Because of two heart attacks, I was once in Ukraine. It was just before Christmas 2013, and I was on my way to New Zealand via Singapore. The plane had been delayed for several hours at Heathrow because of a faulty smoke-alarm. Then three hours into the flight, the cabin staff put out a call enquiring if there was doctor on board: someone had suffered a heart attack. Half an hour later, the doctor was called for again. A second person had had a heart-attack. The pilot announced he was going to have to land, at an airport with access to good medical facilities. This turned out to be the main airport at Kyiv, Ukraine. As soon as the plane had come to a stop on the runway, a team of highly efficient Ukrainian medics swiftly came on board and took the patients off to hospital. However, by this time, because of the previous delay in leaving London, the plane’s crew had used up their permitted flying-hours, and we were told they would have to rest for a minimum of 24 hours, during which time we would be taken to hotel accommodation.
Eventually, as our plane quietly accumulated frost on the tarmac, we were loaded onto several buses, and taken off to a hotel away from the city centre, the scene of recent anti-Russian demonstrations, which were to lead a few weeks later to Ukraine’s pro-Russian government being driven from power. And then to a western-leaning, pro EU government being elected…and then, to Putin sending in troops to annexe Crimea…
Thus echoes of one of the oddest episodes in my travels have been summoned by grim, surreal images of the Russian invasion, eight years on. The news is so distressing for all of us, left watching impotently while homes and hospitals are destroyed, blood is shed, and civilian lives shattered at the whim of a crazily deluded despot.
And how remarkable that the superbly heroic Ukrainian resistance is being led by an actor-turned President, the admirable Volodymyr Zelensky. It’s weirdly pleasing to know that his impressive c.v. as a performer includes providing the voice for both “Paddington Bear” movies – the Ukrainian counterpart of our own Ben Whishaw.
Ben of course is currently starring in the BBC adaptation of “This is Going to Hurt”, gaining lots of admirers in a rôle drawing on real-life experiences of an NHS doctor at a time when the public’s awareness of our health service has never been higher. Ironically, also now at a time when horrific international events obliterate recent memories of the scorn and disregard for all patients and medics shown by our own, elected political leaders. Given the shocking images and reports arriving every few minutes on our screens and radios – how trivial and pointless seem our “party-gate” concerns. But, but…those events nonetheless happened, and since we are so very fortunate to live in a democracy, let’s not forget that the sub-Churchillian platitudes now uttered in Downing St are from the same mouths that quaffed wine as fellow citizens suffered, and mocked the laws they themselves had made.
Links between politics and stage of course are not uncommon – most recently in our country Tracy Brabin comes to mind, moving from “Coronation St” to being elected MP for Batley and Spen after the horrific murder of Jo Cox, and who is now the Mayor of West Yorkshire. In earlier years a recipient of two Oscars, RADA graduate Glenda Jackson served as a Labour minister. And even further back, my misty memories of being an active trades unionist recall decisively right-wing positions being taken at 1970s Equity gatherings by a Guildhall School of Acting graduate, one Roger Gale – now a prominent MP and an articulate critic of his party-leader’s love of parties.
I guess the nearest equivalent of Zelensky would be the late playwright Vaclav Havel, who in the 1970s confronted the Russians as a leader of the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia, going on to become President of the Czech Republic. I daresay Putin knows well that this previous theatrical-political star played a major rôle in dismantling the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, and expanding NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe – both of which achievements Putin is out to reverse, slaughtering as he does innocent citizens and children he claims as “fellow-Russians”.
Mention of the Guildford School of Acting (GSA) brings me back to safer, more domestic matters. One of our TYA Audition Surgery clients is now, very happily, a student on the B.A. Acting course at GSA – where this week the appointment of a new Principal has been announced. A new generation of UK drama school leaders is emerging: Catherine McNamara moves to Guildford from the University of Surrey (and before that she was at Central, where there is another recent appointment, Josette Bushell-Mingo) while – at last – in June my old Gower St manor will welcome Niamh Dowling as the new (and first ever female) Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, RADA.
Niamh has a fine track-record in running courses, at the Rose Bruford School, previously at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is a specialist in Movement. As one who spent more than a decade striving to balance the training needs of phenomenally talented young actors, I rejoice in this appointment. Alongside the wretched, apocalyptic news from Ukraine, our arts industries’ recent concerns pale – the painful debates over diversity, the struggles to keep going throughout a pandemic – even though they have been deeply serious. Now is a time for mature, sane and considered leadership – and my sense is that the prevailing winds in our sector are calming, to bring a fresh and optimistic focus for a generation facing a world immeasurably changed, where we can but pray that Miranda’s lovely salutation will prevail.
“How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world…..”
Regular readers will know this blog never lets St David’s Day pass without mention, and as the welcome daffodils appear for a pound-a-bunch in our supermarkets (80p in Lidl!) I’d like to flag up the return to the West End stage of two of our finest Welsh thesps.
Craig Gallivan – like Ben, a Radagrad from my time, star of a rollicking production we did on the Queen Mary Two of “Under Milk Wood” – has segued from knocking ’em dead in “School of Rock” to the huge hit musical “Frozen” at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and is by all accounts tearing up a storm. Actor, rocker….Craig is also incidentally a former Welsh youth rugby international….
And my dear fellow “Squirrel” from yesteryear, Merthyr Tydfil’s own Alan David is set to return in May in the revival of the hit play, “Jerusalem”by Jez Butterworth, alongside Mark Rylance at the Apollo Theatre. Here we are acting together at Elstree studios, some time ago. Neither of us looks at all different. Honest.
Below are links to where you can get tickets to see these two fine Gallic performers. And while you’re around Drury Lane, across the road at the Fortune Theatre my old University chum Terry Wilton can once again be guaranteed to make even the sparsest hairs stand on end in “The Woman in Black”.
Also please find below a link to the British Museum’s “World of Stonehenge” exhibition, to which I went last week, and thoroughly recommend. Beautifully presented evidence from thousands of years ago, that our race even then was capable of bringing beauty and majesty into the world…and alas, evidence also that the cycle of man-made destruction has always repeated endlessly, leaving only stones standing…
“The Woman in Black”: https://www.thewomaninblack.com
“The Wold of Stonehenge”: https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/world-stonehenge