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.

Shakespeare in the Abbey

I must have walked, cycled and driven past Westminster Abbey a thousand times since I last went into it. Living in London you can quickly harden to the huge amount of history here. I’ll sit, fart and eat my sandwich on a bit of wall that was built by the Romans. I’ll check I’m not late from a clock made in 1465. Having recently been in a place where they say “1830” like we say “600ad” my history head is calibrated a bit better than it was before I left. Tonight I had the opportunity to go into the Abbey and SEE it.

It was the open dress rehearsal of the inventively titled “Shakespeare within the Abbey.” They’ll be doing it for the punters tomorrow and the next day. It’s a site-specific piece in Westminster Abbey. Often I find with site specific work that the performers haven’t managed to unravel themselves from their material, so you see a lot of people needing to be loved. This was not the case tonight. It felt incredibly intimate, honest, human and respectful.

We all spent a couple of hours walking around in the Abbey. Actors would come up to individuals and small groups without that “actor’s energy” and share beautiful moments with us. At no time did I feel put upon or shouted at. I never ran out of fresh things to engage with. I ran into a friend. “Hey Colin – you working or watching tonight?” “I’m working, mate. I’m bloody knackered, here come and have a look at this.” Next thing, he’s telling me the bit about Elizabeth I from Henry VIII right by Elizabeth’s tomb. I met Henry V by his tomb too, and she told a small group of us how we would be remembered this St Crispin’s Day. And Richard II was clearly baffled to find his own tomb, and told us how he is studying to compare this kingdom that he lives in to the world. That one drew a crowd as it was Rylance. He’s always been an actor’s actor. It’s funny to think people know who he is. For years people would say “who?” but now he’s been on the tellybox.

Outside of the Shakespeare, one of my old teachers collared me. “Al, come and see this. It’s my grandmother.” She takes me through a barrier and points to Sybil Thorndike, one of the old dames of theatre. I had no idea she was my old teacher’s granny. As I express that to her I notice I’m standing on Noel Coward.

Then coming back out, i find Anne-May, my Dutch Puck. She’s dancing at the central point of the inner cross. I go to take a photo for this, but the volunteer stops me before I’ve even started. This is the best one I get. He was already on me. Not sure why no photos, but I’ll grudgingly respect it and post this blurry mess anyway.

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Anne-May has drawn a crowd with her dancing and finds her way into a sonnet. Then my friend Scott clumps over with a broken leg from skiing, and points out the beautiful ceilings with his crutch before dismissing them as a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. He’s lost his mirth, it seems. The whole abbey was populated with characters, moments and scenes. It felt very full and the atmosphere was delightful. At the end the whole company came together singing, and processed out together.

Having many friends there lent even more joy to what was already a uniquely gentle and moving evening in one of our country’s most striking spiritual hubs. I needed something restorative after having another go at tackling the many bags of my mother’s old clothes that I haven’t quite been able to tackle for years. It’s evenings like this that help me feel justified for chasing this dragon. There’s no guarantee of money or consistency in the path I’m staggering down. But the fellowship! It’s consistently wonderful. So many big hearts who just want to try and make ephemeral beauty. I don’t think many people could have had a better, happier, more delightful evening in London, free or not.

 

Summer Shows

When I told my dad I wanted to be an actor, he looked at me a while in silence. Then he said “I wanted to be a long distance truck driver when I was your age. You should do that. You’d make more money and you’d see more of the world.”

He went to his grave believing it was a “phase” that I would “get out of my system.” I’ve spent much of my working life trying to see as much of the world as possible through my work. There’s nothing I like more than an opportunity to travel and work. I really wanted to get a meeting for the Globe Tour of Hamlet that went to every country. The furthest I’ve managed so far is Thailand, for just a couple of days filming. The scene involved myself, David Thewlis and Michelle Yeoh, in a flashback scene for a Luc Besson movie. It would’ve been wonderful for my showreel, but Michelle and David both had dots drawn over their faces. They were going to CGI younger versions of their faces over their real faces. The whole flashback sequence was cut for budget in the edit, and I never saw the footage. I kept the credit, got a free trip to Bangkok, and chalked it up to experience.

For the last nine years I’ve always somehow managed to land a lovely summer job. For six of them I was in Yorkshire, running around in the grounds of Ripley Castle for Sprite Productions. We did Twelfth Night, The Tempest, As You Like It, Shrew, Comedy of Errors and Dream. They were beautiful summer days and I met some practitioners who are still very close friends now. The end of an era – I just saw the producer looking to sell their cables, as they’ve moved to Wales and have too much on.

Last year things were a little different and more or less a year ago today I found out I’d be off to play Claudius in Hamlet, in Dubrovnik. They were casting a woman as Hamlet, which was pretty groundbreaking for Croatia. The show had a woefully short rehearsal process for a story of that scale, but a dedicated and hardworking company that wasn’t going to let that detract from it. It was mounted for a month or so in Fort Lovrijenac, jewel of the Dalmatian Coast. It was a lot of fun, despite being a tragedy.

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The Fort is a squat but imposing edifice on a promontory. Back when Dubrovnik was a great port, they were sending Argosies out across Europe, and it needed defending from the sea. There’s plenty of room for cannons with wide angle views of the sea on the battlements. You’d have to work hard to slip by unnoticed. It’s part of a system of defenses in the city that lend it a peculiar beauty now they are redundant. Some of the interior of the walled city itself was destroyed by mortars in the nineties, but the Fort was not hit. The huge stone arches and verandas overlooking the sea were a great setting for Hamlet, as they are for Game of Thrones. It’s where they film most of King’s Landing. It was a hell of a place to work in. We had enough time to learn the city, rather than rush around like tourists. I had already changed my pounds when they tanked for Brexit, and I was happy to be working in Europe while everyone went mental in the UK. From waking to swimming in the sea was less than 5 minutes. I came back after the show brown as a nut and ready for the insanity.

My friend Helen who was Hamlet came round my flat this afternoon and we went for a walk and sat with the Buddha in Battersea Park. I haven’t been very grounded the last few days, but it’s the working week tomorrow and I want to hit things running. New headshots coming soon of beardless Al. I think it might have been good advice to shave it, even if it didn’t yield what I expected. Let’s see if I can find some visible work now and take advantage of the fact I look about 10 years younger without all that grey fluff. Or at least another beautiful summer show. Here’s to a good first week after Easter for all of us. I expect it’ll be pretty hyperactive, as everyone will be rushing on sugar from all the reduced Easter Eggs in Sainsburys.