As autumn floods into east London, time to admire the turning leaves, the glowing berries, and to reflect….
Lapsing into autumnal musings about a life of learning and teaching about acting I pondered Success and Fame, those two elusive targets. It’s perfectly possible of course to have one without the other – some of the most quietly successful actors are those whose face you might know, but seldom their name – and it’s possible to be famous without achieving anything worthwhile at all – in which regard I mention no names, of course…
Every week we London theatre tutors rejoice as former students garner awards and blink as the press-cameras flash – but what of those who dedicate time in their lives, often several years, to training to be actors and never achieve lasting “household name” status as performers? Do they regard their learning to speak and move well, to study and interpret great texts, as a waste of time? Well this summer I’ve encountered at least two people you could ask. My guess is they wouldn’t change a thing – they’ve gone on to amazing, fulfilling success and I bet don’t regret for a moment the absence of paparazzi attention.
Doug D’Arcy, like me, spent three years in the Drama Department at Manchester University. Like me, he came to London to seek auditions – but only ever did one, for a job at Bromley Rep which he didn’t get – but then ran into Chris Wright, another old mate from university, with whom he used to book the bands for student union gigs. The result has been an extraordinary career at the heart of the music business – which you can read all about, and hear his beautifully-spoken podcast, via the link at the end of this blog. He’s had the neat idea of casting his memoires as an echo of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” – but unlike Jacques in the Forest of Arden, Doug defines his life through “Seven Offices”.
A click on the link below will explain how this collage of rock-music images fits with seven front doors!
I found the second case in the grounds of a stately home in North Yorkshire a few weeks ago, at a very tidy touring production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They performed with panache and spirit, on a brilliantly neat, entirely appropriate set as the Yorkshire twilight gathered, and sheep silently munched grass in a nearby field.
I admired the set – a clever construction suggesting sail-cloth and driftwood – and looked in my programme to seek the designer – and found the name Morgan Brind. Now Morgan trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic School, and one of his early acting jobs was for me, with one of the graduate companies on the Cunard QM2, which spawned the audacious spoof Bond movie “The Scampi Trail”, in which Morgan featured as an unsettling dark-hearted villain. Now it seems he has a thriving career as a designer, writer and producer – and still exercises his training as a performer at least once a year as Dame in one of his own panto’s!
Meanwhile, another thought to be pondered by would-be actors is that if you’ve got creative talent, even if you achieve a successful performing career you may well find that acting on its own just isn’t enough! Once you’ve cracked the part, given the performance and everyone’s told you you were marvellous, and even if you’ve made pots of money and you’re really famous, then to achieve lasting satisfaction you will almost certainly feel a need to de doing something else – directing, producing, writing, teaching – all pursuits with rewards that stay with you, and don’t evaporate over the next day’s breakfast. I’ve already in this blog celebrated the multi-talented Michelle Terry adding the directorship of Shakespeare’s Globe to her impressive portfolio of acting and writing credits, and these last weeks the achievements of another female RADAgrad have been entirely unavoidable. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, having notched a double-sided TV hit as writer and performer with “Fleabag” has gone for another twin smash as actor in, and screen-adapter of, “Killing Eve” – which started this week on BBC1 and is already a hit in America. So much so that the BBC has invested in pre-publicity to a quite remarkable degree. Travelling across London on the tube last night everywhere I looked were “Killing Eve” posters. Here are two shots taken at Vauxhall underground – a poster seemingly spawning an entire brood of mini-posters, swarming up the escalator wall!
Incidentally, Phoebe’s script has earned a nomination in the States for this year’s EMMY awards as a writer, alongside another terrific RADAgrad nominee as Best Actor in a Drama Series – that’s Matthew Rhys in “The Americans”. Matthew has had such success on American TV that many US viewers assume he’s one of their own. Not a bit of it – he is a Cardiff-born proud Welshman, an Honorary Fellow of Aberystwyth University, a member of the Druidic Order of Bards and a supporter of Plaid Cymru!
But to leave the glitter of awards and return to my earlier mention of actors with familiar faces unhampered by persistent and insistent Fame. Here’s one such face.
This is Malcolm Rennie – think lovely character work in “Mr Selfridge”, in “Pride and Prejudice” and lots of other shows – and then look out for “Shackleton’s Carpenter”, a cracking one-man play currently on tour. Gail Louw has written a tight, witty and moving script about a key figure in one of the great exploits in the history of antarctic exploring, whom we discover as an abandoned derelict on the wharf at Wellington, New Zealand. If you’re interested in what British class attitudes meant (and often still mean) then here’s a telling and disturbing true story. If you’re interested in acting, then go and learn from Malcom’s command of the stage, his assured and thrilling vocal skill – and above all for his painstaking exploration of every nuance of the script and the situation it portrays. Masterly work.
Check the link below for dates and venues.
Ok, time to apologise for this blog’s several months’ absence, chaps – no excuses, just bad time-management. I’ve been travelling again of course – in June I was back in Beijing, teaching English communications skills to business graduates at Peking University, which was a lot of fun. As ever, my friend Professor Lin-Yi and her team made me warmly welcome, and this time around there seemed to be some fresh air available. I didn’t have to don a mask to walk to work, I could actually see the Fragrant Hills from my hotel room, and could dine comfortably outside in the warm evening air:
When I commented to colleagues that there seemed to be less pollution than on previous visits, they said “Oh yes, the government just closed down some factories using too much coal…” Running things would be so easy when you could just give an order without all this pesky debate, wouldn’t it Donald…? Not that you’d do anything so weakly liberal as close down air-polluting factories…
One of my favourite Beijing teaching moments this time was when a mature student, having completed a presentation describing his fan-making business, presented me with my very own fan. I am now aching for a chance to direct a Restoration comedy – any offers out there? Own props supplied.
I went to France twice this summer – the first time at the height of the Soccer World Cup. Boy, the French know how to celebrate! We watched the French team win through to the semi-finals and then to the final on TV in the bars of Juan les Pins. The exuberance throughout the games was fantastic, waiters spinning through the crowds carrying aloft trays with vast orders of wine and beer, acrobats and drummers clammering in the streets, everyone (including us) wearing tricolour face-paint – and then the eruptions at the final whistle! Red white and blue smoke, fire-crackers, car-horns honking.
“Allons, enfants de la Patrie…”
Their national anthem is so much more exhilarating than ours – no wonder they won!
And after the fun, a calming stroll by the water…
Red photo: DD
Later in July I was back again in France, this time further West, to the Tarn and my friend Jenny’s Special Birthday. A countryside every bit as lovely as the Riviera but so different – slow rivers, green deep forests, rolling hills, light filtered through trees and vines, leisurely pre-supper garden drinks before the special meal on the raised decking….
Bliss, bliss…only to be shattered by RYANAIR!!! My friend Robinson and I (the self-appointed stage-management team for Jenny’s Birthday Events) were booked to fly back from Toulouse Airport on the Saturday evening – but a combination of pilot strikes and heavy rainfall at Stansted stranded us in Toulouse with no hope of a flight back till TUESDAY!! Exceptional weather, forsooth…!! And there was a massive electrical problem on the railways and no trains were running from Toulouse to Paris so Eurostar wasn’t an option. Fortunately Jenny was kind and invited us back to stay with her in the meantime BUT I was booked to take a group of Chinese students to Shakespeare’s Globe on the Sunday and to present certificates to them at the Concert Artistes’ Association on the Monday. Sacré Bleu!! A flurry of anguished ‘phone calls ensued – and behold, the fraternity of London actors rallied to my rescue – so my thanks here and now to Jack Laskey and James Garnon, who gallantly fielded the Chinese students between performances of “Hamlet” at the Globe, and to Frank Barrie – as distinguished an understudy as could ever be wished – who took my place at the CAA. Phew!
I belatedly became aware that, during my time away, alarming headlines had appeared about events at the Central School of Speech and Drama and “calls for the resignation” of the Principal, since he had expressed an opinion of not necessarily being in support of “quotas” in the school’s admissions policy. Now this is an ancient and well-worked debate, and Gavin Henderson is man of great integrity, intelligence and humanity. For him to be pilloried and abused has been shameful, and I am extremely relieved to know that he has received full support from the Central Board, and that sanity seems to have prevailed. As with so many “quick-fix” apparent answers to difficult social and political issues, imposing quotas risks outcomes exacerbating the very evils they purport to address. Better instead to celebrate what the current practitioners in our theatre are achieving – for instance the exciting policies Michelle now has in place at the Globe, and the work currently on show at the Old Vic.
Michelle’s first season at the Globe has been the breath of fresh air we all hoped it would be. The ensemble work has been terrific, honouring the idea of a company of actors as actors, be they female, male, of whatever ethnic background they happen to be, and with whatever conditions happen to inform their lives – what a joy it was to see a deaf actor contributing a whole new dimension to the process of telling Shakespeare’s stories. Currently there’s a top-class “Othello” on the main stage, with former Artistic Director Mark Rylance and NYU graduate André Holland leading another fine ensemble under Clare van Kampen’s brilliant direction – and not a microphone or loudspeaker anywhere in sight!
And lastly, another sad farewell – this time to Geoffrey Case, actor-turned award-winning scriptwriter. An old friend whose younger son Jacob is my godson. We took our farewells to Geoff last week at a woodland burial plot in Suffolk, a place of calm, reassuring beauty.
DOUG D’ARCY’S SEVEN OFFICES: https://www.sevenoffices.com/office-1/
MALCOLM RENNIE in SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER: http://shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com/tour.html
MORGAN BRIND’S PRODUCTIONS: https://www.thelittlewolf.co.uk/about
MATTHEW RHYS on his White House fans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmL-4if_Kdo
STOP PRESS: MATTHEW RHYS gets the gong! Da iawn! Picture: Entertainment World