Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Another day, another class - and Die Konsequenz

I was at my second improvisation class last night. My appreciation has gone up from last week's 5 out of 10 to 7. The acoustics in the church hall are still annoying but the class was more focused this time round and there was opportunity to perform in front of others and to see others perform.

We began with the format of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?. Start performing a scene - any scene - one way then when told to change the style do so immediately. Sci-fi to romantic, Western to James Bond. The problem for newbies like us is that the content often changes with the style. You may start with a young man asking a father for his daughter's hand in marriage, but with the change to Western, daughter is likely forgotten as guns are drawn and threats uttered. Nonetheless, I had fun as a Bond villain, with a fellow-actor throwing himself as a cat into my metaphorical lap - although I have to confess to sometimes talking too much and depriving fellow actors of their place in the sun.

The next part of the evening involved having a conversation alternating each sentence with a letter of the alphabet in sequence. Eg: "Are you happy?" "Be assured that I am." "Come on, you don't look it." "Definitely happy." "Everyone says that." and so on. Easy, I thought and in practice I got through the alphabet with ease. Inevitably I failed in front of the whole class, when in response to "Let's see, who can we invite?" I said "Well, Mary", blissfully unaware until it was pointed out to me that I had offended.

Further deflation in part three, where we had to quickly answer every question with a question. "What do you think this is?" "What's your opinion?" "Does it look funny to you?" and so on. I could always manage the first two or three with "Why are you asking?" "What do you think?" but soon found myself, like most of the others, either automatically giving a simple answer or my mouth gaping as my thought processes froze.

The last exercise was the most rewarding - four of us in a small scene having to bring into our roles random phrases drawn from a bag. I was a drunken punter in a lap-dancing joint, obsessed by the woman gyrating in front of me and happy to announce to the world "I want a divorce". Then I ended the scene (again, I wonder, had everyone else had their opportunity??) when the phrase in my hand told me to tell the waiter "Let's go for a beer", so I put my arm around him and dragged him away, saying I preferred guys anyway...

All of which meant that I drove home in a better mood than the previous week, regretting only that I won't be in town next Tuesday and so will have to wait a fortnight until I get to pit my wits again. I now know what I had already suspected, that good improvisation - sticking to one idea, being inventive, allowing others their opportunity to perform - is not easy; it requires a talent and quick-wittedness that not everybody has. Whether or not I have them is something I have yet to find out.

On another topic . . . I finished watching Die Konsequenz (The Consequence) last night, a German television film from 1977. The story of an actor in his thirties sent to prison for sexual relations with a 16-year-old (based on writer Alexander Ziegler's own experience), who finds himself seduced by the 15-year-old son of a prison warden was movingly acted by the then stunningly beautiful Ernst Hannawald (left in the picture) as the young Thomas and Juergen Prochnow (right) as Martin, the older partner.

Shot in a grainy black and white, rendering the beautiful Swiss countryside cold and distant, the film moved at a slow pace that allowed us to become fully involved with the couple. Of course the primary attraction was physical - the two are classically good-looking and, although one is fair and the other dark, similar in appearance - but sexual desire was soon overlain by insights into each other's personalities that made them lovers in the emotional as well as physical sense. You understood why they wanted to be with each other and you cheered them as they overcame each obstacle - and, like Martin himself, you were saddened but not surprised when circumstances which Thomas in his youth could not resist drew them apart. The closing scene, where you suspect that the end has come, is harrowing, with Thomas's angelic face staring relentlessly at you for minute after minute while the credits slowly pass.

It was an insight into a world that has disappeared in less than 40 years. The idea that a fifteen-year-old might freely chose a relationship with someone twice his age is controversial at a time where the public and opinion leaders seem unable to distinguish between the horrific abuse of children and the choices made by sexually mature teenagers. (Thomas's seduction of the older man was more believable than the apparent ease in which the youth reached the inmate's cell.) Most striking was the difficulty of communication in a world where no-one has a mobile phone, where landlines are few and far between and days can pass before a lover can speak to his beloved. And in that time, much can happen that a lover does not know about and cannot prevent.

Ziegler - the Swiss writer of the film - died of an overdose of sleeping pills ten years after the Die Konsequenz was made. Hannawald, who was cast in the film at the age of 17, has had a troubled life, which includes cocaine addiction, the death of his fiancee in a car accident that he was responsible for, and a prison sentence for robbery. Prochnow has achieved some success in films in Germany (most notably Das Boot) and Hollywood, although his face was disfigured on the set of David Lynch's Dune, in which he played the part of Duke Leto Atreides. And Thomas and Martin? We will never know.

Thursday, 23 October 2014


Yes, the city can look this beautiful, just not all the time...
I'm once again a permanent resident of Edinburgh, the city I grew up in and left immediately after I graduated. Throughout the interim I have returned regularly to visit family, but otherwise my connections with the capital have long since faded; I no longer remember the names of streets that I once knew intimately and I lost contact with the last of my friends here long ago.

I'm not a hermit and although I'm happily partnered and the Other Half will join me in February, I need a social network. In London as I prepared to move here, I mentioned the lack of a social life to friend Todd, who immediately told me to take an acting course or join an acting group - which is how he got three good friends. Truer words, the cliché reminded me, were never spoken; indeed, it was how he and I met. That very night I sent off emails to several Edinburgh-based drama groups and colleges, pointing out that I had some experience in the theatah and wondering if I might get involved with them in some way .

The response was underwhelming. I won't name names, because I might yet work / collaborate with them, but I feel no great enthusiasm for those who got back to me. Two responded immediately, in friendly, helpful emails; a third wrote after several weeks, offering no apologies for the delay, and in a tone that suggested that I might grovel at their feet at some point in the future. The others I contacted have not got back to me, although I know at least one of them still functions.

I liked Organisation A. A friendly bunch, with a handful of actors under thirty and a much greater number of contributors over fifty, they put on several productions a year. The problem was that I wasn't inspired by their choice of plays, even though they all deserved to pull in large crowds. Their application form sits on my desk, waiting to be filled in or thrown out. I'd join for the social life, but I'm not sure what that would be. Besides, I'm feeling poor; this month the book sales which provide my primary income have been steady rather than outstanding.

Organisation B give courses. I chose improvisation. Fourteen of us in an echoing hall made it difficult for this rapidly aging individual to hear the tutor. Most of those around me were under thirty; perhaps three were over forty. We were set various tasks in scenarios in small groups. In one I decided to be a father-to-be expecting his fourteenth child; I'm nervous - "the fourteenth is the worst; it gets better after that until the twenty-third. I was a twenty-third". I suddenly have sympathetic labour pains and I'm on my back with my legs open about to give birth. I'm pleased with what I'm doing, but it doesn't mean much; I'm not really interacting with my two partners and we're merely one of several groups trying to make ourselves heard. there's too much noise going on around me. Why, I wonder later, doesn't the tutor do a group at a time, see how we each get on? Give us advice to help us interact better instead of just watching us make fools of ourselves? (Of course, there's nothing wrong in being a fool, but I'd like to be good at my foolery...)

Ah well, it was only the first of eight classes. We wandered off into the night and I returned home to a glass of wine, wondering if I would remember everyone's names next week and whether I really would learn anything. As I fell asleep that night once again I went over the opening scenes of the play I have been planning for months to write - and wondered if it would ever get produced.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

What next?

It's exactly a month since Desire and Pursuit came to an end - a week of three one-man plays that I wrote, directed and produced (and, mercifully, did not act in) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That month could - and in an ideal world, it would - have been a period in which I could reflect on my theatrical career, review the different strands on and off the stage and make a thoughtful decision as to whither, if anywhither, that career should go next.

The world is not ideal. Real life got in the way. The main distraction was my move from London to Edinburgh, which primarily involved dumping 100+ boxes of books and paraphernalia in a flat that has little room to hold them. That distraction, followed by 12 days back in London to show the Other Half I wasn't abandoning him, was planned. What wasn't planned was the illness of an elderly relative, which meant that the time I had expected to spend unpacking and thinking was spent in regular 140 mile round-trips to the hospital where she is being looked after by what appear to be angels. Thank you, the National Health Service of Scotland for your care - and thank Scotland for not voting for the mirage of independence which would have placed that service at risk.

Ok, ok, I'm wandering off the point. To return to the basic question: will I continue a career in the theatre? Answer: yes to a certain extent, but never, repeat never - no, repeat never ever ever - will I again take on responsibility for funding or promoting a show. I have not the time, personality or energy to keep banging my head against metaphorical brick walls, trying to get individuals and organisations interested in any theatrical performance in any shape or form. I'd be happy to act as a producer, taking care of administration and looking after other people's money on condition that I was obliged to lift not a finger in promoting the show. And note what I said about other people's money. I've spent enough of my own; someone else can take the gamble from now on.

So, promoting is out of the question. Producing is possible in partnership with someone who knows what they are doing in areas of funding and promoting. What's left? Directing, writing and acting.

Directing was fun. It's true I was only directing two actors in three one-man shows, but I enjoyed it. I understood what I was doing  and what I wanted to happen and I was able to work with two actors who responded well, which allowed us to create plays that had depth and intensity and held the audience's attention. That's a long way from directing several actors in a full-length play, but, having been an actor and watching others direct, I'm confident that given the right play and the right players, I could put on a full-scale production that audiences would enjoy and applaud.

So, directing is still on the cards. Don't know what, don't know when, don't know where or who with, but that door is definitely open and beckoning me. What about writing?

Ah... I haven't written much in the last few years - but the brain has been cogitating. There's a short story I wrote years ago that has much to recommend it as a stage piece, encompassing myth, reality, youth and age, desire and sex. I also have three one-woman plays just waiting to be produced. I'm not in a hurry to write for the stage, it's another door I'm aware of and one day I'll make the decision whether to open it.

Which leaves acting. I've only appeared on stage once this year - and that was after a fifteen month gap when my last role was in a short film which was never completed. It was a short part, a comedy, for two nights only. And it was fun. I'd come to the conclusion that the time and effort put into acting (rehearsals, traveling to and from the theatre, waiting backstage) is far greater than the reward of actually being on stage, particularly in roles that are unpaid, but that stint as the Commuter reminded me that at least I enjoy comic acting. Which means another door beckons.

None of this means I am about to devote all my attention to the stage. But I have just moved back to Edinburgh, a city I last lived in 40 years ago, where I can count my friends on the thumbs of one hand, and I need to find a social life. There is, I understand, a thriving scene in the city of amateur actors and drama schools. I have been researching both and have plans to take a short course and see whether my talents and availability are suited to am-dram - I don't expect to find a career but I may find friends. A month from now I should have some news. Hang on, if you can, until then.  

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

It's over...

Finished. Done with. Completed. Terminated. At an end. No more. Continue with your own word, phrase or metaphor . . .

As to what exactly has come to an end . . . Now, that's a difficult one, as the Priest tells Michael in Angel. The easiest thing to say is Desire and Pursuit, the three one-man plays that I wrote, directed and produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with the invaluable assistance of actors Christopher Annus and Christopher Peacock and my Other Half acting as stage manager / front of house. It's an experience that I am not eager to repeat. Despite months of preparation and publicity, we got small audiences, only three reviews (one of which, was excellent; the other two were good) and lost a lot of money. But you know you're going to lose money in Edinburgh!! everyone tells me. That's true. But you're also going to Edinburgh to get noticed and that did not happen.

What might also have come to an end is my theatrical career - or at least my career as a producer. Although I lost relatively little money in Edinburgh, I also lost something much more valuable - time. Hours, days and weeks that might have been spent on my book business, bringing in some profit, were spent on organising and promoting Desire and Pursuit. Time when I could have been relaxing and enjoying (and criticising!) the wide range of shows that Edinburgh has to offer was spent leafleting or postering or rehearsing or transporting stage sets to and fro or in the theatre as technician and stagehand. By Saturday, when the run ended, I was mentally exhausted. Three days later I am still dealing with the aftermath, as I update the various websites I run which promoted the plays. Normal life is returning, but there will be finances and administration to deal with until at least the beginning of October.

If my career as a producer is at an end, what about my future as a writer / director / actor? The easiest answer I can give at this stage is "No comment". I'm proud of the plays I wrote and the reaction I got day after day from audiences, plus the very occasional reviewer who deigned to stop by, confirmed that I have talent in that direction. But I am finding it impossible to get agents or other producers interested in my work and I have no wish to carry on hitting my head against the metaphorical wall of indifference (that phrase in itself might be enough to make me stop writing...) and I'm not currently in the mood to spend weeks or months writing something that few or no people will see. As for being a director . . . I enjoy it; I think I'm good at it; I would be happy to do it again, but I doubt anyone is going to employ me and (see previous paragraph) I'm not going to devote time and energy to put on a production just so I can direct it. The last option - being an actor? I have a modicum of talent and I'm still on the books of Casting Call Pro and available to anyone who wants to pay me, but I'm not holding my breath until Cameron Mackintosh and / or Steven Spielberg call me.

It might seem, therefore, that my theatrical career is indeed over. There is, however, a slim chance that it will be revived. Colleagues are looking at the possibility of reviving Now We Are Pope and Tadzio Speaks . . . If my services are required, I will of course answer the call. In the meantime, however, my attention is elsewhere.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Picture almost perfect

Three of us headed off to the Old Red Lion in Islington last night to see C J Wilmann's The Picture of John Gray. A bit of background to start with - John Gray was the strikingly handsome youth with whom Oscar Wilde had an intense relationship with before Wilde met his nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"). Gray was supposedly the inspiration for Wilde's notorious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a preternaturally handsome young man maintains his youth for decades, while the picture painted of him in his prime, ages in his attic, revealing the ravages of all the vices that the real Dorian practises.

Wilmann's play focuses on John Gray (played by Patrick Walsh McBride) and four other members of Wilde's homosexual circle - the painter Charles Ricketts (Oliver Allan), his partner Charles Shannon (Jordan McCurrach). Andre Raffalovich (Christopher Tester) and Alfred Douglas (Tom Cox). Wilde himself, the eminence grise, does not appear. It's a simple story - Gray, an uncertain poet, is abandoned by Wilde and finds himself in the arms of Raffalovich, despite Gray's initial hostility towards Raffalovich's harsh criticism of his poetry. The Wilde trials intervene and, in common with many other gay men of the time who feared a witch-hunt, Gray and Raffalovich flee England for the more congenial climate of Berlin. In the German capital, however, Gray's Catholicism and the bedrock that it offers in an uncertain, hostile world cause him to leave Raffalovich and be ordained as a priest. And no, that's not the end of the story ...

Let me get the quibbles out of the way. I'm always sensitive to anachronisms and my ear grated when it heard the word "hassle" and I'm not convinced that the 1890s entertained the idea that white wine cleaned the teeth. Furthermore the evidence is that Wilde wrote Dorian Gray before he met John, but - and I'm probably guilty of great hypocrisy in admitting this - I find that hard historical act irrelevant and I prefer the dramatic "truth" in Wilmann's play.

Most distracting, however, was Tom Cox as Lord Alfred Douglas. Cox gives an excellent performance, but he is far too old and forceful for the part. Douglas was a fey wisp of a youth, charming, dishonest and insecure, beguiling and dislikeable. Yet even if the Alfred Douglas on the stage was not the Alfred Douglas of history, he held our attention and provided counterpoint and moved the play forward and did all that a good character and good actor, underpinned by good writing and good direction, should do. We forgave the misrepresentation and allowed Cox to entrance us.

Throughout the play each of the actors shone; if I have to single out one for praise, it would be Tester as Raffalovich, who revealed the character's intelligence and deep emotions with thoughtful speech and little than the set of his quizzical eyebrows and his expressive mouth. I might have fallen in love with him myself if my partner had not been sitting by my side.

McBride as Gray was as pretty and charming as the part demanded and if I question his believability as a priest it was partly because he did not dress the part (as the director of a play involving a priest I can confirm that a dog-collar makes a significant difference to the way one acts and is perceived) and partly because the script explored the meaning of faith and priesthood before rather than after his ordination. In the second act, therefore, we were presented with an oddly-dressed man rather than a man of the cloth, which undermined the significance of his new role. Still, McBride held our attention until the very end. As for Allan and McCurrach, it seems almost churlish to limit the praise to the stalwart parts they played, but they played those parts well as a long-term couple with all the ups and downs that coupledom brings.

If the actors all shone, it was because Wilmann's writing sparkled. (It sparkled so much that while two of us were laughing, my foreign-born companion, with good but not perfect command of English, sat silent dazzled into incomprehension. Our fault, not the play's, for bringing him there.) And if the second half of the play seemed a fraction less bright than the first, it was only because Wilmann had set himself such a high standard at the start.

The quibbles are minor. Excellent actors; a strong script. It remains only to praise Gus Miller's direction, which brought everything together seamlessly. Highly recommended to all intelligent theatregoers.

I can't stand stand-up
Last Friday I was at a Fringe event in support of Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, a charity working with death and bereavement ( Appropriately, it was held in an old anatomy hall in Edinburgh University; the audience sat in the same steeply tiered rows from which generations of medical students, including  Arthur Conan Doyle, have peered down at cadavers cut open to reveal muscles, bones and viscera.

Good Life has got together with eleven Fringe productions examining death and dying from different perspectives. Five offered excerpts from their shows; the full list is on First up was Duck, Death and the Tulip, which uses puppetry to help children understand and come to terms with death. Duck was followed by stand-up comedians and songs from Alba, a musical about a young man’s return to rural Scotland to scatter his father’s ashes. Were the songs any good? Sorry, I can’t tell you. For years my taste in musicals has been bogged down somewhere between South Pacific and Sondheim and I’ve never been able to extricate it.

Mr Cassidy
Which brings me to the stand-up. I’m not a fan of the genre and Nathan Cassidy and Robyn Perkins only confirmed my prejudice. From each we had ten minutes of breathless, rushed speech, nervous pacing on the small stage, each line delivered with a smile, a brief moment of tension, then relief when laughter came, followed by another line, more tension, uncertainty when the response was poor and so on and so on. I smiled a few times, laughed perhaps once and hoped they would soon go away.

I’m not picking on Robyn and Nathan – they’re no different, no better and no worse than most stand-up comedians I’ve endured over the years.  It’s an age thing. I’m over 60 and I have no interest in young men and women who want to work out their personal issues and insecurities in public. It’s like seeing children discover the world around them – it’s highly meaningful for them, but I’ve been there, done that and lost the t-shirt.

Of course the younger members of the audience laughed; it’s their world Nathan and Robyn were describing and for them it’s familiar and funny. But for those who are older, there is little new under the sun. Your young son stuck his finger in his bottom and then sniffed it? All children do something similar. It’s funny to you, but I don’t need to hear it. Your sex life after the death of your boyfriend? It may be important to you but it doesn’t tell me anything new about the world.

Of course the commonplace can be funny, but few stand-up comedians have the talent to reveal that humour in a way that entertains both young and old. Exceptions that come to mind are Jerry Seinfeld, Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard, entertainers who fade into the background as their carefully crafted and confidently presented humour comes to the fore.

I know – stand-up is the new black. Comedy clubs overflow with wannabes. Big name comedians fill huge auditoriums. I come across them from time to time in a pub or channel-surfing and I’m seldom impressed. The wannabes are the nervous ones with the stories I’ve heard before. The big names are over-confident, irritatingly smug and convinced that their ability to command large audiences sets them above the common crowd. No, it doesn’t, Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand and all the rest of you; there is nothing special about you except your overblown ego.

I love comedy. Good comedy gives us profound insights into the human condition. Good comedy helps us forget the often troubling world that surrounds us. But really good comedy seldom comes from stand-up. You're more likely to find it in films and theatre, television sitcom and radio. Nothing could be funnier than Beyond Our Ken or The Big Bang Theory, Whitehall farces or an Alan Bennett play, The Life of Brian or Shaun of the Dead. I love to laugh; I just can’t stand stand-up.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Pressed for time

It was media day at Fringe Central today - an opportunity for participants on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to promote their shows face to face to members of the press. The Scotsman would be there (scoff not, ye ignorami, The Scotsman's reviewers wield great power in Fringeland), as would the BBC, Broadway Baby (they too are rumoured by the cognoscenti to be Critics Critical To A Show's Success), The List, Three Weeks and various other printed and online publications Whose Word Can Sway Thousands.

The circus was scheduled to start at two. I decided to go early and turned up at 1.30. There was already a long queue stretching along the rainswept pavement. I joined, put up my umbrella and took it down as necessary as clouds passed over. At two the line began to move and by 2.30 we were inside the building. The packed building. The very packed building. The line for The Scotsman we were informed, was upstairs to the left; everyone else was to the right.

I headed left, got to the balcony, saw the long line of people waiting. That's all right, I told myself. There will
The queues - those for The Scotsman
are peering over the balcony
be several reps there - a comedy reviewer, a drama specialist, music at least. That's all wrong, I was told. There were only two reps from the newspaper, one from online and the other from news. And they were only interested in a news angle. And, by the way, from the point where I was, it would about two hours until I got to speak to one of them. I looked down at the masses below - at least there were ten or so organisations represented, I could go and down consider my options.

Down I went. The line for the British Theatre Guide and The Times was relatively short. I joined it; we edged forward. News came that the Times rep hadn't yet turned up. No matter, I thought, s/he might make it by the time I got to the front of the queue. We inched forward. Short conversations popped up and died down. Another announcement; the Times wouldn't get there until 5pm. No matter, I would get to the BTG and then choose another line. More movement. I chatted with an academic of Iranian heritage about changing sexual practices - did people really behave differently over time or was it simply that what they did wasn't always recorded? Finally, the end of the queue was in sight. At that point we were told that the BTG rep had to go, but yes, he'd take our press releases. I pressed some paper into his hand, tried to say something memorable about our shows but he was already moving on.

I won't mention the organisation that I spoke to next, in case they do come and give us a review. Suffice it to say that the individual I spoke to after another thirty minutes' standing in line was all smiles and laughter and handshakes when it came to women presenting their shows and a mask of utter indifference when I tried to enthuse him in my work, despite the fact I knew it was very close to his line of interest. I was tempted to slap him across the face with a wet fish - he would have remembered that - or even better slap him across the face with a hard fist - I would have briefly enjoyed that - but politeness got the better of me and I thanked him for his time and walked away.

Four o'clock. I had spent two and half hours waiting to see two people who were either unable or unwilling to give me the attention that I had naively thought I would get. I had a cup of tea and muffin, trying to balance them with an umbrella, heavy backpack and jacket that I couldn't wear because it was so warm. Would I try another queue? Why not... There was almost no-one waiting to see Scottish Television. That was because the line was closed and they were going home soon. Ah well, the line for The Times was short. I joined it, but despite a pleasant conversation with a writer who had adapted a Tagore story and regrets over the current state of politics in Tower Hamlets, the minutes passed slowly until the next brief excitement, when small free tumblers of lager (damn, I've already forgotten the name and I should thank them) were handed around.

Once known as The Glasgow Herald
Scotland's other national daily
Then a queue for The Herald opened. I was fourth in line. This time conversation was with casting director Martha, who swore that my looks, could get me work through her every day  - if I only lived in the same city as she did - New York...

At last I was sitting with the lady from The Herald and no, I didn't get her name, and no, I'm not convinced that she decided that above all Fringe productions ours was the one she would move hell and high water to see, but she was efficient and polite and showed interest and asked questions and made me feel that actually there was a possibility that something I said might just linger in her mind and so when I got up and thanked her and left, I felt that for at least a short moment someone, somewhere had taken note of what I said.

The rain had stopped when I got outside and after a brief run for the bus I was soon home, a lesson learnt. It is uncertain if I will bring a production to the Fringe again, but if I do, it is certain that on media day, the last place I will be is Fringe Central.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Something Miss-ing

Years ago, an acquaintance of mine, who was an expert in botany and worked for the forestry commission, went to see the 1966 Oscar-winning film A Man For All Seasons starring Paul Scofield. The story, for the historignorami among you, is about Sir Thomas More, who, on a matter of principle, defied King Henry VIII and was executed for his pains.

Early in the film my friend muttered to his wife that a certain tree in the background of one of the outdoor scenes had not been introduced to England in the sixteenth century. From that moment on, he lost interest in the film; because the setting was so obviously fake to his eyes, there was no point to the story.

I was vaguely amused to hear of his reaction. Surely such minor points faded into insignificance when set against the majesty - I use the word with care - of the film? Couldn't he see the much greater tragedy of a noble character brought low by principle?

Decades later, that anecdote came back to me in the first few minutes of the television screening of The Woman in Black, starring Daniel don't-mention-Harry-Potter Radcliffe as young lawyer Arthur Kipps at the turn of the 20th century. Firstly, it seemed to me that the drawings of Radcliffe's four-year-old son were too contemporary in both depiction (what they showed) and medium (the crayons used). Shortly afterwards, I cringed as Radcliffe's boss (the usually reliable Roger Allam) uttered the words "this firm doesn't carry passengers" - a phrase which has only entered the language in the last twenty years or so. The death blow for my enjoyment was dealt by the death certificate in Kipps' hand, which referred to a Ms. Jennet Humfye.

Ms? Ms?! Ms???!!! The appellation is a 1970s invention. Until that point unmarried women were always designated Miss (and a few of the older generation still insist on that term). If you are going to spend all that money on recreating a sense of the past, I silently shouted at the screen (the Other Half was sitting next to me and I didn't want to disturb his concentration, plus I doubted that my words, even at full volume, would somehow penetrate the tv and make their way through space and time to the set designers who put this film together)... If you are going to spend all that money on recreating a sense of the past, do it properly. Take pride in your work. Get someone who has a little more education than you have to check what you are doing. Has no-one taught you that Ms is relatively new? What did they teach you at school? Didn't your natural curiosity lead you discover that basic fact of etiquette by the time you reached puberty? Or have you not reached puberty yet?

That was the point at which I gave up on the film. From then on I was distracted by almost everything I saw. Why, I wondered, was the village set high in the Yorkshire Dales and yet somehow only a short distance from the flat sea? Why, when Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) was driving the Rolls did his hands move unrealistically up and down on the steering-wheel as in old films when the car was so obviously set in the studio? Why was there a modern "First Aid Emergency" sign at the railway station? Why, when Kipps, his wife and child were walking along the railway tracks, had they suddenly shrunk to dwarf-size? Why was Radcliffe's acting so wooden? Whoever heard of finding a large cemetery attached to a country house? Why . . . ?

Oh never mind what else was wrong. The only conclusion I drew from The Woman in Black was that Something was Miss-ing, and it wasn't just fear and suspense.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Still here

Ouch! I see it's been almost two months since I last posted here. My excuse? My reason? (depending on your point of view)  Real life. Other priorities. Whatever. Theatre-wise I have been rehearsing and promoting Desire and Pursuit. Work-wise I have been spending as much time as I can - which is much less than I should - on my book business. Life-wise I am in the middle of a year-long move to Edinburgh, which includes sorting out and moving the contents of my and my partner's home as well as the homes of elderly relatives. Amidst all these obligations maintaining a blog becomes a luxury that time seldom allows.

I'm here today to change my profile. Out goes the announcement of the run of Desire and Pursuit at the Etcetera Theatre in London which finished last week. (Aside: how do I turn off these annoying red lines which insist that "Amidst" and "Theatre" are not words? - oh, give me an intelligent Brit as a programmer and not an ignorant American...) Which leaves only the announcement of the Edinburgh Fringe run in August. What I will put in its place when that run comes to an end? Well, there's a profound question.

I am tiring of my involvement in theatre production. While I enjoy the heady sensation of seeing my works brought to life - especially when the actors bring out subtleties that I hadn't noticed or intended - and I welcome the regular and apparently unfeigned praise from audiences known and unknown to me, I am no longer willing to throw away time and money on projects which give so little return. By which I mean (a) critical acclaim, (b) large audiences, (c) money.

The reviews that have come in have ranged from indifferent to high praise. I don't mind the former - they confirm my belief that my works are not for everyone and it is generally the younger and less educated who are unimpressed by what they see. What really disappoints me is the fact that the reviewers are all self-appointed, a function of the world we live in, in which anyone with access to a computer can opine on anything, irrespective of their understanding of the issue. Even the most intelligent review is worth little if it is not read, which means that the only critics whose opinion really matters are those attached to the national dailies: the Lyn Gardners and Charles Spencers of this world. I have tried - oh, how I have tried, to get them to come to my plays to tell me how they loved or hated them, but to no avail.

The audiences. Yes, it's wonderful when theatregoers I have never met shower praise on me after the production, when I'd rather they waited until I had to cleared the stage and had a drink in my hand. And the more compliments they want to shower on me, the happier I will be. But when the total audience is limited to two or three or five or six people the impact of such compliments quickly fades. Tell your friends, I say to my new-found fans. Tweet, FB, blog, whatever, if you think these plays are as good as you tell me they are. Of course we will, they say, and of course they don't. So audiences remain small

as does the income from them. At the moment those of us investing in our productions are getting back about 15% of our money. That means we are losing 85%. After two years of such losses, I have come to the point at which I tell myself my ego is not so fragile that it needs to be constantly massaged by praise from the small numbers who see my plays. More important, I cannot afford such a drain on my bank balance. It's time to switch off the tap.

All of this means that unless there is some miracle in Edinburgh - ideally two or three influential reviewers come early in the run and gives the production such high praise that we are sold out for the rest of the week - Desire and Pursuit is likely to be the last of my work to see light of stage. It's been interesting, it's sometimes been fun, but it looks as if it's time to move on and away.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Dance, dance, dance...

Years after it opened, I finally made it to Billy Elliot: The Musical on Saturday, thanks to a friend who was spending a couple of nights in London in transit between Hong Kong and his native Rio de Janeiro and had bought tickets for the Other Half and me. The OH and I had seen the film recently and although he was exhausted after a twelve hour day, we bussed down to Victoria and just made it through the roadworks surrounding the theatre in time for the show to begin.

The curtain rose on a northern village with a parade of sturdy coal-miners, supporting wives and cheeky kids all singing loudly. For a few minutes I was disappointed - I couldn't hear the words, I wasn't impressed by the tune and I dreaded the thought that it was going to be sung-through - but when the music faded and the set segued into Billy's home, with Dad, older brother, Grandma and the ghost of Mum, I began to enjoy myself.

Stage, as every third-rate actor knows, is different from film. Film offers close-ups, subtleties and silence, allowing delicate thoughts, emotions and movements to float off the screen. To reach the furthest reaches of the gods, for whom the performers may be little more than matchstick men, voices must be loud and gestures large. I had thought that much of Billy the film would be lost in the transition to stage - his grandmother's frailty and regrets, friend Michael's longing, Billy's changing moods as he discovered dance and as his father discovered him dancing, the reactions of the miners to the cuckoo in their midst. I was wrong. The retention of key scenes and much of the dialogue from the film, plus the direction, which allowed brief moments of silence, all helped to maintain and convey the many different levels of the story -  the miners' struggle to maintain dignity and to survive, Mrs Wilkinson's feistiness and her awareness of the limitations of her skills and pupils, the shadow of puberty falling across young lives and so on.

Above all, what held the show together was the dance. I have to admit that apart from the times when I dated dancers and tried to show an interest in their craft, I know little about either classical or modern terpsichore and I only show real interest when dance consists of handsome young men in not many clothes stretching their bodies to interesting positions. Which means I can't comment on the originality of the show's choreography or the talent of the dancers. What I can say is that I was totally absorbed by and focused on the dancing that I saw - even though only once, when Billy dances with his older self, did it involve a handsome young man in tight-fitting clothes. What held my attention in scene after scene, was the gaggle of girls in class dancing with great energy and little talent, the ranks of policemen and miners confronting each other, Grandma dancing with her memories, young Billy and Michael surrounded by dancing dresses and . . .

The Angry Dance
. . . and Billy himself. The night we attended Bradley Perret was the miner's son. Twelve years old, with an attractive and interesting rather than good-looking face, Perret threw himself into the role with an energy, intensity and talent that suggested he will, if responsibly chaperoned and managed, become a great presence on the stage in five or ten years' time. Several times when he was dancing he brought tears to my eyes and the Other Half's eyes. The anger with his father, his duet with his future self, his explanation to the Royal Ballet were all performed with intense emotion and as he danced on and on, the awkwardness of his youth fighting the elegance of his intention, and I wondered where how that small body could contain and express that apparently inexhaustible energy, I was not bored, I did not want him to stop, I simply wanted to watch him dance and dance and dance.

If there was a downside it was the songs. (Music by Elton John, lyrics by Lee Hall) I couldn't hear several of them and those I could hear did not impress themselves on me - except for Grandma's melancholic memory of her man and marriage. At least, when I gave up trying to hear the songs, I could concentrate on the spectacle and with Stephen Daldry's direction and Peter Darling's choreography there was enough to keep my attention. Besides, the acting was excellent - Ruthie Henshall as Mrs Wilkinson, Deka Walmsley as Dad, Ann Emery as Grandma, not forgetting lesser roles but equally good performances from Howard Crossley as George, David Muscat as Mr Braithwaite, and (I hope I am not mistaken) Zach Atkinson as Michael.

In quieter moments I found myself wondering what in Billy Elliot's story and in Billy's dancing had moved me so much. The answer of course was all the complexities of humanity. Billy represents the best of us, our talents allowed to flourish, our dreams come true. That in itself would be cause for celebration, but we can only see his achievement against the background of the failures that surround him - the miners whose strike has been defeated, the would-be dancer who can only teach untalented children, the old woman whose husband beat her, the boy who likes to wear dresses seeing the boy he longs for leave forever. And even Billy does not have it all; he has lost his mother and London may tear him away from his community, nor is his talent guaranteed to help him rise above his fellow-students or protect him from the rough and tumble of metropolitan life. In short, Billy represents our fragility as well as our achievements; he is the epitome of our humanity and that is why we - or at least some of us - cry tears of joy and sadness.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

As Time Goes By . . .

There are many reasons to dislike growing old, but one of the worst in my view is the speed with which days, weeks, months and seasons rush by. Last week the Other Half and I were in Richmond Park walking under some oak trees. He looked down for acorns, remembering when we had picked bundles of them on a walk through Northaw Great Wood. That felt like only the week before, but actually, it was six months ago.

I bring the subject up because it has suddenly hit me that my next production opens in just over two months' time and I hadn't started the publicity drive. So in the last couple of days I have been finalising designs for the leaflet (yes, I changed the wording of the strapline from "love" to "obsession"), writing the press release, which is now online here, and coming up with more pictures.

Not only do I have to promote the production of Desire and Pursuit at the Etcetera Theatre in London in July, but I have to get my ass into gear, as the North Americans so poetically put it, to promote the Edinburgh Fringe run the month. I have to do all that in addition to running my book business, spending some time promoting the No Vote in the upcoming Scottish referendum (a Scot by birth, accent and family home, I'm definitely not a fan of separatism, narrow nationalism or the individuals who lead the separatist campaign). It will be time-consuming, frustrating and tiring, as all theatre promotion is, but I believe that with our previous productions we are managing to build up a head of steam that will see an even bigger audience come to our run at the Etcetera Theatre - if you come, don't hesitate to say hello.

Friday, 18 April 2014

He loves me not . . .

Our next production opens in under three months and I'm busy working on the publicity. The first task is to put together a poster, which will form the basis of our leaflets and other advertising. This is the draft I've put together so far. (Yes, I'd far rather this was undertaken by a professional designer, but we're losing enough money as it is...)

There are - as many of you will spot immediately - several problems to be overcome. We need a strong image. We need a title, a strapline. We need dates and addresses and prices. We need reviews to entice the punters, sorry, discriminating members of the public who will rush to buy tickets. And we need to list three shows with straplines to further entice our potential audience. All of this has to come together in a harmonious, seductive whole.

This is what we have so far. Needless to say, there will be changes. The theatre address will probably be smaller and move down a little. The theatre logo might also be reduced. We will probably more a little more of the beauty's body - after all, there's nothing like nudity to draw the eye of the beholder.

Plus the strapline is likely to change. "love" is a difficult word, with different meanings for each person who utters and hears it, but there is a common core that suggests that the heart is more engaged than the groin. I'm not convinced that the three characters in Desire and Pursuit - the tormented priest in Angel, the cantankerous writer in Now We Are Pope and the old man on the beach in Tadzio Speaks . . . are in love with their respective obsessions. Lust, yes, Longing, ditto. But love? One of them indeed believes he is in love, but whether he is fooling himself is a central question in his play.

Which means I am thinking of changing the strapline to say "three one-man plays about beauty, faith and obsession". Will that bring in the punters? Or should we just have the youth in his loincloth posing at the theatre door? Nice idea, but since he's been in his grave for the last fifty years or more, not one that I am seriously considering.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Mysterious, baffling and comic

That's me. According to Views from the Gods, which reviewed A Man Who Lost His Mind, which finished its two-day run at the White Bear in Kennington last night. (Full review here) I am happy to say I enjoyed the experience. I played a commuter, complete with Financial Times, briefcase and bowler hat, who appears suddenly in a room inhabited by a man with amnesia waking up on his bed. Although there was a serious side to my character in the context of the play, my role was to provide a touch of absurdity. The laughs came, realising one of my minor ambitions - to play the comedian.

There was a little drama en route to the final performance. At the first dress rehearsal I was appallingly bad, muffling lines and offering little energy. And on the last night one of the actresses had not appeared by curtain up. She had been unaware that start time was an hour earlier than the night before and was rushing to the theatre. Tension among all the cast was high and that actually led to a much better performance by all than the night before, especially after the lady in question managed to squeeze into her dress with seconds to spare before her entrance.

Matt and Kellie, the producers, are talking of taking the production to Edinburgh Fringe, but admit that the scenario is unlikely. If they want me, I'll be there. In the meantime, I have to get back to my next project, promoting Desire and Pursuit at the Etcetera Theatre in London and April, and in Edinburgh in August. Of which more anon.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Half and Full Cock

Six hours spent in the upstairs room at the Lion pub in Stoke Newington yesterday, dashing out every couple of hours to move Patsy The Car and feed another parking machine. £13 for the privilege of spending five minutes driving to and from rehearsal rather than thirty minutes in the bus carrying the various parts of my costume. And all for the sake of 20 minutes rehearsal.

As I've written before, sitting around doing nothing is an integral part of acting. The fact that my part is small, taking up no more than the first ten minutes of the play, means that Kellie The Director quite naturally spends most of her time giving notes and going over lines with the other actors. Still, the free time let me read the copy of The Daily Telegraph which I had bought as a prop (my character has to read a newspaper) and, inspired by the rave, five-star review given by Charles Spencer to King Charles III at the Almeida, I spent quarter of an hour on the telephone waiting to get through to the theatre to book tickets for late in May.

Kellie was too polite to say so, but I wasn't impressed by my first run-through. "Half-cock" I said, referring to my relatively listless reciting of my lines. Second-time was much better. I had energy and movement and my character came truly alive. "Full-cock" was my judgement on myself and the others agreed. Perhaps the next one will be "orgasm", said Paul-who-plays-the-guru. Promises, promises, I replied.

Are you wondering about the picture? It represents my character in the play. It's a Magritte, one of several versions of an anonymous clerk. I consider the apple an improvement on my regular appearance.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Running out of time

I am. Running out of time, that is. Another day has come to an end and I realise that I've only achieved about 80% of what I set out to do. Theatre-wise, that includes going over the lines for my Sunday debut in A Man Who Lost His Mind (see previous post), in which I have to utter the immortal line "You're running out of time?" to a man in underwear lying on the bed next to where I sit in my daily commuter's coat. Ok, so that line is not unique, but Matt Crowley has given me more to work with. I look forward, for example, to reactions to my stating "It didn't please the parrots much, but they soon adjusted." Sadly, the pictured parrots do not appear in the play.

Why am I running out of time? The usual demands of family and flat as I spend 72 hours in Edinburgh. I'm back in London tomorrow and rehearsing Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which gives me plenty of time to put all the nuances I need into my ten-minute appearance. And with ticket sales looking good, I have plenty of motive to give a good performance. Come see and judge for yourselves. Facebook link

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Back on the Boards

I trekked up to Stoke Newington earlier today. Only 20 minutes by bus from the end of my street, it's a neighbourhood which, like much of East and North London, is changing so rapidly that any description of it today is likely to be history tomorrow. Suffice it to say that yuppies and Turkish (Cypriot?) immigrants vie for retail and restaurant outlets and it's often hard to tell the difference between the two, with a typical example being the Olive Café on the High Street.

I was at the Olive to meet Matt and Kellie, producers and writer-star and director respectively of A Man Who Lost His Mind. Having worked with me once in a very short film that took almost 24 hours to shoot, and having seen my Californian Lives, Matt (that's him in the picture) decided that I was the person to cast in the role of the Commuter - a bowler-hatted gent who appears in the bedroom of the Man (Matt) in the afore-mentioned play.

It's been almost a year since I last trod the boards and smelled the greasepaint and other odours of over-used and under-cleaned theatres, and so I didn't hesitate before accepting the part. (When I told him, the Other Half looked at me sceptically and asked about payment. I didn't like to confess that the thought hadn't crossed my mind and I muttered something about profit-share. Memo to self: ask Matt about money: is there any?) And so today Matt and I, under Kellie's watchful eye, rehearsed our two-handed scene.

It's a nice part, the Commuter. I have to act pompous - which comes naturally - and there are comic moments that are easy to draw out. I've learnt most of my lines and Matt and I have an good rapport on stage. I'm much more relaxed than I was when I started acting; I know what I'm doing and I'm confident in my ability to do it. And because it's only one scene at the beginning of the play, which is over in ten minutes, I don't feel pressured. After I bugger off backstage I can spend the rest of the play doing the Evening Standard sudoku or working on my own next masterpiece. As for the play itself - a surreal portrait of, you guessed it, a man who has lost his mind - it's short and intriguing. If you're in South London and have nothing better to do on 13th or 14th April, come to the White Bear Theatre in Kennington and see for yourself whether I made the right decision to go back on the boards . . .

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Stars in our eyes

Fourteen of them, to be precise. One four-star review and two three-stars. We're all pleased - well, Chris Annus and I are; Chris Peacock maintains a stately indifference to all reviews, good or bad. And in fact they aren't bad for a first run featuring an actor for whom it is only the second time he has appeared on stage in more than thirty years.

The best response came from What's Peen Seen. Four stars and the magic words "captivating, engaging, expressive", all of which can go down in future publicity material. Next up was TheGayUK; three stars, but the words "strong performances" and "a strong sinister theme that packed a punch". Finally The Public Reviews, which was mostly a précis of the stories and said very little about the performances, direction or writing, but nonetheless gave us three stars.

Of course the reviews came in too late for us to round up hordes of the public and ticket sales have been low. Which meant that once again we have lost money. But with our biggest audience booked for tonight, we will certainly go out on a high. And the good news - for all you sorrowful punters who missed the opportunity to head out to South London - is that both plays will be back as part of a triple bill at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden in July. I will, of course, keep you informed.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Small but perfectly formed

Christopher Annus as Frederick Rolfe
"Small but perfectly formed" describes our first night audience yesterday. A grand total of two in the audience - a gay Catholic priest and his male friend. Not quite the crowds we had hoped for, but better than an empty auditorium. And the enthusiasm that greeted both plays - Angel: Take This Body, about a priest torn between his faith and his sexual desire, and Now We Are Pope: Frederick Rolfe in Venice, about the English writer whose dearest wish was to be Pontiff - from both of them seemed genuine. "Excellent writing. Excellent acting." Music to my ears . . .

The good news is that we have a bigger audience scheduled for tonight, press night. And if our two actors both meet and surpass their performances tonight, it augurs well for the rest of the run.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Farewell to Facebook

I've been on Facebook for three or four years now. As with all new technologies, both physical and cyberspatial, I've gone through different phases of using it. I started by only "friending" real friends and using it as a diary. Then I realised that I was revealing too much of myself to too many people. Even among friends there are different levels of intimacy. You admit more secrets to your partner than to anyone else. Close friends know a lot about you, but not as much as your partner, and those whose company you enjoy but whom you see less often will know much less. The same is true for emotions. In the real world our partner is the one who sees us at our best and at our worst. Friends that we see occasionally see only one side of our character - the side that we prefer to show to the world.

It took me a little time to understand that Facebook does not distinguish these levels of intimacy and I found myself giving out too much information to people who didn't need it. Pre-Facebook it didn't matter if only the Other Half knew I was in a bad mood, but what was the point of my anger spilling out into the internet? Did I really want friends across the world, who I saw perhaps only every five to ten years, to get the impression that I had become an embittered old man?  

Of course not. The point of a private life is that it should be private, which meant that it had no place on Facebook, which is anything but private. So, I thoroughly erased that account and started again. The new FB was only for my professional side. I created a page that covered my interests of bookselling and theatre and occasional commentary on the rapidly deteriorating world in which we lived. And to promote my professional interests, I went on a befriending spree, adding FB friends across the world if I thought we had even the slightest interest in common. 

That lasted for a year or so. For all my efforts I did not see any great reward. My bookselling business continued to grow slowly, but it wasn't Facebook friends who were buying. Theatre was more difficult, but here too it was clear that my FB page was having no impact. 

I decided to change tack. I kept my personal FB page and continued to use it only to post "public" announcements. The number of "friends" dropped rapidly - which didn't particularly bother me - and I was pleased that I had a small but slowly growing number of "followers". And to focus on my particular interests I set up professional / speciality pages - one for Arbery Books, one for Arbery Productions (it started off life as the production Californian Lives), on for Tadzio Speaks . . . (an intermittent production) and one for atheism, about which I used to write a regular column.

For a while the number of followers grew, although none have hit the 200 mark. I made regular announcements relevant to each page and was pleased to see that, according to FB statistics, they reached the majority of subscribers. Then, about 6 - 12 months ago, I noticed that the number of people who saw each post slumped, at the same time as Facebook started offering me the option of paying to "promote" the posts. Promote odd bits of information? I thought about it - for about 20 seconds - and decided no. I continued posting, wondering if perhaps there were some other reason that fewer people were seeing my posts. The statistics did not improve. It really was a case of, if I wanted to use FB to tell people about the various projects I was involved in, I would have to pay.

I won't pay. Not because I disapprove in principle. I'm happy to advertise if I can see a response. But my long, and often bitter, experience of business is that most money paid by small businesses on advertisements is wasted. The cost per customer is too high. I succeed in selling rare books not because I pay to tell the public I sell rare books, but because I have an interesting selection of stock and increasing numbers of people buy from me and come back to buy again. 

Not paying is not the only decision I have come to. I have also decided to stop posting on the professional pages I set up. There is no point in wasting time when only one or two people see each post. And so I am back to my personal FB page, on which I spend no more than ten minutes a day. The time I save by abandoning the other pages I devote to other aspects of my work. Life is easier now. And who knows, maybe a year or two from now even my personal Facebook page will go. 

And then I might think again about this blog....

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Labor Intensive

No, I haven't gone USAmerican. The spelling is intentional. It was the name of a character I auditioned for two days ago.

Yes, auditioned. No, I haven't auditioned for more than a year. But when I made that decision not to go for more acting jobs, I did have the caveat that I would go for those where I was called and where money was involved. And my ugly mug on Casting Call Pro (the same face you see at the top of this column) was interesting enough to have the director of a student film invite me to audition for his short, fantastical film. 

The role was Labor, the head of an institution with only one teacher and two students, one of whom died early in the film. I wasn't totally convinced by the script, but I liked the role and I dragged up in suit, red shirt and black tie and, in what I hoped was a suitably authoritarian manner, presented myself to young Alberto and his-female-colleague-whose-name-I-have-forgotten. 

I was asked to improvise in character. I hate to improvise. I got words wrong and although I had been clearly directed to act towards my interviewers, I found myself acting away from them. Politely, they asked me to do it again and to react as if someone had sneezed in my face. A slight improvement. I still had problems thinking of words to say (I was supposed to reviewing a line of students) and when it came to reacting to the other person's sneeze, the sneeze came from me. 

Alberto and colleague went through the routine of "if we choose you, are you available on these dates?", I asked what time we would be called and then made a stupid joke about Italians and punctuality. Not quite offensive, just stupid. It was totally in character. It was intended as a friendly statement, with the underlying message "I can relax with you", but of course I forgot that true communication requires both parties to be on the same wavelength and, in this case, for whoever I'm talking to to share my sense of humour. Which means above all that they have to be Brits, which Alberto and colleague were not. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I regretted them, but of course I couldn't retract them. The reaction was a blank stare rather than a smile of recognition... 

I haven't been called back. I'm assuming it was my failure to get totally into the character and to take exact direction rather my humour. I'm not upset. In fact the experience has reminded me that my acting skills do not reach the high level that I would want and expect. There are probably still parts for me out there, but I don't know where and I'm not desperate to seek them out. Directing is much more my métier. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Hanging my head in shame

Am I getting lazy in my old age, or was I always careless? I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. The question arises because I have just discovered a mistake I have made. Not a serious mistake. Nothing to lose sleep over. No money lost. No crime committed. Nonetheless, I have embarrassed myself and hereby hang my head in shame.

My error? To assume that The Play of Hadrian VII by Peter Luke was merely a dramatisation of the novel Hadrian VII by Fr. Rolfe. Rolfe, the Baron Corvo - as regular readers of this blog know - is the subject of my upcoming play Now We Are Pope, in which the writer is depicted living in Venice, enjoying the company of young gondoliers and living his fantasy as an English Pope.

I have been sending out various leaflets and emails and tweets and FB postings and so on, promoting the play and claiming that it was the first to portray Rolfe (pronounced, by the way, "Roaf") on the stage. Back comes a letter from Cecil Woolf, publisher and Corvinite extraordinaire, informing me in the politest of tones that actually, Mr Luke's play got there almost half a century before me. Aagh! I grimaced and rushed - well, we were meeting that night anyway - round to the house of Christopher Annus, who is to portray Rolfe on the stage, and from him I borrowed a copy of the play.

And there the truth stands revealed. In Luke's full-cast two-act drama, Frederick Rolfe is onstage more or less throughout, first as his real self and then as Hadrian. I could blame C Annus for my mistake - after all, it was he who suggested I write my play and he is more of a Corvo fan than I am. And he had read The Play of . . . years ago, although he had since forgotten that Rolfe appears in it. But of course it isn't Chris's fault. I was the one writing the new play and therefore I was responsible for the research; if my research was incomplete, I have only myself to blame. Which is where we came in - I with my head bowed, wondering if I have always been careless or whether this is something new.

It's not, I tell myself, a disaster. Although the subject matter is the same, my play is different from Luke's. It's shorter and with only one cast member. It takes place in Venice rather than London and Rome. It includes Rolfe's sex life - or lack of it; you'll have to come to the theatre to see how I treat that interesting question - which the earlier play does not. Besides, why shouldn't I tackle the same topic? The more people who write about Rolfe, the more others will become interested in this flawed, fascinating figure whose words and personality still have the power to amuse, annoy and attract admirers and antagonists.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Win here

Want to see Angel / Now We Are Pope for nothing? Enter the competition sponsored by TheGayUK; it runs until 15th March. And if you don't win, you can always pay for the privilege :) book here.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Abandon Hope . . .

Who do I kill? No, that's going a bit too far. Who do I strip naked (or nearly so, if you're reading this and under 18) and torture relentlessly (or annoy a little, if you're under 18 and still reading this)? Or, as I come back down to reality, who do I blame for the many mistaken listings on the internet of our upcoming production?

The production has a simple title: Angel / Now We Are Pope (alternately: Angel & Now We Are Pope). It's by me, Martin Foreman. You wouldn't think that would be too difficult for listings editors, would you? Well, to paraphrase Phineas T Barnum, never over-estimate the intelligence of the average copier-of-information. Checking on various websites I've come across various combinations, including We Are Pope and Now we are Hope. The writer has been listed as Frederic Rolfe - yes, one of the plays is about Fr Rolfe, but the author is me, moi, yours truly. Further mistakes include faulty or only partial descriptions, which has not pleased the two actors involved, to see a summary of the play he is not in and no information about the one which has spent weeks learning and rehearsing.

More annoying than the initial mistake is the inability or refusal of listings editors to correct it. I'm still waiting for - yes, the essential guide to what's on where - to abandon Hope and give the correct information after I emailed the correction forty-eight hours ago. It's Friday now and no-one will answer the phone, but on Monday morning I will have them - and South London Press, the local paper which has calls the production We Are Pope - on fast redial until I get through. Then I'll go through the rest of the list and see who else needs a metaphorical kick up the backside.

The sad thing in all this is that I'm not really surprised. Did you see the news earlier in the week that reveals that even the offspring of the wealthiest families in the UK perform worse at school than the children of Chinese labourers? For thirty years or more we've turfed students out of schools and universities with no sense of pride in their work, with no awareness that details actually matter, with no thought of consequences. So Joe or Jane Bloggs misspells a listing that has been sent in to them. What do they care? It's not their money in the show. It's not their name on the programme. And they're working for a boss who has a similar attitude. Accuracy isn't important. Offering a good service is irrelevant. People like me should be pleased that we're mentioned at all and who cares if half the information is wrong?

I can't waste energy blaming individuals. It's not even worth blaming the culture we live in since there's nothing I can do to change it. I and the few others who think like me just have to get used to it. We may not be living in Dante's Hell, but still the advice still stands - Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Faith and desire

It's time to gear up the publicity machine. Well, let's be honest, it's more like a pedalbike with a broken chain. What I mean is I have to find time in my day to not only rehearse with the cast and run my book business and, since I'm a stay at home worker, do some housework while the Other Half braves the winds and rain to get to and from work, but also to promote Angel & Now We Are Pope, which opens at the London Theatre New Cross on 18th March. Details of the production for those reading this post no later than 23rd March 2014 can be found here; details for those reading this post after that date are here.

Francis, not Hadrian . . . 
The double-bill of one-man plays which I have written and am directing (those of you who already know this should probably skip to the next paragraph) focus on two very different Roman Catholics. In Angel a fictional priest, albeit based on someone I met many years ago, is torn between his faith and sexual desire. In Now We Are Pope, the writer Frederick Rolfe, who died in Venice in 1913, relives his best-known novel, Hadrian VII, in which an Englishman becomes Pope, while also enjoying the intimate company of young gondoliers.

I am hoping that Catholics who hear of the plays will curious to see how I treat these characters and how they respond to the conflict between faith and the celibacy that the priesthood imposes. In Angel the conflict is clear. Here is a man with a powerful sex drive - a drive directed towards adults, by the way - who must nonetheless suppress it. What strains does this impose upon him? How does he resolve the conflicting needs of body and soul?

Now We Are Pope focuses less on that conflict, although Rolfe himself was aware of it and responded in his own manner. There the emphasis is more on the writer's challenging personality and his narrow vision of the world. In that play I am more interested in the question whether this is a man who should have been Pope, a man to be respected or condemned?

It's no secret for those who have wandered through my various websites that I am an atheist. But that does not mean that my views on the (non-)existence of God play any part in either play. In my fiction and drama I have never wanted to promote any world view. What I want to do is reveal the complexity of human character, to understand, and help my readers and audience understand, what motivates individuals. In Angel, the (non-) existence of God is irrelevant; what matters is the response of one believer to the impossible demands placed upon him. In Now We Are Pope, Rolfe's fantasy of being Pontiff is merely one facet of a complex character that I hope is gradually revealed as the play progresses.

With these thoughts in mind I have spent several hours yesterday and today emailing and posting notices to Catholic churches, organisations and publications across London, in the hope that they will come to the plays - and stay afterwards to debate with me the issues that arise. Will my efforts be successful? I'll let you know, but in the meantime, if you are of a religious bent, please pass on this post to others. I hope to see you, and them, there.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

HuffPo hypocrisy

I know, this is supposed to be a theatrical blog, but occasionally I opine on other matters. Today it's the turn of The Huffington Post. I dip into HuffPo every day or so to keep up with what's happening in the USofA. It's been almost a decade since I last visited and fifteen years since I last lived there (three and a half years in LA and nine months in the depths of Brooklyn before it became fashionable), but I still like to know what's going on. And no, I don't read the UK or any other version of the HuffPo - for reasons that will become clear later on.

Yesterday I clicked, by accident, on a piece by Kathleen Ann from New England: "I'm a Member of the American 'Used-to-Haves'". K A tells the story of  how after losing her comfortable job and consequently her home, she now lives a precarious existence based on uncertain freelance income. I'm sympathetic, and I'm sure there are many others in a similar situation in her country, mine and across the world who are not starving but whose once predictable lives have been upturned by economic and political circumstances beyond her control.

The piece made me wonder, given HuffPo's notorious reputation of giving its founder, Arianna Huffington, hundreds of millions of dollars while paying its contributors nothing or damn-near-nothing, how much Kathleen had been paid for her time and effort in contributing to Ms H's well-being. So, I attempted to post a comment making that very point. Having registered on the site some time ago, I expected no problem, but to my surprise I was asked to "verify" my status. I clicked the appropriate button, to discover that verification consisted of only one thing - connecting via Facebook.

Sorry, Ms H, but while I understand you may want to know a little more about me - and I would be happy to give you my name and country of residence, for the purposes of commenting on a piece on your website, you really do not need to know where I went to university, what friends I have, my birthdate and so on and so on. And so my comment remains unposted.

What does remain is a nasty smell in the air. Firstly it is the smell of hypocrisy, that HuffPo will make use of an individual's valuable capital (her time and intellectual input) to make money for itself, not for her. Secondly, there is the smell of - is it hypocrisy again? I'm not sure - HuffPo offering me choice between censorship (my comment will not be posted) or invasion of my electronic privacy (my comment will be posted only if I allow it to invade my privacy. Oh, I know that HuffPo would not be able to hack into my bank accounts and I seriously doubt that they want to use the information posted on Facebook to harm me - I presume they need the data for commercial purposes to raise more money through advertising - but I grew up in a world where a letter to a newspaper editor would be published merely on the strength of  giving one's name and address and was not dependent on also providing one's history and personal preferences in music, film and politics. And strangely enough, that is a world I still want to live in.

I have always been wary of large organisations, media or otherwise and I dislike giving more power to people who are already powerful. I never read the British HuffPo because I can get enough information about what is happening in the UK without contributing to Ms Huffington's overblown ego (the number of countries where she has set up partnerships is now, I believe, heading towards baker's dozen). I will continue to dip into the US version, but with increasing unwillingness. As for Kathleen Ann, I hope she finds an employer worthy of her hire, who rewards her appropriately. In an ideal world, it might be me.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Picture this

The poster and leaflet (that's "flyer" to the younger, US-influenced generation) are now being printed. The leaflet is being handled by a company in Southend - 2,500 double-sided A5 copies for £90 - and the poster by our usual printers in N7 - a mixture of A2, A3 and A4 for £58.75.  I'd like to have used the N7 printers for the leaflet as well, but their prices are considerably higher. It's a dilemma that has returned occasionally throughout my adult life - do I patronise the local supplier, whom I like and want to support, or do I patronise the cheaper supplier who may be hundreds of miles away? Usually the demands of my limited budget steer me towards the anonymous, larger firm that I am likely never to see in person. I have regrets, but they are few . . .

The poster (à droite) is suitably egoistical. It has my name but not those of the actors. I'm not fooling myself that anyone who sees this poster is going to say to themselves, "oh yes, Martin Foreman, the playwright who gave the world Californian Lives and Tadzio Speaks .  . .  and the author of the moving The Butterfly's Wing and the insightful First and Fiftieth, both of which I keep as close to my bed as Plato's Symposium and the most recent Twilight novel; I must book tickets forthwith". I'm simply playing an old advertising trick whereby the phrase "Martin Foreman's" on the poster will suggest to the observer that I am a dramatist of note, in the same way that "Alan Ayckbourn's" or "Alan Bennett's" encourages some people to open their wallets and hand over their credit card details to whichever organisation is selling tickets for those playwrights' latest new opening or revival. My name top left won't automatically sell tickets but it won't harm sales either.

More important is the image. I think it works. I think it's intriguing and will draw people to the theatre. There are the twin motifs of religion and celebration. It's missing the picture of Frederick Rolfe that we use on the website, and which we are using in some secondary publicity, but, as my aged mother has discovered each time she brings up the topic with friends and acquaintances, Rolfe is a mostly forgotten writer and an acquired taste. Anyway, we're printing very few copies, because there are few places to put up posters where the audience will not only notice them but be motivated to buy tickets and come to the show. On the other hand, if the poster and this blog persuade you to come, let me know when you've booked your ticket and a copy of the poster, signed by moi-même, will be waiting for you at the door...

Friday, 10 January 2014

Paper, pens and pot

A short entry today. We're gathering the props we need for Angel and Now We Are Pope. We have about half of what we need, including a picture of the Madonna, a Venetian flag and a chamber pot. Now looking for reams of old-fashioned foolscap paper, lined or otherwise, and old fountain pens, the larger the better. Are you in London? Can you help? We can't pay much, but you will receive eternal gratitude, a mention in the programme, free tickets and maybe even a cheap drink. What more could you want? Get in touch at

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

When I'm sitting comfortably you can begin

I like directing. It brings out the dictator in me. The boss. The controller. The manipulator. The god in the flies (we're talking theatrical terms here, not disease-carrying insects). I'm polite, I'm friendly. I make suggestions rather than give orders, but I know what I want and I'm determined to get it. The actors are the ones under strain, not me. 

The critical piece of equipment for a director - this director at least - is a comfortable chair, preferably a sofa. Somewhere I can stretch out with my feet off the floor and my coccyx cuddled in comfort. By my side, depending on the time of day, a glass of wine (no more than one), a refillable cup of tea or coffee or, occasionally, a Jack Daniel's (again no more than one). In my lap, the script, with pencil to make temporary notes and pen (red) for permanent changes to the script. Once I'm sitting comfortably, the actor(s) can begin. 

And yesterday, the actor did indeed begin. I was with Christopher Annus, setting out on only his second stage role in - well, actors are shy of their age, so I won't give you details, but suffice it say that he last trod the boards in 19XX. Chris is appearing in the one-man play I have written at his behest: Now We Are Pope: Frederick Rolfe in Venice and we spent the first rehearsal on the first three pages of the drama. Much of it is stage directions, with curtain up on Rolfe (pronounced "Roaf", by the way) asleep on his chair, deep in a confused dream in which his paramour and a Conclave of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church both appear. Upon awaking, Rolfe gathers his wits, gets to his feet, utters a pater noster and consults his reflection in the mirror. Which is more or less as far as we got.

I'm not going to comment on Chris's performance other than to say that we both know we're on right track. I see him again tomorrow evening, when we're going to briefly review that section, then move on to the meat of the play - and by Frederick, there is a lot of intellectual meat for him and the audience to chew on and digest. Before I meet him, however, I will be working with Christopher Peacock again, who is taking on the role of the priest in the one-man play Angel: Take This Body - a play which I not only wrote but performed eighteen months ago. Chris P, you will remember, allowed me to direct him in Tadzio Speaks . . . - a piece which will be revived later this year at the Edinburgh Fringe. Chris will make a fine priest and I'm looking forward to working with him again.

Equally important, I'm looking forward to stretching out on the sofa while he paces to and fro across my living-room. He is likely to be stressed by the exercise. Me? All I have to worry about is whether there is enough tea . . .