keen for the role.

My friend’s never acted in a play before. He’s an author and historian, but had decided in the spirit of ‘saying yes’ to take the director up on the offer of a scholar who gets his bits hacked out in a lesser known bloodbath called The Massacre at Paris. I love the audaciousness of it. A writer deciding he fancied doing a play. I wanted to wave flags at his bravery when he came on stage but instead just silently willed him from my seat at the back. He’s still at the theatre, helping to clear up the confetti blood, and I wait with my gin in one of my favourite places in the world.

I’ve spent very happy moments around the South Bank. I wonder why I am drawn here more than any other part of London. It may be the lure of the National Theatre and its bookshop, the presence of the Globe with its weighty history, the old pubs and ships and remnants of merchants and pirates and kings and death, the river itself, wearing its landmarks casually dotted around like it’s almost bored with how wonderful its history is. It’s all of it. Yes, that’s why I love it. The ‘all of it’ness of it. And I have my own small memories stowed around the place too. Seeing shows, lying on the grass outside the Tate, browsing the bookstalls, sunny afternoons with friends, rainy afternoons with friends, tipsy late night walks, eating, walking, talking.

I used to work just around the corner years ago when I’d just left university. Just up past Borough Market when it was still a bit rubbish, a truer London, before it got scrubbed up and Jamie Olivered to the max. I felt so grown up tottering over London Bridge in my new smart heels, which were always kicked off under my desk the moment I arrived. My first real job, another life ago. Marketing, which came before teaching, which came before bookshops and acting and writing and this column. It was a job that involved a lot of drinking, as a lot of London jobs do, and my colleagues and I would find ourselves quite often down here on the South Bank in the sun. Now we’re all doing different things, our old offices rented out to some other business, and we all keep in touch from time to time.

I can’t not find a little moment to think of that old life when I find myself drinking around here now. And I always raise a quiet glass to Barry, an old colleague who was like a big brother to me who died way way too young, whose voice I can still hear, whose brown eyes I can still see creasing as he pitches his laughter high like a ball. Perhaps that is why I am drawn here too. The river holds all our old echoes. We stitch our own time to it, to keep it alive. It keeps it all safe while everything else changes.

I wait for a new friend, and think of the old ones, and drink gin that is more expensive than it used to be but is still worth it, because it’s here.


Three Sisters, Hamlet, & Roy

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.


Not Just Any ‘Olanus – Coriolanus, Donmar Style

It was approximately five seconds into the hot topless actor’s onstage shower scene that I got my mojo back. It had been missing. I only realised it had been missing about six seconds into the hot topless actor’s onstage shower scene. (I actually think my mojo resurfaced somewhere during the sword fight just before but it wanted to make sure it was worth sticking around. The shower scene did it.) By the time the hot dude stopped having a wash, I had realised that I’d been in a veritable coma til that night.

Like a lot of people, my mojo had been kiboshed by the dreary season, the new year doldrums, the rain, the ‘what the hell am I doing with my life’ mini breakdown I’d been pondering having once the general malaise had lifted.

Who knew it just took a critically-acclaimed actor in greasepaint shaking off gelatine blood under a ruddy big tap in one of London’s most respected theatres?

(The actor has a name of course – he’s not meat in a wig. Tom Hiddleston. He’s done some stuff. People quite like him. I like him. He’s clearly been classically trained in washing and fighting. What’s not to like.)

So there I was. Coriolanus. Shakespeare. The Donmar Warehouse, Covent Garden. Theatrical Mecca and Mojo Restorative. The play was the talk of the town, not least because it had wowed audiences in Odeons around the country as part of NT Live. I was a lucky girl to get tickets.

As I left the box office, waving my ticket of privilege while the rest of London brayed outside, I could hear someone at the counter flatly refusing a woman requesting tickets. She wouldn’t believe him that there were none. Maybe she was Trevor Nunn’s auntie or something and was used to a special throne being wheeled out. As I wandered off to take my seat, I could hear him almost shouting in her face. “NO – I SAID WE DON’T HAVE ANY TICKETS AT ALL.” I don’t mind admitting it made me feel better about myself, my life, and the fact I had a seat and the posh lady didn’t. Maybe that’s when my mojo started stirring. Vive la revolution, dahling.

I don’t normally respond to the arcs and indents of the physique. If a chap flexes in front of me he is much more likely to get a yawn than a giggle, but what with this being Theatre I was creatively disposed – nay, obliged – to wolf-whistle as loudly as I could. I held back. Because it was Shakespeare. Everyone knows Shakespeare is very, very serious. Unless everyone gets a funny bit all at once, and then it’s ok to laugh – but it has to be with an air of deep intellectual understanding or you just look like a dog poo in clothes.

I didn’t know much about Coriolanus. I once saw an ‘adult adaptation’ languishing on a video shop shelf whose capitalisation of the last four letters of the title left me deeply doubtful that it had any blank verse in it at all. From my general Shakespeare knowledge I knew it had: some Romans, some fighting, and some squirty blood-jam effects like everyone onstage is a doomed doughnut. I’d never been desperate to see it. I like a bit more fairies kissing and stuff, or at least some hey nonny-nonnying before a nice quiet suicide. Not fake swords and allusions to bum. But Coriolanus had me wanting to charge the streets of the west-end looking for a (very artistic) fight.

I talk about the fit bloke (/technically brilliant demi-god of the modern stage) carrying out his post-battle ablutions like I’m some kind of knee-rubbing hot-flusher, but it’s all in jest. Mostly. I was naturally more enthralled by the dead good words that were written thousands of years ago when everyone had mules for tea and wooden teeth and stuff; I love the poetry and power of Shakespeare. But mostly I felt myself caught up in the magic of it; the elements of theatre that fuse together to leave you tipped forward in your seat, your mouth slightly open, your breath stoppered, and the nape of your neck just that little bit chilled. Enchantment that you simply do not feel in your normal waking-walking-talking life.

At the end, as the audience filed out I turned to my friends and saw we all had the same ‘silent wow’ faces on. We had that priceless moment that can be had in the darkness of a theatre before you emerge into the light and try and find words for what you’ve just seen.

The next day I woke and felt different. Feisty. Geared up. Like I could have taken on whole legions of oiled centurions with my breakfast banana. I whipped through my morning tasks, did a bunch of stuff I didn’t even know needed doing, FEISTILY. I whipped around with that bit of shining, almost inhuman energy we all got to take home in a lovely theatre doggy bag. Art had fixed me.

And thus, verily, forsooth, was my mojo reinstated. Adieu.


Success & Suicide – The Black Business of Acting

Since moustachioed Russian dude Constantin Stanislavski wrote in ‘An Actor Prepares’ of slathering chocolate on his face so that he could more fully embody the role of Othello, actors have felt encouraged to take themselves and their work very seriously. I mean, they must have taken it seriously before – you sort of have to be serious about the willing madness that is getting up and asking people to watch you do anything, let alone expecting them to think you’re good at it – but Stan really gave them the sort of visceral actor’s language to explain to non-actors how hard and serious it all is.

For most people with the burning ambition acting never amounts to more than an unpaid hobby, but for a ‘lucky’ few acting is a profession. It’s been a profession for thousands of years. The Greeks, if you embrace the more colourful imagery, had to shout to be heard above the din of mass vomiting and fornication in the amphitheatres, Shakespeare’s all-male players spittled their falsetto over the groundlings while pretending to be women, and Catherine Tate was paid to be allowed to pretend to be an actress – swaggering on stage with actual actor David Tennant and gurning over some of the most beautiful words ever written.

It’s a baffling business. But then so is oil, and the stock market, and prostitution. And teaching.

I very briefly wanted to go to drama school once. Until I studied Stanislavski and realised I had none of the crazy drive you need to be an actor. More than that, I just didn’t want to whack chocolate on my face and try to make words sound like they weren’t written first. I discovered I would much rather write the words. So I did a writing degree. I don’t quite know how I found my way back to making acting one of my professions, especially the one from which I’ve earned the most. It’s fun, but I don’t take it seriously. I think of the words first, and then the considerations of performance are a sort of by-product in bringing the words to life. Perhaps it’s merely a more healthy thing for my psychology to attach itself to than the full-blown desire to ‘act’ that a lot of my good actor friends have.

My reticence to connect with acting over writing – writing being something that can always be yours, and acting something that is only ever yours while someone is happy to give it to you – is partly why I was so moved by the death of the actor Paul Bhattacharjee recently. The fact he had likely committed suicide as a result of being made bankrupt made me sad not only that so many people take their lives because of the ugliness of money, but sad that an actor with regular work, in high status productions like Bond films and west-end plays, had come to find himself in such a pickle. If the successful ones are struggling to make ends meet, how on earth are the less successful ones getting by? If the seemingly happy ones ain’t happy, how are the other poor bastards doing? (And is there more to the occasionally-tickled issue of actors likely having something a bit wrong with them in the first place?)

Did Paul Bhattacharjee know when he was taking his bow as the highly desired male role of Benedick in the RSC production of Much Ado last year that a mere twelve months later he would literally find himself at rock bottom? Was it pride that drove him to it? The dichotomy between the outward appearance of the carefree, glamorous life of a respected working actor and the shame of a man who finds himself discredited and reduced? Did he feel like a fool? It seems a common thing for those who stumble their way to bankruptcy to be less worried about where the next few pennies are coming from, about the sudden lack of things, than they are about how they might look to people who find out. The aesthetics of debt. Pride. It was certainly a major factor in my father’s suicide.

This is naturally just my reflection on possibilities. I know nothing of Paul Battacharjee’s life. Tales of debt and suicide strike their own chords in me; the reverberations may well be wrong.

Battacharjee’s death has inspired many responses from other actors, those that knew him in life and those who did not; written ruminations not just about the sadness of his end, but about the precarious world of acting itself. His suicide has inspired actors to speak out; their own words, their own stories. Even those who are happy to admit that it can be a profession for idiots, eternal children and egotists, and that while in the employ of a production you are one of the luckiest fools on earth, even those are saying it’s fucking hard to be an actor and that to set about doing it with any focus on longevity you have to be a bit of a masochist.

I suppose it would be easy for non-actors to think that actors moaning about how ‘tough’ it is need to get a bloody grip because they could be swilling their hands about in sewage or sweeping an offal floor for a living.

But the truth is, all living is hard. The thing that demands the greater proportion of our waking time – our job, whatever that may be – is hard at some point. Humans are naturally set to struggle with it. Existing is a serious business. We weren’t born to do jobs – we’ve made them up as we go along out of necessity; supply and demand burgeoning in tandem with our precocious, vainglorious evolution. And time niggles us like a cattle-prod reminder that we haven’t got long left. That is why actors think acting is serious. That is why writers think writing is serious. Why shopkeepers and bankers and nail technicians think what they do is serious. Anything to which we give our time, our lives, and perhaps even more particularly our passion, is serious. Because we don’t get much time and it goes bloody quickly and even the most hopeful of us don’t know if we’re given any more at the end, and some of us are even driven to cut it short.

Being human, more so than a member of a man-made profession, is the hardest part. And a role for which we are never really amply prepared.


Actors: Portrait of a Showmance

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s convenient perception of actors being self-absorbed needy coxcombs, but I feel I should tell you that some of them can actually be…the opposite of wank. I spent last week recording a BBC series called Walk On The Wild Side (comedy voiceovers to funny footage gleaned from the BBC’s wildlife footage), and I got to work with some of the loveliest dudes in the business. Like, some proper darlings, darlings.

The week got off to a laborious start however after I politely declined a car to pick me up from the station. I always feel funny being driven in a swish black car by a man in a suit – it makes me feel like I’m a colonial slave-owner named Miss Mabel in an undiscovered bootleg Dylan song about privilege and evil, so I usually say no and get the tube – wishing the TV companies would merely issue an Oyster card as one of the perks. Perhaps with a jaunty plastic cover, maximum. But I learnt my lesson this week as I ran late for the first day’s work and got sandwiched between two men on the central line who were both clearly sweating out a decade of bad late night curries right into my face. I sprang out of the carriage at Tottenham Court Road and spent the whole of my trot to Soho trying to keep my oesophagus from bursting out of my nostrils like a serpent of bile and woe. I turned up huffing, puffing, sweaty and stressed, lamenting my ridiculous decision not to have slaves.

Thank goodness the day got easier or it might have become something like work. I read the paper, ate a croissant, Brummied it up as a speed-dating chimp, had some tea, was a penguin for a bit, had some sushi, squealed as a meerkat, and wondered what to have for lunch the next day while having another sit down.

A lot of people take the piddle out of actors being all ‘luvvy’, and that’s because they are. And I think I know why. Because actors get to spend a lot of time sitting. In make-up chairs, in trailers, in studio slob-out areas waiting for their next scene, (and, less illustriously, at home waiting for their agent to call). And when they’re sitting they chat incessantly – at first out of graciousness, then out of curiosity, then out of genuine care for their temporary colleagues. Tot up the hours spent chit-chatting and pretty soon they have shared a lot of stuff – their heritage, their dreams, their eccentricities, the dull details of their domestics. Compound with that the time spent on scenes – the concentrated moments of creating something, and the ‘at ease’ moments in between characterisation where you giggle or muse the process, all the while exposing different glinting shards of something which is you, but not you – all that bonds you quicker than any other initiation period in any other job. Being paid to act is a validation of all your confidences and a reminder of all your insecurities, and an invitation to a thousand unrecognised pulses of the psyche along the way; it’s only natural you should cling to your companions while doing it. By the end of the second day you’re kissing everyone goodbye, calling people darling, and faux-weeping if someone has to leave early. There has been a genuine bond forged in the fires of fleeting creative industry. It’s not Love, but it’s Luv. Or a term I heard only recently – a ‘showmance’.

One of the best things about acting is having the wherewithal to fully embrace just how ludicrous a job it is, and how ludicrous you are for wanting to do it. It is a foolish, childish, unimportant profession compared to 97.3% of others (clinically proven), and if you don’t retain a high level of awareness about it that’s when you’re at risk of turning into one of those total nobs whom everyone hates. Working in comedy in particular, thank fuck, keeps you hyper aware while ‘acting like a dick’ of the pitfalls of actually ‘being a dick’.

Let’s spell this out: I spent a week doing things like gargling water while humming Lady Gaga as a seal, singing Sweet Caroline badly as a bird of paradise, and finding just the right sort of lisp for a simpleton goat. I got driven to and from work, was bought breakfast and lunch, sat around with some lovely funny people, watched Come Dine With Me, and did a few voices in between. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not a proper job. I feel immensely guilty about it actually; I might not let them pay me. In fact, I might pay them.

No matter how peachy that all is, it’s sometimes quite easy to fall into nonchalance about it. Even astronauts must get bored. Even Buzz Aldrin must have huffed at the moon and wished he was at home eating cereal. No matter how grounded or humble actors remain while on a job, how lucky they remember to feel, how aware they are of the fact they might never work again if fortune (or casting director) decides to look them up and down and too-casually say “nah”, how utterly replaceable they are – the simple fact is they are being utterly spoilt in the meantime (in the nice comfy budgets of Tellyland at least) and the sulky teen that resides somewhere in us all is being coaxed to the surface. “These organic digestives are completely devoid of any taste.”, “My driver insisted on talking to me this morning when I was really busy trying to finish a tweet.”, “I can’t believe they forgot my wasabi!”

One afternoon, after a tough five minutes for us actors exploring the dynamic of a shoal of exuberant fish, Jude Law strolled past us in our corridor-cum-teenagers’ pit and reminded me that even though we were spoilt enough to be waiting for Wagamama lunches to be lovingly placed on our laps, we were amoebas next to him. Dirty, ugly, poor ones. He floated through wearing garbs of cloth not spun on this earth, and we all fell silent. I glanced at my script. I was about to play a slightly confused wildebeest. Jude was probably going to re-do a line for a movie in which he played God – but, like, an extra hot version of God, with extra powers – like – hot but edgy award-winning ones. Even while remembering how fun this was, how lucky I am, I felt for one small moment like I would never achieve anything. Because I was not, nor would ever be Jude Law, and not just because I don’t have testicles. The hierarchy present in acting, as in all industries, flexed itself right there in front of me.

But then I remembered it didn’t matter. Because this was all playing. This job is silly. And playing God for Warner Brothers is just as silly as playing an amnesiac goldfish for the BBC, is as silly as playing the back-end of a pantomime horse, is as silly as rushing home from your office job to play an ‘urban’ Puck in bad am-dram Shakespeare, is as silly as playing Doctors & Nurses in a Wendy house. At its truest core, acting has no hierarchy. We are all just children, playing games.

I’ll be back on the tube next week, squished into the armpit of a tramp, trying not to puke, and I’ll try to remember to feel just as lucky as when I’m waiting for sushi, with a car outside to take me back home.

Maybe the tramp will have an Oscar tucked in his coat; forgotten, tarnished, but his.