Yes, it's true: this Friday, Donald Trump gets sworn in as President of the US. Too much already written by too many bleating liberals on this subject, so I won't add to the bleating. Well, not much. It's a strange state of affairs, though, when you find yourself looking back in relative fondness on such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon; certainly, if the election campaign's anything to go by, I can't help feeling that Mr Reality's incumbency is likely to make Ronnie and Dickie scrub up by comparison like a couple of latter-day Abe Lincolns.
Still, every cloud, they say, has a silver lining, and for me (me! me! me!) it's the new relevance of my one-man show The Trials of Harvey Matusow. When, last spring, I was approached by a coupla profs from Sussex Uni (home of Matusow's archives) to consider doing some Harvey-related stuff in November's Being Human festival, none of us could have imagined just how topical the story of "America's most notorious liar" would come to seem. Back then, in early May, it seemed inconceivable that Trump would even get the Republican nomination; by late November, when I joined Doctors Doug Haynes and Diarmuid Hester to tell the story of Matusow over the course of a discussion evening and a performance of my play (that's "Harvey" and Diarmuid in the pic), Trump was President-Elect.
Whatever the shortcomings of Mrs Clinton (and it's too easy just to say that everyone against her was a woman-hating fascist), the fact remains that, over the course of the campaign, bad press was to Trump as flies to dogshit - and yet nothing, it seemed, could keep those who'd set their hearts on it from giving him their votes. In this is the relevance to Matusow, and, more to the point, his one-time chum Joe McCarthy - for as with Trump, so with McCarthy there were plenty of people questioning the factual accuracy of his red-scare grandstanding (by no means everyone was afraid to attack him), and yet he was twice re-elected to Congress, the second time after he'd been censured by his colleagues in the Senate. But for the fatal intervention of booze on his liver, it might well have been McCarthy instead of Nixon going up against JFK in 1960 - and who can say what nuclear fireworks might have resulted from that?
What craziness is this? Four months since my last confession? Just shows how busy I've been - and not just in my own one-handers.
I spent the festival month of May running from the proverbial pillar to the equally proverbial post as I performed in three shows: I played Aaronow in the award-winning production of Glengarry Glen Ross at the Rialto; I was Alfie in the immersive Hydrocracker/Blast Theory show Operation Black Antler; and I did a week of Something Rotten with Sweet Venues at the Waterfront Hotel.
I'd taken some persuading to do SR in the Fringe, being of the opinion that it's an institution with too many shows and not enough audience - and though I've not entirely relinquished that notion, I was nevertheless pleased to get a week of healthy crowds (OK, so it was only a 30-seater), a bunch of very warm reviews - The Stage invoked the word "superb" - and an Argus Angel Award from the local paper. What care I if they're too cheap to make with an actual, hold-in-your-hand physical award and I have to make do with the words "Argus Angel winner" in the paper? An award's an award.
That all done and dusted, I played Mazzini Dunn in Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT), assigning to the character a Welsh accent which, given my half-Welsh heritage, I expected to be a tonguely walk in the park. In fact it was quite the bugger to get right, and yet all the evidence suggests I did so. Actually, there is no evidence to speak of, for though the show was well received by audiences, there wasn’t a single review written.
HH was immediately followed by the part of The Man in Brief Hiatus’s lightning-quick production of The Bacchae, rehearsed in a week and presented for just one blood-drenched night at 88 London Road. I then revisited the role of Quint the traffic warden in my one-hander High Vis, revived for the Stroud Theatre Festival, before diving into rehearsals for The Ugly One, Marius von Mayenburg’s surreal comedy about the use and abuse of human pulchritude. I've been working once again with Pretty Villain, the in-house company at the Rialto, this time under the direction of Lauren Varnfield. She may well be the best director I've yet collaborated with - working in great detail yet having the confidence to allow people to be trying new things all the time.
Anyway, that's me in the picture up top, with Tom Dussek (one of my former real estate colleagues from Glengarry Glen Ross, as it happens).
Among the excellent things that happened during my period of omerta (in fact just a period of insane busy-ness) was an early-spring visit to the Georgian Theatre Royal, in Richmond, N Yorks, there to perform Something Rotten as part of a festival to mark the 400 years since Bill Shakespeare shuffled off his proverbial mortal coil.
Along with the fabulous Jenny Rowe I headed north at the invitation of the GTR’s Clare Allen, who has championed my work ever since I did The Trials of Harvey Matusow at her English Theatre of Bruges back in 2010. I subsequently did High Vis in Skipton when Clare was running the Mart Theatre – known to her daughter Amelie as "Mummy's stinky theatre", owing to the venue’s daytime ID as a sheep market. After a brief period at the Stratford Arts House Clare is now very happily masterminding the Georgian Theatre Royal, a venue not at all “stinky” in spite of its advanced age.
Aside from doing a very warmly-received show at the GTR (“masterful”, quoth the Northern Echo), we got time to see some of the abundant joys of Richmond – which, apart from a tour of the theatre itself (a must-do for any visitor, whether or not you’re planning to see a show), included a perambulation around the walls of the castle (that’s it below there, as seen from our window at Clare’s), and, it being unseasonably warm for April, a leisurely wander along the River Swale to see the ruins of Easby Abbey.
Y’know back in the early ’90s, when Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth in a state of confusion because the Cold War had ended and they were now citizens of a different country (ie the Russian Federation) to the one they’d blasted off from some months before (ie the USSR)? Well, it feels like that returning to this blog for the first time since early April.
It’s easy to exaggerate the enormity and the impact of last month’s vote to leave the EU – and I won’t add to the hysteria – but even so, it’s a pretty big step the UK has voted to take. Though I voted to Remain, I’m not convinced the decision to Leave is going to be an entirely bad thing for the EU as a whole – it may yet shock the thing at last into some serious reform; but there’s little doubt it’s going to be a huge thing for the UK. We’ve already seen a big rise in racist and xenophobic attacks (giving wrongful credence to the idea that every Leave voter was a nazi), and both the main political parties are struggling to emerge from post-Brexit meltdown. Hopefully these aftershocks will pass, and the business of striking the best freelance arrangement can begin, but one thing’s for sure: however things go, the post-Brexit transition will make a lot of work for politicians, civil servants, and, above all, contract lawyers.
Artpothecary is an art supplies shop at Brighton Open Market, run by my friends Beth and Adrian. Once housed in a poky first-floor unit, they’ve now moved to a bigger space on the ground floor. Despite having started their first day by spending £90 or so on a locksmith – some good citizen had used glue to sabotage their front door – they threw a fabulous launch do at the shop (that’s it in the pic, backgrounding myself and my fabulously-shirted friend Noel Bateman). There was wine and top-quality OJ (so often OJ’s just OK) as well as scrumptious cakes and – here’s the point of the matter – the best somosas I’ve had since Edinburgh ’89. That was the year I first went to the Fringe on business, as writer and producer of a play called Poor Paddy Works on the Chain-Gang. So many unhappy experiences were involved in that visit, but at least I made the acquaintance of somosas, courtesy of the Fringe Club bar. Somosas sustained me through many a stupidly late post-show booze session, and perhaps that’s why those first ones hold a special place in my heart; at any rate, pretty much every somosa since has disappointed by comparison – but these ones at the Artpothecary launch were simply the best ever. And Mohammed, of the neighbouring Mohammed – Spice of Life, is very welcome to quote me on that. Though I don’t suppose he will – unless, of course, I become very famous. So, let’s keep hoping, for both our sakes.
Tonight I went to see a production of Howard Barker’s Gertrude – The Cry, which, like my Something Rotten, is derived from Hamlet but focuses on the Prince’s “elders and betters”. For all that it was brilliantly written, etc etc, I really did not like this play. If I were to scrutinise my motives for going to the theatre, I suppose I’d say I go in search of emotional engagement of some kind or other, and there was none that I could find in this. In the name of fairly full disclosure, let it be said that the play was staged by a friend’s theatre company, and neither his direction nor the acting could be faulted; it was a fearless production full of brilliant things, not least his own performance as Hamlet. It’s telling, though, that when at one point a deep rumbling shook the theatre, I thought, “Ooh, maybe it’s an earthquake; maybe we’ll have to evacuate!”
I don’t know, maybe I’m just too damn bourgeois, but it seems to me that no piece of theatre should make you wish for an earthquake.
A couple of weeks ago I attended an Actors’ Guild workshop run by Gareth Machin, the guv’nor of Salisbury Playhouse. The topic was casting, and he was asked, during the Q&A section, whether he thought people given material to do at an audition should learn it. No, he said; for film or TV something different might well apply, but for a theatre audition he didn’t see the point, and certainly he doesn’t encourage it for his own auditions. Make people learn the text, he said, and it simply becomes a memory exercise – and chances are that, however well you learn it, you’re going to stumble once you get in the room.
Flash-forward a week or so, and I’m asked to audition for a show at the Brighton Festival. It’s an official Festival show, with real money attached, so I can’t say “Swivel!” when they ask me to learn the audition speech. Instead I waste two days trying to get to grips with it, then dry, precisely one line in, when I try to do it in front of the three-strong audition panel. Whereupon the director very kindly said, “Why don’t you have this...” and handed me the script. Which begs the question: if he was happy for me to have the script, why did I need to learn it in the first place?
Fortunately the audition involved other things as well – a piece of my own choice, and some character improvisation – but I didn’t get the job, and I’ll never get back the time I spent needlessly learning their script extract. And it was needless, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t it be taken as read (no pun intended) that professional actors with a body of theatre work behind them are capable of learning lines – if not for the audition, then at least by opening night?
Despite the tender mercies of ayoungertheatre.com (see below), I’ve decided not to give up and slash my wrists; indeed, at least a couple of venues are keen to have Something Rotten, including one of the nation’s oldest and most venerable, the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, Yorkshire.
In response to this, I’ve been re-designing flyers for a new print run. These ones are simpler than previous – a bit less wording to impinge on the central image.
Got talking to Seth, the guy at the printers, who, apart from his print jobbery, is an artist with a groovy sideline; seems he’s one of the guys who every May, in the run-up to the Brighton Festival, turns those green telephone cupboards (y’know – the ones in the street with all the cables) into painted ads for big shows at the Dome and such. Ah me, had I only the budget for a Something Rotten phone cupboard!
Last night, at the Rialto Theatre, we had the first readthrough of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which is on for a week in the Brighton Festival come May. Roger Kay has assembled what looks and sounds like a great cast, and by any objective assessment we hit the ground running – or, in the real estate parlance of the play, we’re on the board already!
I’m playing George Aaronow, the most downtrodden and demoralised of the four salesmen, and I noticed something last night which seems to me key to the character. When his colleague Shelly comes in, full of the big sale he’s just made, George is pleased for him – effusively and genuinely so, despite his own recent lack of success (which he knows, in the current climate of sales contests and leader boards, is likely to lose him his job). His other colleagues’ attitude is likewise telling, it seems to me: Roma is also full of congrats, but perhaps, we learn in time, largely because he sees in Shelly’s success a chance to further his own interests; Moss, on the other hand, lately on the same kind of losing streak as Aaronow, is unable to respond to Shelly‘s good news with anything other than bitterness. But perhaps Moss is the kind of character who’d resent another’s good fortune even if he were doing OK himself. It may be that in Moss’s case (to paraphrase the various writers who’ve been credited with the sentiment), it’s not enough to succeed; others must fail.
Robert Cohen – a man in showbiz so stepp’d in that, should he wade no more, to go back were as tedious as go o’er. These are among his musings.