Wednesday, 29 February 2012


There have been ten reviews of The Duchess of Malfi so far, seven of which are either mildly or very positive. (All ten can be seen on Negative comments mostly focus on elements that others have appreciated - the heightened sexuality and violence. Of the three bad reviews, one writer makes her points reasonably, but the other two appear to suffer from BCS - Bitter Critics' Syndrome, a condition that fills the writer with so much bile that they have to vomit it out in copious quantities all over the production.

My experience as an actor is new, but as a writer and reviewer, I'm well aware of BCS. It's a common complaint. Most of us find tearing things down easier and more fun than building them up - from castles in the sand to people in public life and works of art. When it comes to reviews, being positive about something you didn't like is much more difficult than condemning it out of hand: the words come tumbling out as we smile to ourselves in malevolent glee or we frown in false pity for the individual(s) whose work we are tearing to shreds. It doesn't matter if they have invested considerable time, energy and emotion in their project - it's their fault for being so stupid and offering such a mess to the public. A critic always knows more than an artist, and the 60 minutes it takes me to slag off the work is time better spent than the 60 days or more that it took them to create it; the mere fact that I write it means that my review is of much greater value than any artist's contribution. 

The main problem with the reviewer with BCS is that their unrelenting criticism leaves a bitter taste in other mouths as well as their own. Not only that, but their comments often end up revealing not only the shortcomings in whatever they are reviewing but also shortcomings in their own personality - usually include anger, lack of humour and an inability to empathise with others. 

Of course not every reviewer has BCS and not every work of art is perfect or beyond criticism. We are surrounded by much rubbish that passes itself off as art. But there are more effective ways of dealing with bad art than showering it with vitriol. The best - and most difficult - response is to step back from the gut reaction - "this is trash" - and to examine the product from an intellectual rather than emotional perspective. In a play, for example, coolly unpicking the various elements of script, acting, direction, design etc can lead to more a indepth analysis that leads to a better review. More importantly, an intellectual response can sometimes allow the reviewer to see that while this production does not appeal to their taste, it has elements which will appeal to a different audience. In such cases, an honest reviewer will come to the conclusion "I hate it, but others may love it." The problem with this response for some reviewers is that it forces them to admit that they are not the only arbiter of taste, but merely someone with an opinion and other points of view may be equally valid.

A second option when confronted by something that seems to have no redeeming qualities, is to ignore it. This was the policy I adopted when reviewing books in the 1980s - if I could find nothing at all good to say about a title, I set it aside. If other critics found the book worth reading, they could and would say so. It's a policy I recommend. Works of art that were truly awful would never find an audience, while shouting from the rooftops that something is terrible doesn't lead the world to shun it but has the opposite effect.

Coming back to The Duchess of Malfi ... Of all the reviews published so far, the ones I have found most interesting and informative are those which have been neither relentlessly uncritical nor relentlessly condemning but where the reviewer has offered criticism as well as praise. I may not agree with everything they say, but at least they have given me something to think about and sometimes new insights into the production. In the meantime, I wait each night for the most important review - the actual audience, who almost invariably watch in rapt attention and applaud heartily at the end. 

Physically Vivid and Playful

That's me: my representation of one of the Cardinal's Men was described as "physically vivid and playful" by I'm flattered, not just because it's a positive comment in a generally negative review of The Duchess of Malfi, but because for the first time it singles me out from the trio of henchmen who have otherwise been reviewed together. I'm not sure I deserve this accolade, because Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece are at least as effective as I am in our complementary roles, but I'm happy to accept it. I doubt Phil and Alex are  upset by my sudden rise to fame, but I'm happy to smooth any ruffled feathers with a drink...

Monday, 27 February 2012

Good Views, Bad Views

Six reviews have come in so far. Five of them give The Duchess of Malfi three or four stars or "recommended" or are otherwise positive. One is relentlessly negative. I'll come back to that in the next post. My priority now, of course, is to satisfy the egoist in me by focusing on the ensemble of three of which I am a member.

We have been lucky. While some of the other players have come in for mixed reviews, "the looming trio of Martin Foreman, Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece, who act as an array of general henchmen" (The Stage), have received nothing but praise. According to The Stage, "All three are suitably unnerving, and at times completely terrifying." says we "make the flesh creep as the Cardinal’s instruments of violence", while adds we "manage to be as disturbing as any agents in a totalitarian state".

That other actors have been praised by some reviewers and slated by others, and the production itself is seen as either powerful or flawed, reflects the nature of the play - its unrelenting darkness and descent into madness, murder and mayhem. These are strong characters propelled by strong emotions, often unlikeable, presented at a time when an unruly audience expected spectacle and were unconcerned by inconsistencies in plot and action. No modern production can remain true to the spirit of the play and satisfy all the expectations of a disparate group of people four hundred years after it was first performed.

Not every reviewer has understood this conflict and this is reflected in the pieces they write. Most noticeable are strong reactions to the women's roles, as some reviewers confuse attitudes today with attitudes in the early seventeenth century. The result is that all three actresses - Emma Grace Arends (Cariola), Alice de Sousa (the Duchess) and Tanya Winsor (Julia, pictured with Damian Quinn as Bosola; photo by Robert Gooch) - are praised by some and condemned by others for their depictions of female sexuality.

There are other areas of disagreement that I will not go into. (If you are in the mood, you can read all the reviews, collected here.) I would not argue that the production is perfect or that every cast member has reached the pinnacle of his / her ability, but I am proud to be part of a team that has put together a strong production that grips the attention from beginning to end and which most critics agree, despite some reservations, is well worth seeing.

At the end of the day - both literally and metaphorically - the final judgement lies in the hands - again both literally and metaphorically - not of the reviewers, but of the audience. And each night, all of us in the cast have been gratified by the genuine applause from those members of the public who have made the effort to come and see us. Come and judge for yourselves.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Going Further, Deeper

Last night, the third in the run, was press night and the theatre was almost full. There was a nervous tension among the cast before lights down and even I found myself affected. Until now, I realised, I have just been sailing through this production. All I had to do, I thought, in two of the roles (Cardinal's Man, Executioner) was stand still, walk slowly and look mean, while in the third role (Keeper - pictured below, photo by Robert Gooch) my task was to move and look crazy. With all the moves choreographed and no more than five lines, totalling sixteen words, sprinkled throughout the play, I didn't have much to worry about.

So far so easy. But something happened last night that made me realise the scope for development even in a non-speaking role. Each day I had seen other players develop their characters, their actions and words bringing depth and meaning to both their characters and the play as a whole (particularly Robin Holden as Duke Ferdinand, the unstable aristocrat obsessed with his sister's purity descending into madness and murder) but I had thought that my input was fixed. Over the weeks of rehearsal I had added a tic here and movement there; it seemed to work and during rehearsals, glowering Bruce and others expressed their satisfaction with what I did. By opening night I was sure I had reached the peak of my performance - a peak that could be easily maintained.

Last night, however, something forced itself out from within me. I found myself no longer representing Roderigo (one of the Cardinal's Men) but being Roderigo himself. This man's walk and his expression changed as his attitude towards his employer moved from respect to insolence. This man, who had spent his adult life at the heart of intrigue, aloof, uninvolved, saw what was happening to the Duchess and her brothers and no longer gave a damn - in fact he looked forward to the carnage that would bring an end to them all. Throughout the play this Roderigo drew the audience's attention simply by being there, by saying nothing, by watching, watching, watching.

This was not just my own fancy. At the end of the evening, when the press and public joined us for drinks (not a regular event, so don't expect that on the night that you come), two people came up, unsolicited, to say how scary and sinister I looked. I was pleased to be praised for my Keeper  - a role based primarily on the generic Igor, the deformed half-wit who assists Frankenstein and other mad scientists, shuffling here and there eagerly, often confused by events around him. With my right leg and arm stiff, my body hunched, my face darting hither and thither and my brow frequently crinkling in bemusement, even in that comic scene it was Igor, not I, who took the stage, with far more movement and expression than I had portrayed him.

I'm not sure what will happen tonight - or in the next three weeks. Some nights I may revert to my perfunctory performance - which is competent and acceptable - but on those nights I think I will have little pride in my work. Most nights, however, I now expect that the characters will take over and I will find myself going further and deeper into their lives, and into the hearts and minds of the audience around me.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

One Down, Twenty-Three To Go

Last night was first night of the The Duchess of Malfi. A small but enthusiastic crowd and an efficient and energetic cast. Only a couple of minor slips. Followed by champagne and a thank you speech from our producer, Alice. Then to the Novotel for more alcohol and home by midnight to a sleeping partner. Today was the first day in several weeks that was rehearsal free, so I celebrated by going to the dentist and to the doctor and to the pool for a 1,500 metre swim. Apart from the wind and rain, life is pleasant again...

PS: don't forget to come to see us: details here

Monday, 20 February 2012

Choc Tactics

I have enough experience (one show) to know that cards and little gifts are appreciated on first night. That is tomorrow. Including cast and crew, that means fifteen people, which adds up to a lot of time choosing prezzies and writing notes, not to mention spending some money. Give everyone chocolates? I suppose so, but there are one or two people I'd like to give something special to - and if I give something special to one or two, then I have to do the same for everyone. I've started on a list, but it's beginning to give me a headache. Looks like it might just end up with chocolates...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Slow, Slow, Quick Quick, Slow

Tech run yesterday. It took us over ten hours to set a two hour play. Which is normal, I believe. Glowering Bruce took us back over move after move as he and his assistants/minions altered and experimented with lighting and sounds. Yes, it's boring, but it's necessary and, like some forms of self-deprivation and minor pain, rewarding to see the production add colour and depth in the dimensions of light and sound.

As time passed I consumed mug after mug of coffee, alternating between Nescafe gold and the Nespresso machine, with the occasional mug of tea. (This production has brought me to the conclusion that such machines are not as good as the adverts in which George Clooney appears.) I scoffed chocolate biscuits and chocolate cake and chocolate bars. A bowl of home-made pasta salad disappeared as the hours went by. I exchanged weak jokes with other players. I read a few pages from A Dance to the Music of Time. I micturated from time to time. I got locked out with fellow executioner Alex as we burnt rope and exploded a cigarette lighter. (For the play, constable, and not for our own amusement.) And occasionally I found myself under the lights and the steely glare of our director and the sympathetic eyes of our fellow-actors.

All went well, although I realised when wearing gauze which covers the eyes on a darkened stage, not much can be seen and care has to be taken as one wends one's way exitwards 'tween audience rows. Released shortly before ten, on a near-deserted railway platform I discovered a new way home, by Docklands Light Railway and Overground. By eleven I was in abed and asleep.

And so, onwards and upwards. Today is the first of three dress rehearsals and a photo shoot. I'm ready for my close-up, Mr De Mille...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Good News, Bad News, Good News

The good news is that I have twice been contacted in the last couple of days directly by directors hoping to use my services. The first was by visual artist Ian Giles to make a short film - no pay, only expenses - but the project would take up little of my time and looked interesting. The second, by Charm Offensive, was for a new production at a theatre ten minutes' walk from where I live; another interesting play, with no pay but the possibility of profit share.

The bad news is that I am not free for either offer, my time being taken up first by the Duchess of Malfi, from 21st February to 18th March, followed by four weeks when I will be out of London. So, sadly, I had to decline. (I'm not kidding myself that either director contacted me because s/he considered from the start I was the right actor they wanted for the part on offer - but it's a step forward that I now have enough credits and voicereels to persuade some to contact me directly and ask me to work with them. That puts me in a much better position that I had expected to be this early in my career.)

I can end on good news. Today we ran through The Duchess twice and it is clear that we have a powerful production on our hands - a drama that will move its audience to some sympathy and suspense, occasional laughter and fear. If you live in or near London and haven't booked your tickets, do so now, using the link above. At £13 (£10 for concessions), you have little to lose and much to gain.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Not Wanted

Another audition, another silence. I was up for a major part in Lilies, a prison drama with a play-within-a-play being produced by Wild Oats for performances in Dublin, Brighton and London. I gave them my monologue (Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle) and then, after a little preparation, read from the play itself. The monologue was ok rather than good, but I imbued the lines from Lilies real depth and variety, acting rather than reading, moving and reacting to my partner, ending on a dramatic pause on the line "and that little sneak . . . is you". I wasn't convinced I'd get the part, but I was sure I'd be one of those called back the next day.

And of course, I wasn't. Ah well. Rejection is the name of the game. I don't mind when it's something I don't really want - usually a student film written by some emotional innocent who is unable to spell simple English - but I'm disappointed when it is a project that I could give a significant contribution to. I reassure mysef by saying that if they turn down someone as good as me, it must be because they have someone pretty awesome lined up....

From the audition to coffee with the lovely Shahla and from there, eventually to the National Film Theatre and David Lynch's Fire Walk With Me. I've been a Twin Peaks fan since it first came out, but I hadn't seen the prequel film for 20 years when, like most others, I'd been profoundly irritated by it. But having rewatched the series recently I wanted to give the film a second chance and I'm glad I did.

It still has many faults - much of the prologue (the Teresa Banks murder) is weak and with jokes that do not work; the David Bowie scene is pointless - but the main body of the film, depicting Laura's descent into destruction, is powerful and disturbing.

One problem remains with Laura's story - the fact that it is too diffuse, with half the characters from the TV series showing up in mini-scenes that distract too easily from the main story. There's no way to solve that issue, so it has to be accepted - and if they had brought in the rest of the cast and included everyone from the Sheriff's Department, the mill and the Great Northern Hotel, the film would have turned into something akin to a variety show.

Back home and the day ended with the Other Half and me on the sofa listening to Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas. Not his best album, but better than Dear Heather and pretty good for a man of 78. And so to bed. 

Friday, 10 February 2012

Money, Money, Money

I got paid again. £55 for the six-night run of As You Like It - considerably more than I had expected.

If you calculate the amount of time I was actually on stage, that sum works out at £55 an hour - a reasonable wage in today's world. On the other hand, if you include all the rehearsals and time spent hanging around backstage, it comes to about 50p an hour, not including travel time to and from the various venues.

I'm not complaining. In fact I'm impressed. The profit is a tribute to the rest of the team, who deserve it much more than I do...

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


The White Bear is a fast-receding memory. One week in a crowded dressing-room, waiting to go on to a tiny stage, wondering whether I'm going to fluff my lines. Surrounded by fifteen other actors, with the director and stage manager hovering by the lights. Feeling redundant each night as two hours pass between my first exit and last entrance. Often bored. Sometimes tense. Expectant. Excited. Pleased that the production went well, but aware that I was more an observer than a participant.

The Greenwich Playhouse (pictured) is very different. Every rehearsal is in the theatre - unlike As You Like It, where until the day before opening night we were cooped up in a classroom with different measurements and unclear entrances and exits. The cast in Greenwich is smaller and older. We do not divide into generations but cohere as a group, with the occasional outrider sitting apart to learn their lines or scrutinise the screen of their phone. There are costume and set and lighting designers, a stage manager and other assistance that comes and goes, leaving the director free to focus on the play.

I am more relaxed in this production than in the one before. I feel a participant rather than an observer, fully involved as I watch Bruce craft the blocking, shifting his players up and down, left and right, here and there until he has created the vividest of tableaux to express his vision. In the process, he gives few notes as to how he wishes each character to be played; this allows each of us to draw our personalities from within ourselves, to instinctively find our own level and our own response to the characters around us. On the rare occasions he does say "I want it this way", he explains why and willingly listens to our thoughts and alternatives until, together, the adjustment is made that brings director's and actor's perceptions into alignment.

The more I work in the theatre (assuming I do work more), the more I expect to see directors' methods differ. Marianna's approach, fine-tuning each performance, worked. It created a quick, enjoyable production that was highly successful, with many audience members saying that it brought Shakespeare to life. It also made me uncomfortable. If I have the luxury of choice, I would seek out the older director who fully trusts his / her cast, and who allows characters to emerge rather than forcing characters onto the actors portraying them.

Maybe I’ve lulled myself into a false sense of security. Maybe on the first and subsequent nights I will fluff my few lines or otherwise let the production down. But I don’t think so. I am more confident now of my abilities now than at any time during the rehearsal and run of As You Like It. This time, I believe, I will be proud of my performance.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Drunk in Shoreditch

I like bars. Not big noisy bars with music blaring out so loud that you have to shout to hear yourself speak and you can only catch half of whatever your neighbour is saying and where you go home with ears ringing knowing that you are going to have hearing problems later in life. Not bars that are so crowded that you have to wait hours at the counter, pushing and being shoved while trying to catch the attention of an overworked barman. Not bars with large screens showing darts and football or news channels that no-one can hear. And not bars so modern that the walls are bare, the seats uncomfortable and the well-dressed clientele between 25 and 35 trying to impress each other and only displaying how vacuous and self-centred they are.

I like bars with history, with character, with seats you can sit on, barstaff who have time to talk to you, a few other drinkers in the late afternoon. Bars like The Drunken Monkey in Shoreditch before the end of work crowd piles in.

Actually, I'd never been in the Drunken Monkey before Saturday, when I spent half the day shooting a music video there. But it was the kind of bar I feel at home in. The wall is lined with coloured bottles of alcohol from all over the world, much of which I recognised, some of which was new to me and which I would have liked to try. But although I was playing a drunk, in a stereotypical drunk's pose, hunched over a shot glass, with a half-empty Jack Daniel's bottle before me, the alcohol before me on the other side of the bar remained undrunk.

Of course I wasn't the star of the film. That honour goes to the bear pictured here and the shoot in the bar was only one of several in which the bear appears. But it was good to be on set again and to compare this with the other two films I have been in.

Made by students, there was an element of professionalism behind the camera, but not on the production side. I was not the only person, according to Eddie Connor (the barman) who had turned up for his audition to find that no-one at the building reception knew that casting was taking place. Several people, he said, had walked away without being seen. I had known about the bar shoot only because I had contacted one of the producers, but the call-sheet had only been sent out at 11.45 the night before, long after Eddie had been tucked up in bed - unaware that he was wanted on set at 9.30 the next morning.

But incompetence at administration does not necessarily mean amateurism in art. The rushes looked good and I suspect this film will be of high quality. I look forward to seeing both the finished video and the outtakes from my contribution which will end up, I hope, on my intended showreel.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Busy, Busy, Busy

I'm still here. A four-day break in Scotland and back to all-day rehearsing in Greenwich. On Saturday I'm in a music video, playing a drunk in a bar in Shoreditch - so no change there then...

Give me a couple of days and I'll be back with my usual updates.