The tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for
thy mind is a very opal.
Feste in Twelfth Night, II.i.73-4
I have had several goes at this first sentence (research scholarship is going to be much less fun because of the Delete key), chiefly because I listened to Will Self’s Free Thinking Lecture on BBC Radio 3 last night and, as he proved, the question ‘What are you thinking – right now?’ renders coherent thought well-nigh impossible.. In fact, I think the burden of his lecture was that coherent thought is largely a construct of the novel, and that when we are engaged in reverie or thought we are often attempting to imitate the way thought is portrayed in novels. So am I imitating the way essayists ‘think’? Was he imitating the way lecturers think, and is the mode of bone fide thought distorted or, indeed, corrupted as soon as we attempt to pin it down and communicate it?
Self managed to keep going and ring some tantalizing changes on his conceit, but I have been thinking about this, even whilst I have been writing just now, breaking off to put the pasta on to boil, using the spell-check (of course ‘corrupted’ has a double ‘r’). He only needed to do what some stand-up comics do – improvise the whole lecture – to demonstrate that, with just a modicum of forethought, it is possible to give coherent shape to thought on the hoof, to think in an instant of an entirely new comic or even tragic slant on something, and to give voice to some of the complex, inexpressible subtext. The familiar ‘That’ll go better second house’ is, after all, a schematized version of what a comic once gave voice to for the very first time.
Shakespeare, being a writer, was eager that his clowns spoke ‘no more than is set down for them’. But I believe it was Harley Granville-Barker who pointed out that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes rely equally on their rapport, their intimacy with the audience, their being on conversational terms with them, as do his clowns. Take Richard II’s:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
And, for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer it out. (V.v.1-5)
And he proceeds to do so, more fluently, more efficiently if you like, than a king or you or I would, even granted the aid solitary confinement may be to cogent thought. Ah, but he is cheating; he has the audience to talk to.
Conversation is a great aid to thought. Don’t you know one or two people who seem able to hold forth in company in prose? Prose that you are convinced is being new-minted whilst they speak – the thrill of it being that it is the sound of pure thought. What matter that on the loo at home, or on the bus, our raconteur’s thoughts, like our own, have dribbled away in random directions. If a spider somehow knows how to weave a web, a bird to build a nest and break off to improvise a coherent variation on a tune ten thousand years old, may not we be granted the power to build in thought?
Self's delivery didn't strengthen his case, which might be why he missed the idea of thought on the hoof. Listening to him, there was no sensuous pleasure in hearing, in being entranced by spoken, developing thought, or rather, if the word is disallowed in this context, argument. A well-graced speaker conveys the sound of the lucid mind at work, even if giving voice to a lecture which is being entirely read from a prepared text. The inflections, tones, tunes and timing of the ideas lend impulse and nuance; they are capable of expressing differing intellectual temperatures, emotional undertones and overtones. Call me old-fashioned, but every time Self ambushed us with ‘What are you thinking – right now?’, I was jolted by the ugliness of his vowel in ‘now’, as if it had been a duff string in a piano; I had to work to think of something else. Perhaps his words would sound better in the private lecture hall of the individual reader’s mind!
But wait; surely the whole argument, even had it been mellifluous, was dubious. He says Joyce in Finnegans Wake fails to portray thought truthfully, likening this failure to the efforts of postmodernists and contemporary writers. And now, very now it occurs to me that one might just as well say that painters have always ‘lied’ – I think he uses that word – lied about seeing. I thought the whole point was that Art of any kind could not be Life: it is a constantly changing activity striving to remind us of life.
Do you remember David Hockney declaring the tyranny of the image created from the single static viewpoint to be quite bad for us, dangerous even, because it is not how we actually look at the world? He went through a phase of producing those pictures made up of multiple ‘snapshots’, which, interesting and stimulating as they were, bore still less resemblance to how we really see the world. As I pause now to look at my mantelpiece, a cluttered domestic shrine, even if I stare at it in long shot, so to speak, and hold it in one steady gaze, taking in the mirror above, the knick-knacks, the overall impression, I realize that the very nature of looking involves my eyes focusing on one thing at a time, quite tiny details, which my eyes single out, confounding any conscious attempt to hold a general picture in view. Then when I think I am withdrawing from the detail in order to concentrate on the whole, I cannot but flit from one detail to another – except, of course, my eyes and brain between them are skilled at keeping the whole ‘picture’ in steady view in my peripheral vision, even if I move my stance or walk and change the perspective.
You might say, as Self or Hockney might, that my way of looking at my mantelpiece has been subject to the contaminating influence of Sickert’s studies in mantelpieces (perhaps the arrangement of the mantlepiece itself has been influenced by Sickert), but that is the advantage of being human. What a privilege to be able to ‘see’ for a second as Matisse, to think for a moment like a character in Virginia Woolf. The more these experiences, however illusory, ‘take us out of ourselves’, the better we are when we arrive back, as we inevitably will, into ‘real life’. Self need not fear the therapeutic effects of the naturalistic novel. ‘Real thought’ and ‘real life’ we have aplenty; unthinkable that they should not be tempered, disturbed, challenged and intruded upon by the novel, the lecture, the play, the illusions of art. Olivier put it nicely when, addressing students at the inception of the Old Vic Theatre School in 1947, he said: ‘The difference between the actual truth and the illusion of truth is what you are about to learn. You will not finish learning it until you are dead.’
If naturalistic illusion is a fallacy and Self believes we need destabilizing to prevent our consciousness from aping novelistic convention, how does he feel about the world of art? The portraits of Francis Bacon may haunt about our mental pictures of our friends; the female nether regions may not have recovered since we saw Tracey Emin’s drawing in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 2008. On the other hand, standing amongst iron bedsteads in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, we may find that, as far as thought and vision are concerned, we are very much on our own, thrown back on our own resources. ‘What are you thinking – right now?’ we may indeed ask ourselves, or with Alan Bennett's policeman, discussing art with Sir Anthony Blunt, ‘What am I supposed to think?’ The Tate Modern does not deal much with naturalistic or any kind of illusion, unless it is the grand, outrageous illusion that it is an art gallery. Discuss. Or, as the saying goes, ‘Think about it.'
In my youth, this was the sort of thing you'd find in books of hints for amateur actors. This photo was taken in my dressing room during the Actors' Company season at the cavernous Wimbledon Theatre in 1973. It shows the influence of the far-too-much-makeup school of characterization as celebrated particularly in the photographs of actors at Stratford and the Old Vic in the 1930s and 40s. Nobody formally taught this kind of thing, but somehow I went on tour in 1955 with a cigar box full of makeup, including a rabbit's (or was it a hare's?) foot, for whisking off superfluous powder; crepe hair in several colours (you never knew when you might have to design and make yourself a beard and moustache); and spirit gum. I must confess that, as well as a stick of Leichner lake liner for drawing shadows and wrinkles (those were the days), I had a carmine (scarlet) liner and an orange (cocktail) stick to apply the red dots at the inner corner of each eye. I had nose putty and, of course, a fake gold ring or two, with the largest glass jewels possible, to adorn the fingers of non-speaking Renaissance courtiers. The idea, as I had first understood it, was that the even light from the footlights and the batons would flatten your features, so they needed a little help with light and shade; it was quite usual to highlight the whole length of the nose with Leichner No. 5 or a touch of white, as well as emphasizing the eyebrows with a brown liner, and the eyes by putting white greasepaint on the lower rim of the eye inside the eyelashes (note the photos of Olivier's 1937 Hamlet). Max Adrian, who was an original member of Olivier's National Theatre and played the Inquisitor in Saint Joan, would sometimes use pale blue there.
Brecht's influence seemed to put the breaks on this kind of thing. In a 1957 production of Orson Welles's adaptation of Moby Dick at Ipswich – I was a deckhand – the footlights had been removed and, in true Brechtian style, the lighting rig was completely exposed and there was not a single coloured gel. This is commonplace now but was revolutionary then. The imaginary ship and the whale appeared on a stark stage, bare to the back wall. We knew from Tynan's reviews that real Brechtian actors looked like people you saw at bus stops (or on whaling ships) and had faces like potatoes. By 1964 I was at the start of what turned out to be six years in Olivier's National Theatre Company and a hint of Max Factor Pan-cake was overtaking lashings of Leichner in popularity. But Olivier was always advising the men to wear artificial eyelashes, and often wore them himself, even as the Captain in Strindberg's The Dance of Death.
My Hotel Manager above in Feydeau's Ruling the Roost, for the Actors' Company in 1973, looks rather more like Toscanini, and I don't know what to say about Lear's Fool, except that one was always being told 'It'll look all right from out front', and perhaps it did. In any case, irrespective of the face, which in both these instances I seemed to think needed help with a 'lived-in' look, a performance literally stands or falls by the lived-in life history carried by the whole body, by what Brecht referred to as the Gestus: 'an attitude or a single aspect of an attitude, expressible in words or actions'; an attitude to life and the world in general or an attitude towards a person or situation in particular.
In Jonathan Miller's BBC TV Lear of 1982, which I dipped into on DVD the other night, the lived-in face of Frank Middlemass's Fool had the dead white makeup of the nineteenth-century French Pierrot, though the play was meticulously costumed in a fifteenth/sixteenth-century court. The Fool's face was present throughout Act I, scene i (Hamlet might have said, 'and let not your clowns appear earlier than is set down for them'). One could have accepted the anachronism of this French full theatrical slap had not the gestic music of Frank's Fool been all wrong, a front-footed, querulous, insistent and intrusive way of speaking to the King. I don't believe the King would have allowed himself to be nagged like that; literally 'in yer face', as the phrase goes. For all the Fool's quips and songs, and his 'all-licensed' status, there is something of the 'still, small voice' about him, and his quicksilver material has often to be delivered obliquely just because it is so acute. I thought of him as an adrift early English stand-up comic, who probably slept by the dying fire with the dogs. The whip is a reality, not a turn of phrase. He yearns for, but has of late despaired of, the King's ability to learn by and 'get' his jokes.
The feet of Feydeau's Hotel Manager seemed to me more important than his face. In my case, they were inspired by the feet of one of the Busby brothers, not as in Berkeley, but of Busby's department store in Bradford. I was beneath Mr Arthur Busby's notice in my parcel delivery boy's brown coat, so I could observe him closely as he walked about the store in high proprietorial manner, with fallen arches, his gate betraying a meaningful relationship with his chiropodist. Daumier might have designed my Hotel Manager, but the long hours on his feet in the lobby, the years as bellboy and waiter, had taken their physical toll, and the farcical permutations of the bedroom bookings took a moral toll on his savoir-faire. It was a tiny part but, such was my status in the egalitarian Actors' Company, that in my main tiny scene I got away with getting a round on the pose I struck on my entrance, an exit round and, in between, a round on a piece of business with a pencil on a chain. None of these were mere gags, you understand. The Hotel Manager was the personification of the dubious status and condition of the Hotel Ultimus, ever under threat from the old goings-on behind its art-nouveau facade.
By the way, Sir Michael Hordern's feet, as Jonathan Miller's Lear, though not in shot in the scenes I saw, were much in evidence by virtue of the sound they occasioned on the resonant boards of the set and an odd syncopated clompety-clomp they made in the presumably high-heeled Renaissance shoes. Had I been the Fool, I would have said to Dr Miller, 'Prithee, nuncle, this is not a play about the King's chiropodist.'
* * *
Heaven for Anthony Hopkins is not having to play King Lear in the evening, and hell, if I quote him correctly, is standing on the stage of the Old Vic during a wet Wednesday matinee in wrinkled tights. I find myself between two heavens and, if I could go back and stand in those wrinkled tights once more to do a matinee of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I would. It is a minor miracle that I have a heaven to look forward to, playing King Lear for the first time on the evening of my 71st birthday.
You could say that the entire conceit of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead depends on the existence in people's heads of Hamlet: a preconception, shadowy and yet definitive, even archetypal, a 'performance' of Hamlet hovering in the public mind, ready to settle on the boards, complete with Elsinore Castle, the Prince, the Ghost, the courtiers and the troupe of itinerant players – all oh so familiar to us (rough hew them as directors and Prince Hamlets may!) but oh so unfathomable and unfamiliar and threatening to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You could say that. Perhaps you should, because that is the Hamlet in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, though they don't know it. Furthermore, though we see so little of this Hamlet in Tom Stoppard's play, we know it is always going on somewhere in the farthest reaches of the stage – in 'the strange darkened realms of the place', to use Gordon Craig's phrase – so that, however familiar or over-familiar we think this Hamlet is to us, and however distracted from it we may become by the pyrotechnics of Stoppard's two jumped-up supporting players, filling in their long waits so poignantly and hilariously, the tragedy's omnipresence gains in potency the more nebulous it becomes, and the ungraspable implications of its great transactions finally take their toll on the small change of our two attendant lords.
Stoppard's Elsinore in our production of 1967 might have been archetypal, but his two attendant lords were wonderfully novel. Shakespeare's Lear is ever new but the audience comes with expectations (again there is a performance of King Lear in the public mind) and the actor is between two stools, needing to confound the expectations and fulfill them. The critic James Agate, who was so often right, describes the character of King Lear as an oak tree. Entering as a silver birch holds no terrors for me. At the age of twenty-nine, when I opened the script of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at a bus stop in the Waterloo Road and read the first act on my way home to Peckham, I felt as if my life as an actor up until that point had been the perfect preparation to play the part of Guildenstern. After forty-two more years what have I been doing if I am not prepared to face the challenge of King Lear?
It was 1982, and China was just beginning to open itself to the West. I can't remember whether it was on the Great Wall of China, or whether it was perhaps in the Philippines, in Manila surrounded by Jeepneys in a particularly seamy part of town, or it might have been in Japan after seeing Hamlet done in the Noh style, but in heavily accented English, a bullet-train ride from Tokyo; could it rather have been on the day when I had prayed at the Shinto shrine to the god of actors in a dressing room and went on to collect the round of applause I had just asked the god to grant? Whenever and wherever it was, I must have said what fascinating tales I would have to tell when we got home. 'People won't want to hear them, said John Fraser, founder of the London Shakespeare Group and veteran of many British Council tours to Africa, South America and various Arab countries.
'And what have you been up to?' asked a particularly distinguished actress I was sitting next to at a dinner party in London a month later.
'I'm not long back from a tour of Twelfth Night that took me to China, Singapore, the Philippines and Japan.'
'China must have been interesting', she said conclusively before turning to the person on her other side.
Fresh in its original dustcover I have Stephen Spender and David Hockney's China Diary, which I bought when it was published in the same year, 1982. At the time, I gave it almost as short a shrift as my dinner companion gave me. I have just dipped into it now and read a page or two and looked at a few of Hockney's watercolours, some of places I saw too. The watercolours are done in the same, dare I call it, naive, perfunctory style in which he portrayed Bradford for the GPO telephone directory in 1989/90, much to the disgust of the locals, though I remember reading that somebody got hold of a job lot and sold them at $20 a time in Los Angeles.
Be that as it may, I guess you are likely to be a sympathetic reader, especially if I distil my traveller's tales and give you the essence only: the Noh Hamlet, for example; all you need to know is that a third of the text of the play, watched across pools filled with golden carp on which a light rain fell, took four hours and we seemed to slip into another dimension. To conform to Buddhist philosophy, the most famous line in drama, as it was chanted, was amended to: 'To be or not to be is not the question'.
In fact, the best solution might be to show you some of my photographs – I wasn't doing drawings then unfortunately.
Whilst waiting to attend a matinee of On the Waterfront one Saturday afternoon, I popped into an internet café in the Strand. I needed some change to work the slot machine and reluctantly had to buy a postcard. In dismay I looked at the tourist fodder, but thought I could bear to possess one – an aerial shot of Buckingham Palace showing the grounds. Idly I thought it could be relevant to some message I might want to send one day. I got home to find a letter from HM Treasury, informing me that I was being suggested to the Lord Chamberlain for an invitation to a Royal Garden Party.
The event, which I duly attended, coincided with Britain's heaviest downpour since records began in 1865. Hailstones, half an inch wide, blanketed the palace lawns like snow.
Lollipop ladies and ex-district nurses
Trying on hats and rehearsing their curtseys
Captains of industry right at the helm
Of this leaky old hulk which is known as The Realm.
Your morning suit suits you, but Darling make haste
My dress needs an inch let out here at the waist
This tie’s made of silk, I’m assured it’s top grade
What possessed you to buy one in such a louche shade?
For God’s sake let’s leave, we just couldn’t be later
Oh wear your old hat not your new fascinator
That needed a dry clean and not just a press
You might meet The Queen and you can’t look a mess
Coiffed, preened and painted, the Palace approached
The Queen’s hospitality has to be broached
First is the sight of the railings and gates
Umbrellas, the queue and the first of the waits
Long to rain over us, just half an hour
Is the time that it takes us to weather the shower
We dry in the ante-rooms, mute and in line
At last we emerge and the day has turned fine
Mayors in regalia, linked to Mayoresses
The pathos of paunches and chains and best dresses
Clerics in purple, in black and in grey
All sober in sunshine, but some must be gay
Straight-faced the couples roam over the grass
Looking askance as the other guests pass
No one to talk to – a fete without joy
Civilians, soldiers, we’re mere hoi polloi
No one to greet, introduce us – adrift
At the heart of this Royal event there’s a rift
Over a fence there’s a smart inner sanctum
Protected from pond life, anonymous plankton
There, there is banter and networking, bent
Upon issues of State – the exclusive tent
Where the couture is haute and you don’t have to queue
For your cucumber sandwich, because you are you.
We, we are pliant, we line up, we wait
For our tea and our cakes; combined saucer and plate
We notice a vicar whose plate’s so piled up
That the saucer part’s crammed too and won’t take the cup
We try not to judge, we don’t sermonize
It’s a party let’s face it, let’s all gormandize
My cucumber sandwich is tea soaked I fear
Oh what a long walk, there’s a plastic seat here
And at last someone smiles, shakes hands, says hello
In Royal admiration he tells us, ‘I know,
Just under that big spreading chestnut tree,
That song was once sung by the Royal Family
It was captured on film when the Queen was a child’
By gossamer greys we are being beguiled
Superimposed on the present’s lush green
They flash on the inward eye’s cinema screen
But grey lies in wait for us, did we but know
Marshals its forces above this Royal show
Above the small figure in ultramarine
She chats with the chosen; HM The Queen
Corralled blood stock Royal, surrounded six deep,
Craning our necks in case she might speak
Over the fence in a walkabout mode
To sample vox pop, but the heavens unload
The just and the unjust all helter-skelter
Make for the tea tents in search of some shelter
It’s all very well for the corps diplomatic
For us the provision is sparse and erratic
The tea party’s mad – no room – no room
The tea tent is crammed in the gathering gloom
Lightning, thunder, hailstones like peas
We share our umbrella – it’s not going to ease …
The Lord Chamberlain, well he can't censor this
Sans any blessing, the Lord's said 'dismiss'
Now this is not funny – it's more than a nuisance
Some dresses acquire revealing translucence
However we cower, wherever we huddle
It ends: not with God Save the Queen but a puddle.
The Demise of the Theatre Museum/The Music Hall Reborn
Don't clap too hard – it's a very old building.
Archie Rice in The Entertainer
I wonder whether I shall contrive to be the very last visitor to leave before the glass doors finally close at 6 p.m. next Sunday. Imagine the curious, complicated task of dismantling and mothballing the relics, which, I suppose, will begin on Monday morning.
‘Oh, Noël’, someone once lamented to Coward, ‘the West End isn’t what it was!’
‘It isn’t’, Noël replied, ‘but then, it never was.’
There has been no better place to realize this poignant, inescapable fact than inside the temporary theatrical mausoleum at the corner of Russell and Bow Street, where one is greeted by an elaborate gilded box, salvaged from between the proscenium and the dress circle of some theatre long reduced to rubble: no cigar smoke, no figures in evening dress leaning to watch the stage, faces aglow with the reflected glory of limelight and footlights, nor lurking in the shadows at the rear. The garish lighting of the exhibit has been arranged by someone who has never seen a dimmed auditorium portrayed in oil by Walter Sickert, catching the glow from the stage, nor allowed their eye to stray from the stage during a performance at the Haymarket, on any current night of the week, when the glamorous, time-honoured effect is at its crepuscular best.
Proceeding through the exhibits, one hears the voices of Edwardian music hall stars, similarly salvaged and in limbo, estranged from the living world in which they went night after night by hackney cab through foggy cobbled streets to two or three theatres in rotation to do their turn – the Holborn Empire or the Old Bedford in Camden, where Sickert himself might be sitting in the stalls with his sketchbook. But we drift by, catching their disembodied voices emanating faintly from hidden amplifiers, which must be tucked behind the serried ranks of dingy old posters and defunct bits of stage machinery.
Last week, for the first time, I noticed amongst these artefacts a glass case containing the weekly theatre account books relating to the performances of Beerbohm Tree’s original 1914 production of Shaw’s Pygmalion at His Majesty’s, and the Haymarket’s account book, open at a page from 1895 for a week during the run of The Importance of Being Earnest; 10% of the gross takings to the authors in each case and the amounts paid for advertising, gasmen, electricians and stagehands. One can sense, looking at the handwriting, something of that peculiar, impermanent complacency that suffuses the atmosphere of theatrical accounts departments when the reviews have been enthusiastic and the bookings are clamorously healthy. Mrs Patrick Campbell must have been congratulating herself on her triumph, at the age of forty-nine, as the Covent Garden flower girl whom Professor Higgins, after intensive speech coaching, passes off as a duchess. In 1895, Oscar Wilde, in his triumph, must have been hoping he’d be able to meet his debts. Not only Importance (in which I have played both Algy and Dr Chasuble) but also An Ideal Husband were running in the West End during those weeks in 1895, so that Wilde collected 10% of the gross of both plays every week, something in excess of £400, and yet was still short of money – just at the time when he was charged with ‘gross indecency’.
There is something in Bow Street which connects me with Oscar Wilde. It is that we both appeared in the dock of Bow Street Magistrate’s Court – I less famously, in dispute of a parking fine. At the time, I was oblivious of the illustrious criminals who had appeared there before me, Dr Crippen for one. In truth, there are three courts in the building (General Pinochet had stood in the dock of the court specializing in extradition cases), so that there is a one-in-two chance that Wilde and I stood on precisely the same spot.
Wilde was refused bail, so one presumes he spent time in the cells, the same cells whose windows can still be seen from the walkway along the southern flank of the deserted 1880 building; they are built in brick, not the imposing stone lavished on the rest of the edifice. When, as is planned, this edifice is turned into a luxury hotel – you see, even Bow Street isn’t what it was – no doubt the brick cells will be reduced to rubble as effectively as Victorian theatres were in the 1960s. In their place, something in glass, steel and concrete will rear its chic head, affording splendid views over the court and its courtyard and across to the façade of the Royal Opera House and the doors through which Queen Victoria emerged one night, after a performance of some magical opera, to be asked by her ambassadorial guest what the blue lamp was across the street. She soon requested that the offending lamp be taken down so that she would never again have to explain anything quite so depressingly realistic to a foreign visitor, and Bow Street became, and remained until its recent decommission, the only police station in Britain without a blue lamp.
However, Eliza Doolittles, with their own specialized vocal technique, continued to get their baskets of flowers wholesale at the Floral Hall next door, right up to the 1980s, though there was a dearth of professors of phonetics to pass them off as duchesses. Instead, in the last five years and at vastly, even infamously, more expense, the Floral Hall has finally been transformed and passed off as the glittering foyer of the Opera House, in order that real duchesses, captains of industry, corporate patrons and you and I, if we can or care to afford it, might sip champagne where Eliza heaved her baskets of flowers and drift into the auditorium to weep over the consumptive death of Puccini’s Mimi, whose very different vocal technique transforms her, whilst she is a character in an opera, into an utterly real, angelic heroine.
Perhaps transformation scenes, courtesy of bulldozers and cranes, happening around us in our cities every day, are easier to effect than transformations of hearts and minds, but it is such human transformations we crave to see evidence of, and for that we go to the theatre.
Nothing daunted, the Theatre Museum endeavours to make us aware of a much-vaunted transformation of the theatre itself, that of the 1950s; the loops of film run all day, showing Peter Hall lumbering down the stairs at the Criterion to describe his and Samuel Beckett’s part in the transformation, whilst lamenting, for example, the destruction by Kenneth Tynan of Terence Rattigan’s reputation – that pillar of the drawing-room old guard.
Thus, to revisit, I dropped in to catch the loop about ‘The Royal Court Revolution’, particularly the part where Olivier’s Archie Rice does his variety bill patter and dance routine. This is remarkable to me for several reasons. It is the role in which I first saw Olivier on stage fifty years ago in 1957. Moreover, I was present when he reprised this little section from Osborne’s The Entertainer one night at the Old Vic in 1966. The occasion was to honour George Devine and establish a young playwrights’ scholarship in his name. In fact, it was the dress rehearsal for this event, which was filmed and introduced by David Frost especially for the US showing on his programme Night Out in London. ‘Quite the best theatre in the world’, came the self-satisfied British boast from Frost, and I don’t think many of us at the Old Vic – then the NT under Olivier – would have argued too strenuously with that statement.
But then I sat and saw the proud excerpts from the Royal Court’s record: Kenneth Haigh’s Jimmy Porter, Osborne himself with Jill Bennett in A Patriot For Me, an all-star cast of cooks and waitresses in Wesker’s The Kitchen and a touch of One Way Pendulum. Oh, America! They had already done it so much better. The other night, to further our daughter’s studies, we watched the film of A Streetcar Named Desire – need one say more? That little Royal Court watershed is a dribble in comparison. Think of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons or A View from the Bridge; these reduce so much our defeatist and parochial winging, which passed for searing realism at the Court.
Then on came Larry as Archie. The patter was a perfect facsimile of the worst formulaic, second-rate original, the death of the variety tradition, fair enough, but the dance routine had another dimension, the ‘effortless’ cheek of it! But it was the transformation, independent of the play, that was the magic. For here was Othello, Hamlet, the villain of Bosworth Field, the hero of Agincourt, narrowing his craft down to a graceful throwaway routine of consummate carelessness
A middle-aged man drifted into the back of the booth while I watched, looked at the screen for a moment and left. Unthinkable! If for no other reason, the Theatre Museum should close.
An open letter to Simon Callow
Simon Callow was working at the National Theatre box office when I was a young actor in Olivier’s Company at the Old Vic. In 1983 he approached me in the canteen of Denys Lasdun’s concrete National Theatre on the South Bank, saying he knew I was an authority on Edward Gordon Craig, that there was a play to be written about his 1912 co-production with Stanislavski of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre, and that we should write it together. We both have the chunks of the play we attempted to write and remember the joy of the detective work we did.
We played alongside one another for a time in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White and I would pop into the luxurious dressing-room suite that had been created at the Palace for Michael Crawford, the original Count Fosco. There Simon and I would chatter away like rival theatre reference books, gossiping about Gamlet (as Hamlet is known in Moscow) and the likes of Nijinsky and Bernhardt. Sometimes we even got dangerously contemporary by discussing people who were actually still alive.
We meet glancingly at various events and swear always to have lunch ‘soon’.
On 14 June 2009, Simon celebrated his 60th birthday at Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End, the oldest surviving music hall in the world. A few days later, I delivered the following letter to him at the Haymarket, where he was playing Pozzo in Waiting for Godot.
Could it have been that old commodity ‘theatrical atmosphere’ or had you arranged for a stage mist? Was it perhaps a built-in salubrious smog, formed by the sheer height and grace of the ceilings, but composed of laughter and the spirits of sailors, turns, musicians, hymn-singing Methodists, shelterers from the Blitz? Whatever it was, it was the first thing to enchant us as we entered. Emily and I have you to thank for introducing us (can it be ten years ago at your 50th) to what seemed last night to be the most ravishing theatre I’d ever seen; a breathtaking study in smudged pastel, the better for the touch of venerable mystery lent by the pealing pigments and patches of bare plaster.
Was there ever such a magic amalgam of elegance and vulgarity, vulgarity in the sense that Dorothy L. Sayers was pleased to use the word – there being a wholesome grandeur in the best manifestations of the popular?
Much as we adore Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord, there is something apt about the genuinely wan, unadopted air of Wilton’s. I love the paradoxical sense of refinement those twisted brass barley-sugar pillars give; they could have been snaffled from a giant’s merry-go-round. Neither Sikert nor even Degas could have captured it adequately. It is already a work of art.
I was telling Arthur about Peter John’s turn with ‘My old man said “Follow the van,/And don’t dilly dally on the way’”, when he astonished me by saying that he had loved singing the song at school between the ages of six and ten. We paid a fortune for him to go to Fairley House in Pimlico, a specialist school for dyslexic pupils, but I’m delighted to learn at last what a broad education he received there. He appreciated hearing of the groundbreaking reading Peter John gave us with his stentorian ‘FOLLOW THE VAN’. Stanislavski himself would have been thrilled, loving the realism of the music hall as he did, which brings me inevitably to Gamlet and Craig.
I’ve managed to find something I remembered from Craig’s Index to the Story of My Days – remembered since long before Arthur was singing that Marie Lloyd number in his childish treble: 'To these Music Halls I went regularly in 1889, 1890, 1891 and I fancy even later. I was hugely attracted by what was in them – vibration and glitter, music and a bit of dancing, variety and a giddy sort of life, it seemed. And under all that a very serious current, strong and maybe dangerous. It seemed to me, as no doubt to many of us then, that these rowdy Music Halls held an amount of high and low life which the circumspect and so called legitimate playhouses began to fear, but could not crush, in fact, could do nothing about.'
Reading this, the old delight and fascination with E. G. C. was rekindled and I found myself reading on about Albert Chevalier’s ‘coster’ act and the young Craig’s rehearsal calls with Irving’s Lyceum Company, which took him across Waterloo Bridge to the Victoria Hall, as the Old Vic was still called in 1890. Then today, coincidentally, I was myself called to rehearsal across Waterloo Bridge, to a smart converted warehouse in Theed Street, not far from the Vic and not 200 yards away from Aquinas Street where the original National’s makeshift rehearsal rooms had been, when you and I haunted the National, at the Vic of the 60s, in our various capacities. You will remember the night in 1966, at the inauguration of the George Devine Award, when Olivier did his turn as Archie Rice for the last time and we ‘celebrated’ the death of the British Music Hall in the company of our greatest actor.
Around this time, Olivier’s Othello was being supported by me and Peter John, amongst others. I had rioted as a Cypriot and Peter, along with Tom Kempinski, had held me back with a halberd in that very downstage right assembly through which I can still see Archie Rice making his final exit.
Kempinski’s Duet for One is being revived, and at last I have seen Peter John bringing the Music Hall back to life in the perfect setting, thanks to you and, of course, your great-grandfather, Jules Guise, clown, ringmaster and impresario. Thank you.
When I played for eighteen months in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White at the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus, London, I would often haunt a passage which had posters and photographs of the Palace’s old days. One poster particularly appealed to me: Edith Sitwell in BIG PRINT and Dylan Thomas in small and the London Symphony Orchestra smaller still – appearing together one Sunday evening in 1952, a year before Dylan’s death. Sitwell and Thomas were to read an epic poem, with orchestral setting by Humphrey Searle. The poem was Dame Edith’s The Shadow of Cain and had been inspired by a description of the effect made when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Three years after that same concert, I sat across the aisle from Dame Edith during a matinee of the infamous Noguchi Lear in the same Palace Theatre. I saw her famous profile and her unmistakeable hands in prayer position with their rings set with enormous stones. We had seen the first half of John Gielgud's struggle against the Noguchi design odds. Dame Edith was on her own and mused at the safety curtain in the interval. This, with apologies to her Façade, is what might have been her reverie.
DAME EDITH'S REVERIE
In – the – old
Palace as I sit here in the entr’acte
And my gaze returns the safety curtain’s stare
Though I’m free and quite unbound by any contract
The metal curtain is dividing and it’s hiding and deciding
There’s a place behind it and I should be there.
I once was
Shattered chords and deafening the silence,
Applied for a fine poetic licence
Signed by the Lord High Chamberlain
We knew him
Lineage known and quite approved
Blood of a cousin thrice removed
Skilled in tasteful expurgation
Sideline in aforestation
Seeing no doubt the wood despite the trees.
To those cherubs I say I’m not related
However long they’ve hung up there and waited
Though we are grand and quite terrific
Never babies beatific
So the cherubs wise and dimpled
Wonder why it is I’m wimpoled
Why the burden of the turban that I wear
Winds, obscuring all the highlights in my hair
It is I’m sure
I feel secure
And I’m flagrant and a vagrant and demure.
But those babes are made of stucco and don’t care
They are plastered as a poet
They pretend they do not know it
Did Dylan do it do you wonder for a dare?
Sober cherubs they don’t budge
And so who are we to judge
Whilst the echoed incantations
And the bunches of carnations
Once paraded are now faded
Yet the cadences don’t die
In the inner ear they sigh
And they tell us
As they fell us
The great why
Yes upon us there came Thomas
The cruel diagnosis, the impossible prognosis
He achieved apotheosis
Against all odds
He’s with the Gods
NOW – THIS –
King is feeling queasy
And the wind is Japaneesy
And Sir John it can’t be easy
I am asking if it really can be fair
There’s such a nasty Nip now in the air.
My feeling in the Palace is
The concept’s rife with fallacies
When down from the Palace flies
Drops a drooping phallus – vies
For our attention
Not fit to mention
All this nonsense chic and fashion
Give me two boards and one passion.
I never passed through the Palace stage door without reading the stone lintel above it, on which was chiseled: 'The greatest artistes of the world have passed and will pass through these doors.' And of course one thought of the boy Buster Keaton and particularly Pavlova, who performed The Dying Swan, and Nijinsky who danced there near the end of his career.
This is Dylan Thomas arriving to rehearse The Shadow of Cain and passing through these same doors.
I, be-lying, bellying under the lintel’s stone,
Where the unnamed creatures great and small,
Fools and wonderful, turned up on time
In time to the limelight’s looking,
Piercing through sweet acrid blue of
Of Havana, the hushed murmur
And the fat-bottomed plush. Hush now
Aloft the flat cap and mufflers
Benched with Woodbines clutched, scuffed fists,
Loosened from the metal and the dog-eared grapple of the day
Peaceable now, waiting the high void’s message,
Brought in the glow of votive lamps from below.
Do other gods look down,
To pity the glittering palely preposterous rival roster
There, where a swan died nightly
Mourned by a cellist’s catgut and elbow grease?
There where the half-mad fly by night Rose,
Arose, making a Spectre of himself, danced,
Dumb belief in each leafed petalled twirl
For the lone girl by the moon open window
And her solo plight
Partnered at last by the rehearsed
Of the heartache sinewed flight.
Now, on that spot, musicians follow the dots
Practise the one-night stand, all
Yearn for the break in the band call
Cecilia, no saint, no gin and tonic, so far,
Blue eyes askance her harpstrings
Fingers planning to run through the French horn's hair
I often think that could we creep behind the actor’s eyes, we would find an attic of forgotten toys and a copy of the Domesday Book.
Organized chaos. At least two thousand samples of painting materials; an area for empty wine and champagne boxes behind the easel; several pairs of corduroy trousers, some cut up into pieces and used to texture the paintings. Every brush, each squashed tube of paint, scrap of newspaper, every speck of dust. You must have heard about the loving, meticulous reconstruction in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin of Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, in which he lived and painted for the last thirty years of his life. We are told it took a team of ten archaeologists and conservators three years to dismantle the room, including the floorboards and the very plaster on the walls which he’d used as his palette, and to transport its contents across the sea to Ireland (I hear the old song).
‘This is exactly the mess that he left behind’, project manager, Dr Margarita Cappock, is quoted as saying in describing the gallery’s archaeological achievement, and I suppose that, if Bacon had lived to work a day or two more, it would have been a different mess they would have reconstructed with such precision.
‘It's much easier for me to paint in a place like this which is a mess’, Bacon once said.
I hardly dare mention my own areas of disorganized chaos in the same breath. But my ambition is to leave my attic when I die, and enjoy it whilst I live, in calm order. I could do with ten archaeologists, or perhaps anthropologists, to help me in my excavations, but they wouldn’t all be able to get into the room at the same time; there’s barely room for me in the tiny loft, which is formed by a dormer to the back of the house. Indeed, in attempting to part the archival Red Sea, one of my problems has been the logistical one of knowing where to stand and where to start.
I have only occasionally done any of my artwork in the attic, but until the detritus of my life in art and the theatre, and as Honorary Doctor of Letters of Bradford University, got to thigh height all round, I often wrote or learned lines there. Indeed, in the year 1999, after one of my more successful bouts of tidying, I named it The Millennium Room and we had a delightful New Year’s Eve party up there, the four of us and two American guests, novelists actually, all of us intimately interlocked to see in the new century, with a distant view over the rooftops of the fireworks at Westminster, four miles away.
There is something to be said for the randomness that chaos brings, especially as I seem to experience an extraordinary level of coincidence. Let me explain: for example, I try swiftly, but swiftly, or the job will never get done, to skim every script, magazine, wad of scribbled notes, letter, scrap of paper, photograph, box of slides, cassette box without cassette and vice versa, CD and old 78, every nude sketch from scores of life drawing classes, so as to feel secure in consigning it to the recycling pile or alternately to be to able to categorize it (so many categories) in the hope that I won’t lose it again. Difficult to lose the Chinese Opera headdress Emily bought in Shanghai. What I keep I, or someone else, will peruse properly one day, but occasionally I find a clear promontory and sit to examine or read something, if only to rest my back muscles for a while.
This morning, quite by chance, I read:
The subconscious of Edward Petherbridge is a strange place to be. It is like an actor’s weird attic, full of half-remembered speeches, discarded costumes, stacks of mildewed anecdotes and a few mothballed resolutions to give the whole charade up one day and perhaps become a painter. … Rarely has an audience seemed so polarised between rapt enthusiasm and utter bewilderment. Genius or madness? It’s a fine line.
This was from a review of Defending Jeffrey … ?, which I had devised in league with Jude Kelly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
Well it is some achievement to allow the public into part of one’s subconscious (a handful of fan letters suggested they had felt privileged to be admitted) but a considerable achievement for Alfred Hickling, writing in the Guardian of April the 6th 2001, to describe so eloquently and with such uncanny prescience May the 4th 2009.
Today, too, I found a letter from my late aunt Cis, who was ninety-seven at the time of that review; I had visited her in her care home during the run of the show, and she had startled me by saying, as soon as I walked through her door, ‘Edward, I’ve been looking at your face outside my widow all week – that rose.’ The letter she wrote some weeks later explained:
So you have posed me a problem. It’s the pink rose outside my window. I definitely saw your face every time I looked at it, and that image is the face I always picture when I think of you, I can’t remember you differently. When Bradford honoured you a few years ago, I think in the Telegraph the face was a little older. In Doctor at Sea at the Alhambra, now I remember, you were a very likeable sort of ‘growing up’, shy young man, very likeable and attractive for any maiden from 18 to 50-ish. …
On looking back and trying to remember the very rare times I have had the pleasure of seeing you, I still think that face of yours will never alter to me, smooth pale-ish skin, very young looking. Features the same, a little more serious.
What did Shakespeare say? ‘A rose with any other name would smell as sweet.’ Anyhow words to that effect, work it out for yourself and forgive your old, old Aunt (Cis to the family).
As Simon Sparrow in Doctor at Sea (1962). With Pat Cawfield and Ronald Shiner.
I have just returned from a trip up the ladder staircase to the loft/attic to see if I could lay hands on a phrase from one of those pro-Defending Jeffrey letters – no chance. Instead my eye fell on another letter about my face, my face seen in a very different light. Now you must not think that I am manipulating serendipity – if I had had a talent for doing that I could have afforded at least three anthropologists, a full-time secretary, housekeeper, and a house photographable by Homes and Gardens.
The letter is dated August 18th 1986 and addressed to Christopher Hodson, the director of the first episodes of the Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries in which I was playing Lord Peter Wimsey:
Chris Old Bean,
Wimsey asked me to drop you a line or two – fact is he’s a bit cut up about that cell scene with Harriet Vane – the one where the camera dwells lovingly close on my aged creases which are showin’ up to particularly savage advantage by virtue of the key light beamin’ down at too steep an angle … ’fraid he went on at some length about the sad fact that I am seven years his senior and not as good lookin’ in the first place – not in fact a ‘mythic figure’ as he puts it.
Well there it is, Chris old thing. I told him I’d said at the outset that I’d need careful lighting to get away with the part – and you probably remember pooh-poohing me – you and Michael. Seems to me the cell scene proves a point. Only a matter of a less steeply angled key light and taking care with the BCUs.
Anyway, I’ve promised old Wimsey to kick up one hell of a fuss from now on – for the sake of Dorothy, Harriet Vane, Auntie BBC and the noble lord himself.
PS No chance of a re-shoot I suppose?
No there wasn’t, and the lighting remained unreliable.
Auntie Cis and my mother had a brother. He also lived into his nineties. He had lived in the south of England and not seen Cis for some years, but was taken to visit her by his daughter a year or two before he died. She flatly refused to acknowledge him and could see no resemblance between the nonagenarian in her room and the brother she remembered. He tried everything. In the end he said, ‘I am Jo, the same Jo as sang “Oh! For the wings of a dove” in Bingley Parish Church when I was a boy soprano.’ And then inspiration came and he sang ‘Oh! For the wings of a dove’ again, there in the room, ‘and his big manly voice, / Turning again towards childish treble, pipes, / And whistles in his sound.’ Auntie Cis was at last convinced.
Do I want to preserve these letters, this plethora of evidence, and put everything into careful order? Or do I want to ‘give the whole charade up and perhaps become a painter’?
The line between genius and madness, blurred with a bit of corduroy, might be even finer, and more difficult, for critics to discern.
The famous drawings of Phiz gave me an image. They were caricatures of course, but I thought if I can capture some of the reality inside the caricature, it would be a good thing to do and luckily I was the right kind of shape to do it: I mean long and thin. And then there was all his history, suggested here and there in the book and barely hinted at in the play. David Edgar’s dramatic telegrams were a marvellous exercise in economy. And then … I suppose the imaginative part was imagining him in his attic on his own, before he’d met Nicholas, or even after he’d met him. Newman Noggs spent hours in his little room, having his drink, fanning the four or five coals in his grate and feeling cold, and thinking about his past or trying to forget it. And I had to ask myself: how does he get from one minute to the next? How does he put up with it? Does he switch off, and does he think about other things. How did he cope with being so solitary, not only when he was alone, but at work too. Thinking about all that helped with his physical attitude: how he stood, how he was, how he stood inside his body.
In Conversation with my friend Peter Barkworth, January 1983