Tag Archives: Shakespeare

A Festival of Beginnings

thAs a non-observant polytheistic neo-pagan, I’m able to tell you that the end of January/beginning of February is the Celtic festival of the start of the year (northern hemisphere). Imbolc. I’ve always considered it an advantage to be able to have a second go at those New Year resolutions.

Photo by Carl Rosegg

Photo by Carl Rosegg

I’ve come across two varieties of theatrical memoir recently. One, a solo stage piece by Ed Dixon, chronicling his friendship with his idol and long-term mentor, George Rose. Georgie: My Adventures With George Rose, is playing at The Davenport Theatre on West 45th Street, NYC, as we speak. The delivery of the show is immense in its precision. It is hugely funny, and masterfully constructed. Just when you get the whisper of anecdote saturation, the show turns unbearably dark. For an actor, seeing this show is one of those times when you remember why you got involved in the first place.

The other, is a book called Acting Foolish by Lewis J. Stadlen, recently a colleague of my wife’s in her Broadway run of the late production, The Front Page. A word on the show before I talk about the book. This was lavishly produced (produced in the old-fashioned mid-20th century sense of the word – I mean where do you get companies of 29 actors these days?) by Scott Rudin. A 1928 play, modified for its audience 70 years later, impeccably directed by Jack O’Brien, impeccably acted by a starry Broadway cast, featuring a list of splendid performances, (I include here my wife – I tell you, the things Patricia Conolly as Jenny the cleaning lady, can do with a mop…) but one performance, which for sheer energy, commitment and comic inventiveness was matchless in my experience. I refer, of course to that dynamo of the raised eyebrow, the throwaway, the twisted emphasis, the seductive tone laced with menace, Nathan Lane.

Usually I reckon I can see how it’s done. After 35 years if you don’t know how the sausage is made you might be in the wrong game. But now and then, there is a performer whose secrets just won’t yield to scrutiny, Brian Bedford was one, the late Bill Fraser another. Not so with Nathan Lane. One could see exactly how it was done. All you’d have to do to bring that role to life is: gain every single laugh latent in the text and many not, play with searchlight focus, lift the entire stage with one hand like a superman of energy, whilst spitting comedic bullets all around the house with the other, and above all break no sweat. Make it look easy. Simple, no?

517f7fdvw2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Lewis’s book is a memoir, it tells in more or less linear narrative the story of his adventures in the business. It’s wry, sad, funny, original. Takes you backstage, on set, and to lunch with stars. There’s an overarching awareness of the irony of it all. It’s written with open honesty and tells in depth of the self-awareness that can come to you with a career in show, well sometimes. And there are laughs. Lewis has worked a lot, and you may know of him, but again maybe not. He’s had a ‘that guy’ career, as in “Who’s that guy in the thing with, you know, about the lawyer, the astronaut, you know, with Julia whatshername, where they fly kites on Chinese New Year, you know – him”. What it is, is authentic. A view from behind the scenes, oh, and did I say, funny?

These two memoirs have me thinking about two of my beginning memories.

One was when Juliet Quicke took a party of school kids to see She Stoops to Conquer at The Young Vic theatre in London. I was about 13. I had tried to read Congreve’s play but it might as well have been Sanskrit for all the sense it made. And then…

Nicky Henson played Marlowe, the dashing young blade who was overcome with shyness in the presence of a lady of refinement. The actors were so close you could touch them, they wore period costumes, but we were close enough to see the fabric. Under the lights it seemed more real than anything worn in the audience. The men, led by Nicky were virile and sexy, the women were sexy and stylish, the language was frivolous and funny, and most astonishingly, it made sense. For the young Colin McPhillamy it was a destiny moment.

Mrs. Quicke organized other theatre trips, and in general in her English classes opened doors and windows for me in the way I began to love language. Now I knew what I wanted to be. But somehow all through my teens I just could not find a way to begin.

About six years later, consumed with ambition and frustration and also very shy, I was given an introduction to a man named John Line. He was an actor about the age I am now. He invited me to his house and we sat in an upstairs sitting room with cups of tea.

John: So you want to be an actor?

Me: Mmfp.

John: Well that means you must get an Equity card. And that means training. I don’t think you should go to RADA. Central is where you should go.

Me: Erg.

John: There’s a phone book over there, why don’t you give them a ring and ask them how to audition?

Me: ?!? Hrm…

I made the call, was told I should write and request an audition. Internally I had a sort of tsunami of revelation – all you had to do was pick up a phone and ask. Astonishing.

John and I chatted for a while. I hung on every word. We agreed that we should meet once a week, which we subsequently did and he very generously coached me in Shakespearean monologue. We would work in the local park among indifferent kids and dogs, and slowly, slowly, I began to understand what I might be getting in to.

That first time we had tea, I didn’t know that was going to happen, nor that I would audition and get in. When I got up to leave, John said the words that now, 40 years later, still make me cry.

John: Get that letter off for me this weekend, will you?

So now, decades have passed, as decades do. And the end is, if not exactly in sight, well not as far out of sight as it used to be, and as we learn from metaphysical literature, beginnings and ends may well be connected in ways that are not exactly clear. And in troubled times it’s good to remember that wonderful summation of all wisdom: Even this shall pass away… And in this game every show is a new beginning anyway, and for me there have been several auxiliary – what to call them? – experiments along the way. Here’s another one:

A Nostalgic Transit

Approaching London, the nostalgia hit me. Gerard Manly Hopkins had it right when he said:

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“… landscape, plotted and pieced-fold …” There are few straight lines in the English countryside when viewed from above.

 

Oh to be in England where that which elevates is still a lift, where a dispensing apothecary, as once was, is still a chemist, where a check is a bill, where people understand what tea can mean, where the nation (grappling with who knows what political astrology) still drives on the left. A place where (some) people still apologize to you if you bump into them.

“The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.” — Anon

“… is there honey still for tea?” — Rupert Brooke

“Is there warm beer still in Oxford?” — Colin McPhillamy

Inside-of-Heathrow-Terminal

They re-vamped Heathrow Airport while I was away. No pictures can do justice to the overhaul. The ergonomic management of large numbers on the move includes subterranean moving walkways that go for hundreds of yards and give on to spacious malls. Ticketing counters tastefully jostle ecologically sound food offerings and really good coffee — a thing quite beyond imagining in the London of my youth. The forecourt behind the bus station has jet fountains lightening the mood with negative ions. It almost rivals anything built in modern China, but it makes NYC airport, JFK, look like … well, JFK.

I find a re-assuring consistency in the British media. As in the USA, it is to satire that one turns for the facts, and that redoubtable organ of truth, Private Eye, is still going strong. The Eye, first cousin to The Onion, reports on the unchanging melange of graft, vested interest and feet-of-clay-at-the-top. Said organ reports a sturdy readership of 700,000. As Radio 5 anchor, Sally Gunnell put it (reported in the Eye), “It’s just a small majority who are getting away with it.”

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Meanwhile at the other end of what the more rabid news anchors in the States are pleased to call the lefty/mainstream/liberal media, The Guardian newspaper (aka The Grauniad, due to a famous misprinting of its title on a main page), features on page 15 of its main section, the return of voles to the Yorkshire Dales. Nice to see journalism imitating art, even if it now knocks eighty years since Evelyn Waugh writing in his novel, Scoop, personating his character, the poetic countryman turned war correspondent, Henry Root, wrote “… through the plashy fen passes the questing vole …”

But it is in tradition that England excels: “And that sweet City with her dreaming spires…”

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I’m here for the Faculty of Astrological Studies summer school, one thinks of Dr. John Dee, 16th century man of stars, consultant to Elizabeth the First.

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Did it drizzle persistently then as now? My wife was right, I should have brought an umbrella.

The signature weather of an English summer, affirms, “… this other eden, demi-paradise… this precious stone set in a silver sea…  this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

No prizes for guessing who wrote that.

The Bard and the Stars

IMG_9743‘Not so my lord, I am too much in the sun …’ Hamlet

‘The inconstant moon who is already sick and pale with grief…’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream

‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo…’ Love’s Labours Lost

‘O’er picturing that Venus wherein we see the fancy outwork nature…” Anthony and Cleopatra

‘Assume the port of Mars …’ Henry V

‘If Jupiter should from yond cloud speak divine things …’ Coriolanus

‘But thou, being, as thou sayest born under Saturn …” Much Ado About Nothing

I mention all this because this month I guest at http://www.bagaducetheatre.com where I get to do some Shakespeare up to and including the seven ages speech which, as above, references the seven planets of the ancient world.

And then on August 1st at 1pm eastern USA time, I’ll be talking live about these same planets and how they correspond with the tarot deck. Click here 

‘Course, if the Bard knew one thing it was how to put both sides of an argument so let’s not forget Edmund’s speech in King Lear:

‘This is the excellent foppery of the world that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.’

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There’s no mention of Tarot in Shakespeare, but he does mention the names of all the cards of the Major Arcana except Hierophant and Temperance. Everything else is there … Fool (400 uses), Juggler (also magician), priestess appears only once in Pericles and so on through the rest of the 22.

So, to get my take on Shakespeare’s take, on how tarot and astro connect including a step by step demonstration of how this technical knowledge can add depth to your readings, and how quantum physics brings it all together, click here to register. It’s free.

 

Not From The Stars Do I My Judgement Pluck …

It’s about the middle of my 58th year of life, and as, as we know, the orbital period of the planet Saturn is 29 years and change, I’m in the onset of the second Saturn return (lucky me).

I’ve embedded a video from youtube. If it’s just a single image, go ahead and play it, if you haven’t already seen it. Sometimes it shows up as four astronomical samples, the one in the upper left quadrant is an artistic graphic impression of solar motion. It illustrates what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talked about in Slaughterhouse 5 and The Sirens of Titan, what Rodney Colin Smith had to say in Theory of Celestial Influence.

Simply put, every 29 and some years, the planet Saturn will be in the same position relative to the Earth and the Sun as it was when you were born. Bearing in mind that everything else will be in different places, what does this mean and why does it matter?

Time was when astrologers, alchemists, and seers were respected professionals. One thinks of people wandering about with phials of lead which they were trying to turn into gold, dressed like something in an episode of Wolf Hall.

Time was, on the other hand when actors were vagabonds.

When James the first of England (Sixth of Scotland) came to the throne, things took a rum turn for the metaphysicians (although it was still a good decade for language, theatre, and Shakespeare). In the following centuries though, there was a loss of public confidence in the arts of the signs and the planets, and the consequent rise of charlatans and quacks brought the business into disrepute.

Charlatans and quacks abide still, if you don’t believe me, go and order a report for $29.95 at random off the Internet, then stand back and watch as you get a zillion emails explaining that it’s just crucial that you order the full deluxe package because if you don’t you’ll miss your chance at greatness for another many several rounds of the Sun.

But …

Although a natal chart is cast from a Terra-centric viewpoint giving a snapshot from earthly perspective … and although such a picture is the merest slice from the unique loaf each human life describes …

And …

Because I once played the great physicist, Neils Bohr, I’m able to tell you that a sub-atomic particle can also be a field, and not that I knew Zoroaster, but I know people who knew people who did, and I think he got it right when he said: “As Above So Below.”

And because, as you see, the dance of the planets is a spiral one.

And because an approximation of the orbital period of the planet Uranus is 84 years, and there was a stock market crash in 1929 and subsequent trouble for quite a while, and the 2000s were ripe with global crises …

Maybe some of us will look to consultant astrologers again.

I did so myself recently.

I found a British lady and via the magic of Skype we chatted. I was impressed.

It’s not editorial policy to make commercial recommendations in these pages, but here’s an exception: http://www.claremartin.net

Shakespeare on the span of a human life:

“A breath thou art, servile to all the skyey influences …”

MILKYWAY

Or, for a more prosaic instance; I recently got into a minor altercation with a “hare-brained rudesby”. I was waiting in a checkout line and one of the six clerks appeared to be free. The Rudesby, two places behind suddenly shoved my elbow, while at the same time ordering me to go forward. When I explained that I had seen what he had not, namely, a previous customer returning with new items for payment, the Rudesby grunted, and muttered in a language I do not know. We had an exchange:

Me: And you know, Mercury isn’t even retrograde until the 18th?

The Rudesby: (Aggressively) What!? I don’t know what you’re talking about!

Me: No.

The Rudesby: (Proud of it) I don’t believe in any superstition.

Had he chosen to quote from King Lear, the Rudesby could have expressed himself more elegantly … “I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.”

What has all this got to do with acting?

Good question: I was wondering that myself …

Shakespeare knew of course (no surprise there):

“… that this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.”

Alan Howard: The Bandido

Years ago, when my two sons were somewhere in the middle of a long boyhood, inspired by their demands for bedtime stories, I came up with a character called The Bandido.

The Bandido in his blue period

The Bandido in his blue period

He was derived from Alan Howard.

The Bandido was a charming, elusive baddie. To begin with he had equal baddie status with Dr. Dreadful, and Elfis (a fusion of Elvis Presley and an elf). Sometimes these three bad guys would work together creating havoc around the place, and sometimes they worked alone. The Sherrif always fixed it by the time sleep came. The Sherrif was assisted by two plucky boys, who were the lead characters in the stories, called Tom and Nate. Tom and Nate lived in a cottage that was kitted out with magical weaponry. They were pretty outstandingly good at saving the day these two boys, Tom and Nate, and their real-life counterparts, unknown to themselves, gave joy to all the grown ups who loved them.

The story was an open-ended serial, and over the years progressed to adventures in space with a galactic baddie called The Blob; to a heist with a Chinaman on a Junk who sold fish ‘n chips in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; to the The Sultan of Ombo-Gombo who was the richest man in the universe. Supporting parts were played by bit-part actors in roles like: Plooki, Power Pig, Awesome Ostrich, and Copper who was a flying horse.

As with most soaps, the plots were fairly standard. Baddies doing some bad stuff—global hazard—Sherrif-outfoxed calls on plucky lads—lads deploy cunning strategies—exhibit courage, strength and speed—world saved from catastrophe.

The Bandido first made his appearance as a solo, but then teamed up with Dr. Dreadful and Elfis whom he met while in gaol. For a while they were a dastardly trio, but over time The Bandido emerged as lead villain.

If you’ve ever told a bedtime story to children made from whole cloth (aka making it up as you go), you’ll know that even if you you’ve sketched out the outline there will come moments when you have absolutely no idea of what happens next. It was in one of these moments that The Bandido made his debut.

Working on the idea that when you don’t know what you’re doing, about the only thing to do is to act as if you do, I took a deep breath and heard myself say:

‘Oh no! You don’t catch The Bandido as easily as all thaaaaaat!’

It was a voice I knew well.

I was in a play with Alan Howard at the time. I played an eccentric Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and I had one scene with Alan, who was playing a maniacal Russian General. This was a play called Flight, adapted from the Bulgakov novel, at The National Theatre in London. Part of my job was also to understudy Alan Howard.

Alan Howard

Alan Howard

Understudying, also known by the more tasteful term of ‘Standing by for …’ or the more elavated one of ‘Cover’ as in ‘I’m covering … so and so’ has it’s challenges but if you can navigate the esoteric ins and outs of it, it can be incredibly useful to the jobbing actor. One feature of the gig, especially at a place like the National, is that as a young actor, you get paid to watch distinctive older actors and learn from them. Alan Howard was distinctive in spades.

You may not know of him, because aside from a few choice film and TV roles, most of his career was on stage. Over decades at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played many Shakespearean leads, including all the kings (Richard 11 to Richard 111, plus all the Henrys) sometimes two, three, or four simultaneously. You don’t do that year after year without it leaving an indelible imprint on your voice.

He was an actor of charisma and authority. In rehearsal endlessly inventive and in the moment. In performance known for his trademark stances — first of which was, as I’ve said, his voice. When you’ve done Shakespeare in quanitity in big theatres, there’s iron in the voice. A modest man offstage, on stage his vocal flashes were a rollercoaster illumined with random mad swarms of giant fireflies.

Flight was playing in the largest of the National’s three auditoria, the Olivier Theatre, an arena thrust stage modelled after the great Greek amphitheatres. At Delphi and Epidavros theatres were faced with marble, a material which conducts sound and, even outdoors, creates the finest acoustic environment for the human voice in the world.

The Olivier’s steps were cast in concrete, a material which absorbs sound, thus creating a very different kind of acoustic, one which has been frequently worked on with architectural add-ons, and even, to the outrage of classically trained actors, the ocassional use of microphones.

The great 19th century actor McCready wrote of Drury Lane that it was a theatre more suited to semaphore than to subtlety. Alan’s technique was more or less unmatched in living theatre, as a younger man he had given us a specially virile Coriolanus, and his Theseus/Oberon was part of history making, both those performances in the more intimate Aldwych Theatre. But even his unique vocal ability found reaching the back and side walls of the Olivier a challenge.

Alan Howard as Coriolanus

Alan Howard as Coriolanus

So he used a favoured technique and delivered one long battle speech standing on a table. He cut a compelling profile, and I as his understudy did the same when we rehearsed. In one rehearsal I said to the assistant director, who was presiding, ‘Surely I get off this table now?’ (I’d been up there quite a while).

‘No,’ he said, ‘You stay there for a bit.’

So I said, doing my best Alan Howard impersonation, ”It’s the only way to play the Olivier! Standing on a taaaaable, in a cerise follooooooow!!!’.

Unknown to me, the show relay was switched on, so my words were broadcast through the whole backstage.

That night waiting in the darkness of the wings to go on and play my scene with Alan, I felt a familiar presence in an unfamiliar place — usually we entered from opposite sides of the stage. ‘Heard you havin’ a go at me this afternoon,’ whispered the voice that could only belong to one man.

I spun around in the darkness, ‘Oh, Alan! Sincerest form of flattery is imitation!’

‘And yes!’ said Alan, spinning me back, his voice rising in volume as the scene change music came up, ‘it is a long time to stand on a taaaaaable!!!’ With a hearty shove he pushed me onstage, and we played the scene.

Gentleman that he was, he bore no grudge, allowed me to buy him a respectful glass of red wine after the show, and even generously negotiated with the director to give my character, the Archbishop, a few more lines in our scene.

I was grateful for the chance to work with him. He will be remembered throughout the profession as a most accomplished classicist and for other theatrical strengths, but I will always be most grateful for the Bandido, who was a favourite with my kids.

The Bandido with a rare smile

The Bandido with a rare smile

Technically Bandido should be rendered as Bandito, but somehow he never was. The Bandido was a thin, very thin shape-shifter which meant that no gaol could hold him because he could always ooze between the bars. He dressed entirely in black or dark blue and wore a large kind of sombrero. But his most distinctive feature was his voice.

The Great Stage Manager in the sky has called Beginners (UK), Places (USA) for Alan. Wherever he is now he’ll still have a voice to thunder and command.