Kamikaze Shakespeare

Turns out i miscounted. This is 101. I’ve always been shit at counting. I do words. I’m trying to get better at the maths bit as then I’d get into fewer pickles. As someone that loves to turn his hand to the unfamiliar it’s odd that counting has evaded me so completely for so long. But it has.

I’ve just got home from a kamikaze Shakespeare evening. It was two hours of going up and engaging people in conversation before asking them to choose which Shakespeare play they like and then doing a bit of it for them. It’s fine as long as they don’t ask for Timon, Verona or Romeo and Juliet. Everyone always asks for r&jb the buggers. I ended up doing most of Hamlet, half of Macbeth including lady M, and bits of loads of the comedies. Only one person asked which my favourite was and I surprised myself by saying Julius Caesar. But that changes all the time depending on what I’m worrying about. Right now I’m worrying about the capacity for those who have power to do harm. So I did Cassius deconstructing Caesar to Brutus.

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Sometimes i describe my brain to the guests as a bit like an old windows 98 hard drive. It’s all there somewhere but the wheels need to spin for a bit before the older stuff comes up. One of them asked for “some verse from Malvolio” and I surprised myself by hauling up his only extended bit of verse. I’ve not said it for 8 years or more. Another gave the first line of a half remember’d sonnet and i finished it. For every obvious win like that I hit a few losses: “Do Romeo and Juliet” “I’ve never learnt any, not even the prologue. I should probably get on it. Anything else?” Technically I could get away with just repeating the same sonnet over and over but I deliberately make it harder for myself as then it’s more interesting. That’s a pattern in my life that is all too familiar – deliberately making things harder for myself. If I’m making money doing what I love it feels like cheating if it’s easy. It’s a pattern I’m trying to break. It can lead to me blocking myself from having a nice time in all walks of life.

It hasn’t been the easiest time since I’ve been back anyway if I’m honest. I’m back to sifting and prioritising creditors, doing multiple constantly shifting jobs to make sure that things are coming in not going out. London has that effect on me. Thank God I’ve got a happy roof over my head. I was beginning to worry that I’d never have another meeting when my manager called in a self tape for tomorrow. It’s good casting – an entitled megalomaniac scientist. A cross between my darling brother and all the people I went to school with. He’s the Julian Sands character in Arachnophobia, but instead of spiders it’s … something else. I’m probably under NDA.

That’s the other side of this job. 0 to 60 in 0.5 seconds  Suddenly having a load of stuff to learn and no time in which to learn it. I’m working first thing tomorrow and I took the call at 10pm. So i have to go in in the morning. And I’ll have to see if I can get the afternoon off. But right now I’ve got to knuckle down and learn a load of ecstatic ranting well enough that I can swallow it and make it mine tomorrow if i can persuade someone to help shoot it…

 

99 – Llamashark​

“A llama is a funny kind of fleecy hairy goat, with an indolent expression and an undulating throat. Like an unsuccessful literary man.

And I know the place he lives in (or at least- I think I do)
It is Ecuador, Brazil or Chile- possibly Peru;
You must find it in the Atlas if you can.
The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Llama who is Lord of Turkestan.
For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the Ruminant is preferable surely to the Priest
Who battens on the woful superstitions of the East,
The Mongol of the Monastery of Shan.”

That’s the undeniably Victorian doggerel of Hilaire Belloc on llamas. It starts as a lovely silly poem about llamas and ends up saying EVERY EASTERN RELIGION IS ATROCIOUS. Which kicks me right in the Buddhism. I learnt it, along with whichever other poems I could get my hands on, as a kid. Llamas have been in my thoughts a great deal today so I thought I’d share it.

The few encounters I’ve had with camelids in the wild have been perfunctory. An alpaca tried to eat the buttons on my shirt in Peru. It didn’t even have enough understanding of cliché to spit water in my face, which would have made a better story. A few kids tried to charge me for a photograph of another one in Cuzco. They made me delete it from my phone when i refused to pay. Outside of those unsatisfying encounters, it’s really just been tame llamas on farms. And sharks? I’ve not seen one in the wild at all despite having dived a bit. Is that unlucky or lucky? There were a few dogfish on a night dive in Thailand, but only little ones. I met a banded sea krait, but that’s about as dangerous as I’ve seen in the water. Ok it could’ve killed me in seconds, but they’re docile.

Llamas and sharks. Sharks and llamas. A strange pairing. But the two are connected. “How?” I hear you all cry. “How can they possibly be connected? What witchcraft is this?”

Six months ago, off the coast of Polynesia, the first specimen of llamashark was brought ashore. Hairy and aggressive, the llamashark blinds seals by spitting in their eyes with acidic saliva, before gradually chewing them to death.

No it’s a little more complicated than that. Stand by, here comes science. It was recently discovered that camelids and some sharks have antibodies that are very unusual. They are smaller than other antibodies and able to survive in higher temperatures and pH than ours. This opens up possibilities when it comes to the treatment of diseases. For instance they can survive and work in the human stomach. I’ve only got a handle on the basics at the moment. But bear with me, there’s time yet. I’ve been hanging with a bunch of epidemiologists. Scientists specialising in disease epidemics. We’re examining the ethics of new forms of self diagnosis and containment using lateral flow tests at home and harnessing big data. But we’re trying to make it a fun way of asking what you would do if you thought you had an infectious disease. Which might sound like a big ask, but it’ll work out.

Last summer at Green Man Festival we ran a sciency story gamey info thing about a disease that turns people into llamas. Here’s me in the sunshine wearing loads of wool.

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It came through Fanshen, who have done some brilliantly random fun madnesses over the years, and who I love dearly. It was fun and went down well so we’re doing it again slightly differently in London. It’ll be two days only as part of a four day beer and music festival in Kings Cross. I get a free pass and a plus one and some dosh. It looks to be the beginning of another ridiculously fun summer.

Today seven people sat around a table having earnest and heated discussions about whether llama ears needed to be made out of socks or cardboard, about the merits of different types of face paint, about effective sleight of hand techniques with lateral flow test models. These and more of the usual ridiculous sincere early development questions, made all the more strange by the hotch potch of artists and scientists in the room. I’m the right man for the job though. My brother’s a scientist so I’m an expert at working out how to make what they say comprehensible and transferrable.

So there we go. Llamas and sharks. Another random day in the life. What will tomorrow bring? Will I turn into a llama? Stay tuned for the 100th episode of “Al stumbles through existence with a big smile on his face.”

 

98 – Marathon

Today I watched as thousands of people ran away from me. Occasionally I made inarticulate noises of encouragement. Some of them were my friends but I didn’t spot them – it’s hard to recognise people from the back and above. I was on the footbridge at Embankment, right at the end of the route. People were battered by then. I kept my shouting generic. Cycling their names would’ve gotten old quickly. I just shouted “Aaargh euurrrgh yarrr” which is the socially acceptable encouragement (or piracy) noise in London as far as I could glean from those around me. Well done to Maz, Chris, Ben, David, Sarah and all the other maniacs known and unknown to me who put themselves through that extended hell. If I had to run more than 10 miles the lower part of my right leg would unscrew itself, my lungs would start fighting each other and my heart would fly off to rejoin its brothers and sisters on Pluto. I’ve no objections to doing difficult things but I’d probably not attempt that one unless I was being chased by a very persistent very angry, very hungry slug.

I picked my way through crowded streets. Enthusiastic stewards with no clue what they were being employed to do barked arbitrary orders if you caught their eye, so they could look and feel like they were working. “Go the other side of that gumstain.” “Cross the road with your left foot first.” “Don’t stand so close to the road.”

The runners who had finished were wrapped in foil surrounded by excited people, like Thanksgiving turkeys. Many of them already looked cooked. Some were overdone. Policemen maintained a quiet armed presence, and in a new but sadly necessary tactic, parked their vans to block roads and encouraged official coach drivers to do the same.

People were everywhere. This city is ramjammed. Even the runners looked like a factory conveyor belt as they rolled under the bridge. I imagined myself having to sort them into categories.

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Plucking out the rotten ones, labelling the plump ones “Finest”. Putting the ones dressed as goldfish into the “party food” section. I should probably stop comparing the runners to edibles. They’ve raised tons of money for good causes across the world. Perhaps I should put myself in the mix for next year and do something genuinely hard for a good cause. I’m scared I’d cripple myself, but if it’s just irrational fear that’s stopping me then that’s not enough.

I left the area once again marveling how many people there are in this city. For the evening I went to visit one of my friends who lives close to me. There are so many hearts packed into such a small space in this city, and it’s important to see them outside of the Facebook screen. I’ve spent a Sunday afternoon curled up on a sofa with Flavia while her 3 year old veers from Lego aficionado to penguin expert to breadstick maniac and back again. It’s alright being three. Right now he’s sitting watching Lego Batman clips on YouTube and I’m thinking about how i met the guys who made this at the premier two months ago. I tried showing him the photo of me with Lego Batman but he refused to be impressed. I guess the one I met was just an overheating actress in a suit and he can tell that. “But I’m friends with one of the producers” doesn’t cut it for a three year old. Or anyone else for that matter.

 

97 – Sweet Love Remember’d

Unclogging my eyes I zombied out of bed and shuffled to Westminster Abbey first thing in the morning. It was the first day of “Sweet Love Remember’d“. This is a two day celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday which has taken place uninterrupted every year for quarter of a century now. It’s one of the most striking untouched legacies of Mark Rylance’s beautiful tenancy as artistic director of The Globe. Still booked through the theatre website it ‘s a whimsical and romantic stroll through the streets of London, populated by lovestruck fools with, usually, the simple form of a Shakespearean sonnet as their material.

Over the years I’ve done it twice. Once with my friend Jo outside a church. We were falling in love but fighting by the walls. There was a real wedding on inside and we tried not to get in the way. The bride sat in her car for HOURS before coming in. I was worried she was waiting for us to go in and sit down. But I think she was just either doing her makeup or her nut.

The second time I was a blind busker sleeping on a bench in Victoria Gardens. I had my accordion and picked up a guy who must have loved the accordion and genuinely thought I was blind. He came and stood extremely close to me to listen. Those of you who have heard me playing know that in so doing he demonstrated either profound deafness or suicidal tendencies.

It was lovely this year to be able to watch and not freeze my ass off for hours. For an audience member it’s a really happy morning. We started in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, and had a little talk from an abbey volunteer about the statue of William Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner. Then we were all given white roses and sent out onto the streets of London armed with directions, and some lovely snippets of information about the places we’d be passing.  It was a little group of strangers with roses, and we very quickly learnt each other’s names and were talking like old friends. We had a long walk, and saw ten little mini playlets. A fine way to spend a morning. Three of the actors were buskers – all more musically capable than I am. I made a mental note – if I ever do it again, I won’t be a busker. There was a beautiful piece by Scott, and old friend from drama school whose wife and kids were walking with us. He said farewell to them and kissed us all goodbye as he went off on his journey. I found it very moving, but I love to see him work as I have been with him on parts of his journey. Anne-May had strewn circles of roses from Amsterdam around the statue of a knight templar outside Temple Church. She took one man into the circle and talked of love and death. A woman attempted to evangelise us outside St Bride’s Church. A disguised Rylance wrestled with himself and the past wearing a commedia mask. His simple presence arrested Scott’s fidgeting children. Even in a mask… Macbeth told us all of his nefarious plans in a graveyard. A gardener complained about the weather. All this in beautifully spoken verse. What a perfect morning.

Afternoon and evening I carried on the walking theme, going to the park, and walking down the river with good friends. Long may that sonnet walk continue – it’s a beautiful romantic tradition, and has me quite swept up.

96 – Party Making

What the hell just happened? It’s 1.43am. I just got into a bus on Shaftesbury Avenue. I’m covered in glitter. I’m wearing my three piece, with polished shoes. My feet hurt. My head feels like it’s full of cotton wool.

I woke up this morning anticipating a day without work. I didn’t like it. I’ve got bills to pay and I’ve fallen behind. Then I get a message from Kerry, whose baby I looked after a couple of days ago. There’s last minute work of an unknown nature. A phone number and an amount of money. Fine. I can do this. I ring the number. They need me smart, in Soho, in an hour. Once again thank God I live central. Wash, polish, pluck, shave, change, run. “Hi. I’m Al. What am I doing?”

It’s a party. For a very big Russian internet company. I’m helping build and run the party. I never knew parties could be so much work.

Today I’ve lugged furniture, built sets, designed displays, blown up balloons, made a dress that holds champagne flutes. Then there’s been a party. Then I’ve done everything again in reverse. Dismantled dress, popped balloons, took apart displays, struck sets, put furniture back.

In the middle I met a lot of people and told them what they’d be doing and where. I also did lots of the obligatory walking around the party smiling and making sure everyone is having funtimes. Once everyone was drunk I had the added weight of fending off drunk people who want to dance with the smart sober guy. I was on constant rounds to the acts, checking in with them in the way I appreciate when I’m the act. It was fun. My job, for the party bit of the evening, was to be genial and fun and helpful. That’s what I do for breakfast.

The acts were awesome. They were working in a tiny tiny little space. Excruciatingly beautiful boys rippled through the crowd serving Moet Chandon with twitching biceps, jutting chins, dimpled smiles. Sharp and pretty young girls danced suggestively on platforms. A woman in a spinning hoop wearing nothing but a few golden hankies pretended to be comfortable and happy serving champagne to smokers. It was definitely a mistake when one of them got kicked in the head. People made flowers and words and symbols with poi. Women casually balanced upside down on the heads of oiled men, or became powdery flesh pretzels on top of gargantuan mirror balls. Bands played, and singer songwriters, and soloists. A stoic woman with a sore back smiled convincingly for a million photos while wearing hundreds of champagne flutes.

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But for the nightingale tongues and the shagging it could’ve been a Roman orgy.

I was just making sure it all ran smoothly. Good job I’m not drinking with all that free Moet. That would’ve made for a very different party. But all that decadence for an office party! I had some glorious vegan food and there were two suckling pigs, but even though lots was eaten there was loads of waste. And they have a party like that monthly.

It seemed like a good place to work, but even so I suspect it would kill me. People making work for people making work for people making work for people etc etc ad infinitum. I was happy to build a party for them, watch as they all got hammered in it, and then go home thinking about our coming Beowulf party show and what I’ve learnt. That and the invoice. And the fact I can barely move my legs.

 

95 – Red Paint

Places hold memories. If there are ghosts, they might be something to do with that. If you’ve spent a lot of time and emotion in a place, that place becomes a part of your journey – sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. I have, in the past, gone back to places where bad things took place in my life, and improvised rituals to cleanse myself from them and reclaim the place. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous. But I do feel that we leave little bits of ourselves behind if we’re not careful. Sometimes we leave bits we are better rid of, sometimes bits we might want back.

Above the Arts is a place that resonates strongly with me. It’s a little artists club in the centre of town, and it was built by people I love in a room where I have expended a huge amount of energy over a prolonged period. I did Christmas Carol in there for two seasons running – I love that show, and I try to give everything whenever I work, so there’s a lot of bits of me – probably skin as much as energy – wound into the woodwork there. Today I stopped by after rehearsal to pick up some boxes, and I saw some red paint stains on the floor. Immediately I was in a time-warp.

A little over two years ago I was standing in a top hat behind a two way mirror. It was our first show in London. I could see the audience, but they couldn’t see me as I was in the dark. We had just played a track of a clock while I held a smoke machine behind a door, wafting as best I could, while opening and closing a door slow and sustained. That was the beginning of my show every night. It’s the entrance of Jack as Marley’s ghost, so the audience get him walking through a door dead, while smoke billows in his wake, and I discover that I haven’t got three hands. Once he’s on and talking, I move to the mirror to be revealed. “That’s odd,” I think. “The floor’s wet.” I make a mental note not to slip on this wet stuff. I get in position. But the floor is really wet – I investigate it thoroughly with my foot. Wet and sticky… Ectoplasm?

There’s about a minute before I’m revealed, but it might be a problem, so I come out from behind the curtain to get some light on it. “India – there’s something leaking,” I whisper to my friend who is operating. I head to the corridor where there’s light. “I’m hoping it’s not leaking onto the … oh my fucking GOD”

Red paint. Red paint fucking EVERYWHERE. On my right shoe. On my black trousers. On my top hat. 40 seconds to the reveal. I hop to the loo and get some loo paper to sort the hat out. 15 seconds. Thankfully Brian, the producer, happens by, perhaps attracted by one of his actors hopping to the loo less than 30 seconds before he goes on stage. “Everything alright?” He takes in the situation. I hiss: “There’s fucking red paint fucking everywhere”. It’s redundant. He can see that. A look crosses his face that I’ve not seen before or since, and I see him every day. It’s a mixture of confusion, rage and resignation. 5 seconds to reveal. I get in the mirror and freeze, holding down my frantic energy, putting the hat on backwards to hide the paint. “Where the fuck are the keys – HERE” Bang. Light goes on and I say “Humbug” a couple of times, perfectly still. Around my feet I can feel people wiping my shoes as I stand, and their muffled cursing. The light goes off. Now I have about 2 minutes before I come through the door. Then I’m on stage until the end of the show. There’s myself, Brian and India. Jack is onstage oblivious. It’s rare that an actor desperately wants his scene partner to milk it for all it’s worth but I’m trying to send psychic signals to Jack – “Milk it for God’s sake milk it I need more time.” He speeds up, the fucker.

Anyone in theatre will know the feeling of the next minute or two. Focussed industrious borderline panic. One ear on Jack, part of my focus on keeping my head show-ready, while my entire body automatically solves the problem of getting the paint off me – as much as that’s even possible. I hear my cue coming: “Shit I’ve got to go on”. Brian, still shellshocked, nods automatically: “Have a good show.” I jump down one flight of stairs, bound up another, sneak through a noisy door and listen. “…fix this man.” Bang and I’m on. By the end of the show, there was virtually no paint left, and Brian – who was on 2 hours sleep after the get in – looked like he was not just ready but willing to die on his feet.

All of that came back to me almost physically where I saw my painty footprints on the floor of Above the Arts today, like the evidence of a murder. The feeling came back to me palpably. I felt the need to stand where I had been standing and rediscover the moment of realisation. For the rest of the run I had a spot of red paint on my top hat and one red soled shoe. Nobody ever said “Why did Scrooge have paint on his shoe?” That’s theatre, baby.

Places hold memories. That place is steeped with crazy fun good ones of mine. If you’re in town it’s worth asking if I’m there, as it’s a lovely place to hang out between meetings. We could have peppermint tea and look at the bloodstains. Paintstains!

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Babies and Bumpers

I just got off a train at Hoxton and had that sinking feeling that I might have left something behind. What was it? I’ve got my keys, my card, my bag. Oh yes, shit! The baby! I left the baby on the train! No. No. It’s ok. He’s with his mum again. Phew.

It’s pretty full on looking after one of those little bastards. Never mind that they’ll shit in your eye if they can, they want watching. How people deal with them day in day out is a mystery to me. I take my hat off to my acting friends who have managed to make one of those little bundles and can still do their job. It can be achieved, which is heartening. Kerry, the mum, had two auditions today, and needed someone to take the bugger while she went in to audition for the part of “Girl who finds out she’s pregnant”. She was saying that having the baby helps stop her getting fraught with nerves before she goes in. He can smell it and doesn’t like it. But she can’t bring him into the actual casting.  If she can find someone to take him, the audition room becomes a little oasis of creativity where for a second nobody wants to drink you and you can do your job. I want my friends to do well, so it was easy to offer to take him. Hell, I’m happy to borrow a baby for a bit. They’re awesome. They look at stuff, and their feet are as active as their hands.

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It’s another good use of Facebook, crowdsourcing childcare. A few of my friends manage that way. It means they get to go to their auditions and meetings, and people like me get a temporary playmate of approximately the same mental age.

Babies usually look at me and laugh. I’m over it.

Elliot and I went to a park and laughed and made jazz music. I’d just had a meeting with my agent, so an hour or two of squawking and gurgling with the occasional (one sided) milk break was a better wind down than a beer, and healthier.

With a baby, London looks different. You notice all the other babies. You see where there’s space for a push chair. You love places full of soft furnishings with free milk on the table. Elliot and I hung out, looked at stuff for a while and made friends. Then I triumphantly returned him to his mother with all his limbs still in roughly the right place, and without having accidentally dropped him in a hole. Having spent a few hours playing “Who’s foot is that?” it was time for me to knuckle down and do some serious work. Unfortunately all the serious work was taken so I went to a little dusty soundproof box in Hackney and provided the voice of a bumper car. And not just any bumper car. The angriest bumper car in the history of bumper cars.

For an hour I stood there, apoplectic with rage, cross-eyed and bawling like a retired magistrate who’s never had to wait so long for a coffee in his LIFE. They had a huge condenser mic “Bump them! Bump them all!” I exhorted the pop filter. “Crush the fools.” It’s the sort of thing I’d do in the garden when I wasn’t much older than Elliot. It was strangely therapeutic. Now if I’m ever feeling angry I know I can go and sit in my angry bumper car and smash them all.