Tag Archives: Henny Russell

Lots of Prime Ministers: One Queen.

Reading this post you’d be forgiven for thinking the play I’m working on is called, ‘Churchill’ … actually it’s called ‘The Audience’.

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Here is a diary excerpt:

October 4th 2016.

It’s the first day of rehearsal at The Maltz Theatre, Jupiter, Florida. We, the cast, arrived yesterday, Most of us from out of town. Just shy of three hours on the plane from New York. I was in a window seat with a young mother and a one-year-old baby in her arms next to me. The baby was as good as gold except he did persistently kick me in the ribs, presumably unintentionally. I pretended not to notice and when the mother apologized I pretended not to mind. I was returning to British mode (from expat mode). We British would rather suffer in dignified silence than inconvenience a stranger. I used the time to go over my lines as Sir Winston Churchill.

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One scene only. Where he encounters the young Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is the occasion of their first private audience together with she as monarch of the United kingdom and Dominions. It took place in 1954. Sir Winston was then 78 years old.

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For research I visited the Cabinet War Rooms in London, and I’ve watched in no particular order Robert Hardy, Albert Finney, Timothy Spall, Brendon Gleeson and Michael Gambon as Churchill. Oh, and the great man himself of course in all the available speeches.

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All very fine actors, none of them actually impersonate the great man, but all of them copy some of his vocal characteristics, the well known rhythms and cadences, Gambon uses the lightest touch. Finney is my favorite for character.

th-4On the morning of the first day of rehearsals we have the meet and greet. As ever, it is astonishing how many people a theatre employs. The Maltz is a theatre under speed. By which I mean they put up plays and musicals in two and a half weeks, run them for 17 performances and that’s it. Get in; get out. I like it.
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The Audience is a big play and by far the biggest challenge falls to Karen MacDonald who is playing the Queen and is onstage the entire show with some astonishingly quick costume changes as she moves from Elizabeth R in her 8os to her 20s to her 60s and back and forth in this non-linear telling of the story of Britain’s Prime Ministers and their constitutionally un-mandated, but constitutionally effective weekly meetings with the monarch.

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Photo by Alicia Donelan Karen MacDonald as Queen Elizabeth II

We read through the text and you can feel confidence in the room as everyone, without saying so, agrees that it’s a fine cast and that the play has indeed been well-cast and with a bit of luck we’ll have a fine production. Of course this is the first time we’ve heard each other read and at this point none of us can do more than sketch an indication of where our performances might arrive. But everybody approves of everybody, everybody hopes everybody will come up with more, and everybody understands that on day one everybody is both confident and insecure. We all know that many things can go wrong in a rehearsal period. It’s a bit of a miracle that anything ever gets produced anywhere. But it’s a good start and baring acts of God we should have an excellent production on our hands.

In the afternoon we begin to pick the play apart and an amusing discussion follows on the cultural, social and political differences between our two great nations. Lou Jacob is directing and he seems to know more about British Constitution than I do. Hardly surprising, because no-one can really claim to be an expert, least of all anyone from Britain. Why so? Because there isn’t one. A British Constitution that is. At least not one that anyone has written down.

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Photo by Alicia Donelan with Peter Simon Hilton, Colin McPhillamy, Henny Russell, Karen MacDonald, Rod McLachlan, Skye Allysa Friedman, Mark Dold, Paul DeBoy, Peter Galman

Oddly, well it seems odd given the themes of the play, tonight is the U.S. vice-presidential debate. Getting back to the digs from rehearsal I turn on the telly. One of the cable news anchors is interviewing a couple of talking heads, “Is he gonna go offense or defense tonight?” the anchor asks. Before the talking head can answer, the anchor asks two other questions, answers the first question, then answers it again with a contradiction and then opines that it shouldn’t be left too long before one of the candidates “throws the first punch”. Then, in a further melange of sporting metaphors he announces a commercial break and we cut to a picture perfect family having a barbecue amid gently rolling hills and a mellow voice-over artist is telling us to soothing, mildly optimistic music, that spingo-dingo-mingo is not right for everyone and that side effects can include halitosis, bankruptcy and allergy to popular culture. I deploy the only sanction I can and turn the telly off, taking note that five years ago I could still have played the Dad in the commercial, now I’m the right age for the foxy Grandpa. Time flies in entertainment. Still it’s fun to be back in Florida.

Assorted production pix & trailer here

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Photo by Alicia Donelan Mark Dold, Gabriel Zenone, Karen MacDonald

And then there was a hurricane …

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Photo by Peter Simon Hilton. Colin McPhillamy as Winston Churchill

We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On …

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The Scream by Edvard Munch

 

Spoiler alert: there are a few self-referencing, free-associative links in this post.

I’ve had it again: the actor’s nightmare. The one where you’re in act one and you realize with shock-horror that you don’t know your lines for act two.

 

That’s the basic. Obviously there are as many variations on this as there are actors. In this one I had played one of my favorite scenes in all literature. Here’s how it goes:

 

Scene: a garden patio some where in Buckinghamshire, England. It is Sunday morning and a middle-aged couple are having breakfast over the Sunday papers. After a pause …

Him: I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.

Her: No, neither am I.

Him: Then why did you buy it?

Her: They didn’t have our sort.

The exchanges continue in this vein and the button on this opening segment of Act One, Scene Two of this masterpiece, Relatively Speaking, by Sir Alan Ayckbourn is …

Him: If you ask me we’d have been a lot better off with jam!

I consider this scene to be the finest exposition in all drama on the state of British middle-class marriage in the second half of the 20th century.

Bit of backstory here:

A few years ago I was walking on in Brian Bedford’s extraordinary production of The Importance of being Earnest (see this blog December 2010) designed by the late, great Desmond Heeley. It was a very agreeable and comfortable engagement, Broadway money, minimal work required, plenty of free time.

Then the offer came to cross the country to San Diego and play a named part in the US premiere of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 82nd (!!!) play. Well no matter how comfortable or well-paid a walk on, the offer of a real role will rouse the blood of any self-respecting actor, after all it’s why we joined. But there’s more to it than that.

On the whole actors are sensitive to augury. Do I take the best friend in a fungal infection commercial, or do I play Cleopatra in drag in an all male production touring to Iceland, Greenland and the Falklands? Give me a sign.

So this play, Life of Riley, Sir Alan’s 82nd or 83rd – can’t remember which offhand – suffice to say he knocks ’em out, plays a cheeky joke on all of us with a bit of self-referencing (bit like this post, following in the steps of the master). In that, the opening scene is a couple rehearsing the scene above (yes, my favorite) for a local production somewhere within the world of the play. And Relatively Speaking was Sir Alan’s 10th or 11th, or it may have been 16th play, but his first commercial hit. So, Sir Alan is here referencing his early work. The reference is undisclosed, it’s an in-joke, not unlike say, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew getting the astrology wrong in Twelfth Night. Not only that, but each of the four scenes in Life of Riley opens with a variation on the Relatively Speaking scene (rehearsed, rehearsed in strife, rehearsed in exasperation, post-show discussion including how it should have been rehearsed).

But wait, there’s more.

I had a few years previously directed this very play, Relatively Speaking, in the very same San Diego.

And the name of the role in Life of Riley, and the guy rehearsing my fav. scene?

Colin.

Therefore, a pun on my favorite scene in my favorite play, as US premiere of my favorite author, and the role spookily, my own name. Throw in San Diego in the summer, Jacaranda blossom, The Old Globe theatre, well appointed old-world accommodation, beaches nearby. Somehow the drastic salary reduction didn’t seem to matter.

Another, at that point unknown, jackpot was that my scene partner was the incomparable Henny Russell (see this blog June 2011) with whom, to my delight I am about to work again (see this blog last entry), although sadly in The Audience, Mrs Thatcher and Churchill say nothing to each other – although perhaps another famous dialogue could be adapted thus:

Mrs Thatcher: If I were married to you I’d poison your tea.

Churchill: If I were married to you I’d drink it. 

We pick up the actor’s nightmare when I’ve played the scene, the marmalade one,  and I’m relaxing in my dressing room. There’s a book, there may be a fine-quality whisky (even though I never drink during a show – seriously I don’t – afterwards is a different matter), but if there isn’t actually a whisky it feels like there is one. I’ve taken off the jacket, tie and shoes and am leaning back on a chair with my feet on the make-up counter, I’m reading something pleasing (don’t know what it is, but it’s making me smile). The dressing room lights are mellow, and the counter resembles the practical confusion of my study. There are books, papers, bills, there’s make-up, and other theatrical accessories all piled irregularly in happy confusion and I know where everything is and I’m looking forward to the curtain call where I’m confident there will be a warm reception.

Suddenly something alerts me. I’ve forgotten something. What play are we doing? Relatively Speaking, ok, all I have to do is wait for the final scene … no, hold it, I’m confused … somehow I’ve got the idea that I’m on tour and I’m in the company of The Madness of George III where I played a telling cameo, and also once when one of the other guys was sick, took over as the vicar giving a blessing in the very last image of the play. I look down and see that I’m half dressed in religious vestments … but … wtf (!?!) … it’s not George, it’s RELATIVELY SPEAKING.

The chair comes upright and I spring from it and furiously rummage the counter for the script (where the f**k is it???) as whisky, books and make-up go flying. Over the p.a. I hear dialogue from the scene where my entrance is coming up. I sprint (if that word can be applied to undressing and dressing) out of the vicar’s garb into the tweedy jacket and cords of an Englishman in his garden and jam both legs into one leg of the trousers. There’s no time to undo this. Hopping around like a demented pogo stick, anxiety becomes terror as I at last find the script which has morphed from a slim volume into something Dickens might have written in one of his more verbose moods, and I riffle the pages desperately looking for my lines.

And there they are all neatly highlighted in yellow.

Do I know them?

NO! ARGH!

These are lines I have never seen (and lines that Ayckbourn never wrote – or did he?). I turn a page and I see a block of text, again highlighted, it is the beginning of a twelve page monologue and all of it is strange to me.

What is to be done? Can I busk/impovise it? No! Don’t be ridiculous! Not even Eddie Izzard could do that! My entrance is coming up (a matter of seconds now). I am still wrongly dressed, I catch myself in the mirror and see that my thinning hair is now back-combed in horror and I look like a steampunk version of a pantomime dame. Adrenalin and some unknown hallucinogenic course through me.

Suddenly I’m in the wings, from the darkness I see the brightly lit stage, inwardly I invoke the genius of Ayckbourn, Moliere and Shakespeare, desperately appealing to all three to come up with some brilliant sleight-of-form that can save me and amuse the (enormous) audience. But I know it’s hopeless. I’m completely f**k*d. My terror escalates …

And then I wake up.

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Sigmund Freud

Do we need to send to Vienna to work this one out?

Not so much.

Although I am offering either a quality whisky or a free tarot reading for the best interpretation offered by my readers – 100 words max please – and the judge’s decision will be final. Yes, even actors (me) playing statesmen (Churchill) have to have day jobs (see www.mcphillamytarot.com).

That’s what helps us keep the night sweats away.