I first met Jack Whitam on a lawn in Yorkshire over ten years ago. Sprite Productions had lost a Malvolio shortly before rehearsal started. Lucy Kerbel Charlotte Bennett and Liam Evans-Ford auditioned me at short notice, and I was told I’d be going up to Ripley Castle for the whole summer. I was stoked. I decided to be organised. I had to get there on the Sunday evening. So I packed my bag bright and early Saturday morning, to be properly prepared for a few months away. That sort of preparation was uncharacteristic to me. Which makes some sense of what followed.
Having packed my early bag, I went down to my car, leaving my flat door open. I consulted my A to Z (this was 2006). I plotted a route to Ripon in Yorkshire. Then I did something I still don’t fully understand. I was reading the A to Z in the driver’s seat. I worked out and scribbled down the roads. I put the key in the ignition, to check the fuel. A full tank of fuel. I then, with no conscious thought, started the car and drove non stop to Ripon in Yorkshire, a day early, leaving all my stuff neatly packed in a bag in the living room, and with the door to my flat wide open.
Some hours later I got to Ripon. Then I realised I had no clue where in Ripon I needed to be. I still didn’t realise I was in the wrong town, or that all my stuff was in an open flat in London.
I rang Liam, the Producer. “Hi, I’m in Ripon.” I say. “Whereabouts in Ripon are you?” I ask. “We’re not in Ripon.” He says. “But you’re not far.” By some cosmic coincidence, (the universe loves fools), Ripon is 15 minutes drive from Ripley. Liam gives me directions to The Mill House, where he’s staying. I drive there, overshoot, and pull up just before the sign to a town called Bedlam. “It’s Bedlam up here,” I think to myself and try to chuckle but I can’t. Instead I berate myself for making premature dad jokes, pull up by the sign, and call Liam. “I think I’ve overshot,” I tell him. “I’m near Bedlam.” I struggle not to make the joke, and succeed. Best to make a good impression. Liam comes out in a car to find me. I still haven’t caught on I’m there on the wrong day or that all my stuff is 4 hours away in an open London flat. He pulls up alongside me and winds down the window. “Hi Liam!” “Hi, Al – turn round – you don’t want to go that way – it’s Bedlam up there.” He is chuckling. I can’t do it. I don’t even crack a smile. It just wouldn’t be honest. I’ve just hauled myself out for the same wisecrack. And I see Liam’s face fall. “Humourless git” he thinks as we go in convoy to The Mill House.
It’s only over dinner with Liam and Hester that I discover I’m there on the wrong day. I try to make sense of how I managed that – thankfully it’s okay. The digs are ready. We go in convoy to Throstle Nest, which is a remote farmhouse where the actors are all sleeping. I go to my boot to get my bag but there is no bag in my boot. I stand there shocked as the full extent of my idiocy lands on me. My bag is in London. My flat door is open. I am a day early for a job with a load of strangers, in the middle of nowhere. Fuck.
Multiple panic phone calls lead to me coercing my teenage nephew to go to my flat, get my bag, close the door and hoik the bag all the way to Greenwich in time for my friend Jo (who is playing Olivia) to load it into a car. I think I might still owe him £20 quid for that. Hopefully he doesn’t read my blog. He earns more than I do now.
That night I sleep alone in an amazing room in a big Yorkshire farmhouse overlooking Nidderdale, and I learn the terrifically important actor’s digs lesson – if you get there first you get the best room.
Liam and Hester were worried sick about me as a company member after my tremendous display of incompetence. I was worried sick about myself to be honest. It worked out for the best though. They got me back six consistent joyful years, and I had some of the happiest times of my life so far in the grounds of Ripley Castle making Shakespeare. It was a tight community of theatre makers and believers who were geeky and willing enough to spend summer working hard at something beautiful in a beautiful place. I would never have met the people I collaborated with on Christmas Carol had I not gone to Sprite, and many more projects besides. I did delightful work with a variety of different practitioners, all of whom were having working holidays in Yorkshire. One of the people who I worked and lived with with a few times back then was Jack Whitam. He was the first actor to arrive on the correct day all those years ago. He was surprised to find someone already had the best bedroom by arriving the day before. “I would never have thought of that,” he said to me on that lawn. “I didn’t” I replied.
Since then we’ve been thrust together by chance so frequently that we started to do it by design. We’ve made a Beowulf, as you will well be aware, oh constant reader. First scratch was today. It’s Jack, myself and Anne-May (Dutch Puck) playing around with sheets and masks and lights and songs and movement and verse and danger. I am so glad of the convoluted paths that life takes. It feels like the right story to tell right now, this ancient tale of men and monsters. And the right people to be telling it with.
Funny how my thoughts fell to Sprite when I was going to write about Beowulf. It’s because of the time of year. I think it’s around now that rehearsals would usually have started. They’ve moved to Wales, and those times are now just memories and friendships. Although maybe one day…
Here’s a shot of Jack as Beowulf from today. We were experimenting with mask.