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The Emerald City

I returned to Brooklyn to a surprise. I found that my room was spotless and completely re-arranged. My gay subletter, Eli, had decided that the bed was in the wrong place, as well as the rest of the furniture, and had not only had moved everything around, but had cleaned it to the standards of a hospital ward. The sheets were washed, folded and put away in a neat pile in the closet, and all exposed surfaces had been polished. Later, I managed to thank him in person. Eli, an early twenty-something, chiseled jaw, feminine good looks with perfectly shaped eyebrows, and who seemed determined to appear much older, just shrugged.
"I needed to have access to both sides of the bed."
Louis told me later that Eli's lover would visit and stay over. Sometimes they would shower together. The bathroom is next door to Louis' bedroom and Lou said all he could hear were squeals and laughter.
"You know, if they're gonna make a noise, and keep me awake, then I should be entitled to a hot and steamy soundtrack to make it worthwhile You know what I'm sayin'? But laughing like schoolgirls… well that's just pathetic. I mean, C'Mon Where's the action? "

Once I had closed the door of my bedroom, unpacked my suitcase, I lay on the bed, now in it's new position, and thought back to the last part of the tour. If truth be told it's difficult to define clearly. Once we had flown back from the West Coast in a journey that had us stopping at San Diego and Nashville before finally landing in Manchester, New Hampshire, ten hours later, we found the temperature some 20 degrees cooler and the weather grey and dull. Perhaps it was psychological, but all of us found ourselves struggling with fatigue. Now it was just about finishing the last three weeks on our own yellow brick road before hitting the Emerald City. Cruelly we caught glimpses of it as we traveled past New York a few times on our way to different venues in the North East. Manhattan and Broadway stood there as a finishing line, a prize awaiting us, full of magic and possibilities.

I tap away on the keyboard on the longer journeys.
Struggling to write this in the van on the way to Pittsburgh… a seven and a half hour journey from Hampton, VA. Spring is in the air, although it is an early Spring and still has that cruel cold bite that can whip around the corners at any time. The new leaves are starting to shyly show themselves. Their green - a vivid brightness; optimistic and full of joy. The cherry blossom, full purple bloom, appears at intervals, splashing the highway with its startling color. Clouds close in. A quick brutal shower drenches all; colors melt into one another - a watercolor whose colors are running. As the wipers scrape across windscreen, I am transported to my boarding school and the early days of summer term. I am playing outside in the enormous great lawn, in front of the great house, which was turned into a school in the 30s, and my eyes are young, bright, innocent, my senses heightened and all is possible in the coming Spring.

I spent my birthday in Pittsburgh, an industrial city built on hills surrounding the river. After the show I was visited by the parents of Francine Brody. Francine had been in my term at Rada and was one of two Americans in our term. Her parents had come over to visit her and her sister in London on many occasions. The last production they saw was Vieux Carre by Tennessee Williams in Rada's Vanborough Theatre. In the play, which wasn't one of his best, but showed flashes of his genius, there's a scene where my character, Sky, attempts to rape his girlfriend, played by Francine. In the technical rehearsal the wonderful and eccentric Polish director, Helena Kaut-Howson, called up to me out of the darkness.
"Darling Richard, you know it would be beautiful if you were naked in this scene… you know. What do you think, darling? Why don't you just try it? "
Not having done a nude scene before, I was somewhat apprehensive. Johnny Phillips, one of the few of our term still to be acting today, came over to me and suggested that I give myself a helping hand to make a bigger impression. I replied that since Francine - a beautiful girl with a wonderful body - was half naked herself, I was busy concentrating for the opposite effect. The scene began and as I stepped out into the lights I heard the sound of running feet. The girls in our term had decided en masse that this was too good an opportunity to miss and were now racing to the auditorium. As I looked out into the dark, giggles from the stalls, made me wish that perhaps I had followed Johnnie's advice

So now in Pittsburgh, and I was a little apprehensive about meeting the parents, especially as Francine had confided that her father hadn't approved at all, all those years ago, of the naked attack on his daughter's sensibilities.
But all seemed to have been forgiven when I met them backstage after a performance of the Dream. I hadn't seen them for 20 years.
Just think, said Francine's father in his lightly accented English all these years later and you're still showing us your bottom

My birthday passed. This year had been one of the hardest emotionally and the most rewarding professionally. Prospero, Benedick, Jack Worthing and Bottom are special parts. The fact that three out of the four are comedic, is also a wonderful gift. I have been stuck with the ever-so serious, and it has been a joy to explore the skill of comedy again. I celebrated my birthday with the cast who generously bought me dinner. We got pleasantly drunk and then travelled the next day, to another city…
Where?
I have no idea. None of it mattered now, just the goal of staying healthy and fit and ready for the Emerald City. 'The readiness is all'. Perhaps the grey fog that surrounds this time was brought on by news of the war in Iraq. I struggled with my apolitical stance. What is an artist's role in war time?
Here's a excerpt from Atonement by Ian McEwan that I love. The heroine has just received a reply back from a publisher about work she has submitted.

You apologise, in passing, for not writing about the war. We will send you a copy of our most recent issue, with a relevant editorial. As you will see, we do not believe that artists have an obligation to talk about the war. Indeed they are wise and right to ignore it and devote themselves to other subjects. Since artists are politically impotent, they must use this time to develop at deeper emotional levels. Your work, your war work, is to cultivate your talent, and go in the direction it demands. Warfare, as we remarked, is the enemy of creative activity.


In an interview in the New York Times, John Malkovich said:
I'd be a political person if politics was about solving problems. But politics diminishes and devalues the meaning of intellectual curiosity. Although I'm not a nihilist. The only thing I'm truly interested in for very long is the stories we tell each other.

Our war on the TV screens of America was remarkable in its total absence of any blood or dead bodies. Sometimes you might see a boot or perhaps a hand stiffened in the sand… but none of the bloody realities that got shown throughout Europe and Arab TV.

Into the last week and I write:
This is a strange week, the last week of a tour such as one like this. Usually people stay in one place for an amount of time - a month, a week - but we are the rock 'n rollers of theatre. One can understand how those people got hooked on drugs and false highs. It's such a detached world, un-rooted, and the boredom that can set in can be stifling. Other times the introspection, the inner mind, the voices, the memories can come out of the dark and frighten the life out of you. I suppose with the end in sight, and New York on the horizon, one starts to look ahead to all the possibilities out there, or the void if you are in a dark mood; and at the same time look back on the work. The shows are the great part, it's the rest of it that is the hard work. And of course the weariness of the road suddenly catches up with you as your body starts to wind down. It's an emotional roller-coaster, and one has to be very very careful that a descent into some dark abyss is avoided. I feel as if I'm standing on the edge and looking for the next ledge.

In New Brunswick, Peter and Robert visited and broke the news to Guy that he wasn't going to New York with the show. The explanation given was that it was to do with British actor quotas and the union.
Guy of course was understandably very upset, but amazingly he managed to behave with great grace and dignity throughout the whole crushing trauma and disappointment. Peter and Robert held out the tantalizing prospect of The Importance of Being Earnest being run off-Broadway through the summer as compensation. I found myself unable to say anything of great comfort or wisdom to my friend. I was torn of course as it was my room-mate Louis who was bought in to play Puck, who I know is actually better suited to the role. My ambiguity and my lack of empathy though shocked me. Later, in fact after the tour was finished, Gabby was at last told what she had long suspected. Lisa was to take her roles of Titania and Hippolyta and her services would not be required for New York.

The fellowship of the tour was broken. A fellowship that I have tried to explain before, but find it hard to put into words. May be a company of soldiers have this bonding, this closeness, where you sense the mood swings and shifts of the individuals that make up the company, and, as one entity can shift the energy, the colors, the essence of the group, to accommodate, embrace and ensure that the heart of it all stays on an even and straight road. Where friendships, even loving relationships, can be formed, but more often than not it's just the fellowship of the experience and the knowledge that your reliance on keeping sane depends on your fellow travelers. And they on you.
Two of the company were lost, to travel their own paths. And the rest of us staggered up the final part of the yellow brick road, - a road that had taken us 50,000 miles in six months, to over sixty cities and 42 states - and wide-eyed and weary we gazed disbelievingly on our own glittering Emerald City - New York and 42nd Street.

We had a week off before rehearsals started for the New Victory. A week to acclimatize to Brooklyn and New York life. My first stop was to join the New York Sports Club. They have a whole batch of gyms throughout New York and one is able to go to any of them during off-peak hours and to your home-base gym at any time. I made my home-base on 41st street in the heart of the theatre district and right around the corner from the New Victory. One of the disciplines I had set myself was to keep extremely fit. Bottom, at least my Bottom, is enormously energetic and the death scene in the play-within-the-play alone requires a certain level of physical fitness. I suspect there is a certain masochism in it all and I'm sure drama therapy laced throughout the characterization, but then - 'Twas ever thus. In a way making 41st Street my home base was a way of claiming the area for my own, as if I had a right to belong there.

A frantic week of rehearsal. A new beginning, stolen directly from the end of the Tempest production, only this time instead of tearing everything down, we reveal the empty stage at the beginning and create the theatre in front of them. Peter and Robert coming in with positive energy and striking a good balance between carrot and the stick to whip us into performance state. Tony Cochrane came back to rewrite parts of the music, and Lisa and Louis were thoroughly professional and calm. The other young actors showed a certain amount of deference to their presence, Lisa and Louis being two of Aquila leading lights. For the last two days we were at the 42nd Street Studios where a lot of the big Broadway musicals are rehearsed. For the first time, I felt at home in this city. Nothing compares to it throughout the States. Nowhere is there the energy or the edge or the enthusiasm that permeates through the streets, up through the towering buildings and out along it's wide and crowded sidewalks. And in Times Square, the world comes to meet and marvel and for brief moments get drunk on its strong and powerful energy. Of course the miracle of New York has been the isolation of one set of immigrants from the experience of others. The city has always been a jungle with different nests and breeding grounds. The one set of immigrants who seemed to have not made their mark in the city recently are the English. The rest of the world has it's own areas in the city. We have Irish, Greek, Black, Arab, Turkish, Jewish, French, Chinese, Japanese, the world's American dreamers, all with their own enclaves. The English have no one place that we can call our own. Although we do have, I suppose, Nevada Smiths on 10th St and 4th Ave with its TV football to congregate and pretend we're back home. Every now and again an Englishman will wander in smugly with beautiful American women on his arm, her eyes wide and shining and seeing the shouting and chanting and the passion for the game as some sort of wonderfully exotic and mysterious British ritual. And I suppose it is.

I went to see Victoria Hamilton and Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Remarkably they are at the American Airlines Theatre, 100 feet down the road from the New Victory. Vicky had phoned me to say she had got me a ticket on a day when I had got up at 4 o'clock in the morning to try and get an extension stamp in my passport. The one thing touring teaches you is to grab moments when they arise, and despite four hours sleep, I gladly traveled into the city. I have worked with both Vicky and Eddie and they were both tremendous in the play, playing off each other with tremendous skill. One was never sure when they were improvising and what had been scripted. Afterwards I went backstage and met up with the darkly dangerous Ms Hamilton..
Vicky and I have remained friends since we were together in Peter Hall's production of The Master Builder. One of those strange relationships where years can go by without seeing each other, and then when we meet we pick up from where we left off… like another parallel world to the life we lead elsewhere. A whole group of us all went out to eat at Angus, which had stubbornly refused to follow New York's newly introduced no smoking laws. Eddie tottering down the street, in black high heels, black stockings, a short denim skirt and silver earrings, hardly raised a second look, this being New York and used to all sorts of wonderfully exotic dress. I lasted for an hour or so, and then made my excuses and left.
A few nights later I met up with Eddie, in civvies this time, and Vicky on their own for dinner on our day off. I had worked with Eddie when he played Edward ll at Leicester Haymarket. I remember Paul Kerryson, the director, ringing me up and telling me about the production and mentioning Eddie's name and that I had no idea who he was. He had never been on stage in a verse play before and was keen to try new things and to extend his acting career. He still remains for me one of the bravest men I have met. At the end of just three weeks rehearsal and two previews he walked out onto the huge Haymarket stage, made even bigger having been extended over the first two rows of the stalls, and played Edward ll in front of nearly every national critic.
It was great to chat with him and reminisce. Vic said that usually he was quite guarded with people, but seemed very at ease this night with me. I suppose we already had a connection and he could tell that I had genuinely been impressed with his performance. I found him very warm and open. Especially interesting to hear about his experience of working with Peter Hall on Lenny. I told him that one of the most extraordinary sights I have seen on American TV was watching the David Letterman Show. Letterman is an institution as was Johnnie Carson before him, a man of quick wit, whose interviews are dangerously benign, until he'll suddenly pounce on the weak points or the sore subjects of his guests, disguising it with wit - the wit of the Royal Courts of Europe in 17th century France, of Society hostesses in turn of the century New York, or the satirical flare of the Cambridge Footlights in the sixties… which can, before you know it welcome you one moment and destroy you the next and leave you outside with your face pressed against the lighted windows, looking in on all the glittering finery, wondering what might have been. However Letterman had been taken ill and guest hosts were brought in to cover for him. This particular night all of America tuned in and must have been very confused to see two Englishman had invaded their favorite all-American chat show - Elvis Costello interviewing Eddie Izzard. Elvis, interviewed him with the dedication of a BBC Radio 4 journalist.
"I thought, bloody hell, Elvis… I mean he was good, but you know, the people are used to Letterman, who will rap with you, explained Eddie, So I started rapping like mad, trying to be funny and take us somewhere, and eventually Elvis lightened up a little, but yeah, when we came off I could tell that they had been worried behind the scenes. "
I told him that I thought it was great and amused me to see Letterman being taken over by Elvis, who was as serious as Charlie Rose - a sort of American Michael Parkinson… and for the Americans, who is Michael Parkinson?… A British TV legend… a chat show host like… well like Charlie Rose.
Eddie even talked about his dressing up in women's clothing.
" They don't always get it over here that I'm a straight man who happens to like wearing women's clothing."
A good night and unreal because we were in this mad exciting city and living - what I call - Technicolor lives. Sometimes I wonder who's writing the script.

At the weekend the company piled into the van once more and drove out to the State capital of New York State - Albany. There we tried out our new version of the Dream in a building called The Egg, so-called because the building is shaped like a huge metal egg lying on its side and set in the middle of a complex designed as Louis said of someone's vision of the future back in the 1970s. Inside the auditorium was curved accordingly. It is an extraordinary building and in a major city would probably be as famous a landmark as the Sydney Opera House or London's Millennium Wheel. For us, however, it was a gig we could have done without. All our focus was on The New Victory and New York.

The Victory Theatre was built in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein, who originally called his small theater the Republic. In his own words, Hammerstein described it as the perfect parlor theater...a drawing room of the drama dedicated to all that is best in dramatic and lyric art. Hammerstein's architects, J.B. McElfatrick and Sons, designed a Venetian facade with a grand exterior staircase on the front sidewalk, leading to the first of two balconies, and illuminated by cast and wrought iron lamps. Inside, the elaborately decorated interior was crowned by a large dome with plaster angels perched on its rim. Opening night was September 27, 1900, and the main attraction was Lionel Barrymore starring in James A. Herne's Sag Harbor, which was followed by a six-month run of In the Palace of the King.
In 1902, Hammerstein sold the theater to its manager, David Belasco, who renamed it after himself. Belasco made extensive interior and exterior renovations, adding a glass canopy to the front entrance, redecorating in subdued greens and browns, and creating the most technically advanced backstage of the time, with traps, elevator lifts and turntables. For the next eight years, the theater housed a series of hits, with stars David Warfield, Jane Cowl, George Arliss, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Tyrone Power, Cecil B. de Mille, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Among the Belasco's successful plays were Common Clay, Lilic Time, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, and The Sign on the Door. But by far the theater's biggest sensation was the Irish-Jewish comedy, Abie's Irish Rose, which played 2,327 times over six seasons starting in 1922, and still remains one of Broadway's longest running shows. Between the hardships of the Depression and competition from a new form of popular entertainment—the movies—Belasco's theater needed a more profitable tenant to keep it afloat. It found one in Billy Minsky, who ran the Billy Minsky Republic Burlesque between 1931 and 1942. The theater's next incarnation saw it renamed the Victory in the patriotic spirit of World War II, after which a movie screen was erected for second-run films. By the early 1970's, the Victory became the first and only pornographic movie theater on 42nd Street. However, by 1990, the stage of the Victory was once again graced by legitimate theater with the opening of Crowbar, followed in 1991 by Theater for a New Audience's production of Romeo and Juliet, as well as other theatrical fare.
The New 42nd Street signed a 99-year master lease, during May 1992, with the City and State of New York. The New 42nd Street Organization adopted the plan of converting the Victory into New York's first performing arts theater for youth and family audiences. As The New Victory, the Theatre would present a year-round season of the highest quality professional works, crossing all artistic genres, and celebrating New York's culturally diverse traditions. Daytime school programs, pre-performance family workshops and theater apprenticeships for high school and college students, would also be instituted. 'Not only would the Theater restore life to 42nd Street, signaling the direction of future change, but it would forge a needed connection between the performing arts and tomorrow's theater audiences.'
Strictly speaking, being a family orientated theatre, it is classified as an off-Broadway space. It is slap bang in the middle of 42nd Street, just off Times Square and the shows are reviewed by all the New York press. It's Broadway The only mistake they have made in the restoration is there is no billboard outside, just two LED red screens advertising the show. Apparently they thought posters would spoil the appearance of the historical building. When I was told this by one of the theatre administration, I was said caustically: "How can posters outside spoil its appearance? It's a theatre for Christ's Sake! "
Despite this one misjudgment, the theatre, outside and in is a jewel, a wonderful old Victorian masterpiece, as good as any 'Matcham's - the leading English Victorian theatre architect who designed the most beautiful theatres in England, like the Grand at Blackpool at the Theatre Royal at Brighton. It seats just over 500 on three levels. Standing on stage, one has no need for the dreaded microphones, as you can easily reach the back of the house, the sound rolling up and around the ornate seating, boxes, and cupids that adorn the ornate ceiling dome. It has a lushness inside like a feather pillow, a grand old building, who I strongly believed was very happy to have Shakespeare once more inside its elegant auditorium.

Peter and Robert fell on it like small boys with a train set. David Dunford, our lighting designer, was struck down, perhaps fortuitously, with a virus that took away his voice, and was unable to take an active part in the creative process and in Peter's lighting suggestions. By the time they had finished, the show looked wonderful - splashes of wonderful lighting color subtly changing the atmosphere and the scene, with Tony's atmospheric theatrical music and Lisa and Louis(decked out with horns and a shaved head) now putting their own stamp of authority on Puck and Titania, we felt very much at home in this dream of a theatre.

Now we await the critics. The previews have gone very well. People stood in all shows, which is rare for New York apparently. Peter is very pleased and says that actually the critics don't matter, which of course is true - except they do - in this city - and it's one critic from the New York Times that counts most of all. Arthur Miller writes in his autobiography about this phenomenon:

In a New York theatre community on its knees before a single great newspaper, a certain ex-cathedra tone, what might be called an automatic response mechanism, soon takes over the style of whatever critic happens to be on duty in any particular season, and we who work in this silly business are stuck with whatever his slant may be. It is a very old habit for us to move in droves, something Torcqueville noticed a hundred and fifty years ago; the American wants to be one of the crowd, and when condemnation is leveled against a play by the only newspaper whose authority he accepts, the critic's influence, along with the outrageous ticket prices and the phenomenal expense of parking, becomes lethal. For all intents and purposes the contemporary American repertoire comes out of New York and represents the taste of whoever is writing the New York Times review, only slightly mitigated by other reviews. The Times did not invent the situation, but there it is, a dictatorship as effective as any cultural control mechanism in the world.

It is not as important to us as we have a limited run and are nearly sold out already for most of it, but for the personal ambitions of the company it is undoubtedly important to receive a favorable mention in dispatches.
Now… I am still amazed to walk out of the theatre and find myself in that crossroads of the world. I still don't know what I'm doing here or how long this particular adventure will last, but I am thankful that I am still doing what I love… Shakespeare and theatre.

Last night I wandered down Broadway on my day off, not able to stay away. On a whim I walked into the box office of the Plymouth Theatre where Long Day's Journey was having a special Monday night preview… There were two seats left. One in the orchestra for $104 and a standing one for $26. I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss and later found myself standing at the back of the stalls or orchestra as they call it here and watching Vanessa Redgrave,(remarkable and luminous) Brian Dennehey,(powerful and restrained) Robert Sean Leonard(surprisingly good) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman(awesome, like a young Orson Welles)… good to see good American stage acting in a great American play… made me feel like getting back to doing something serious again one day in the future.
On Thursday we are having a reading of Miss Julie with Lisa and I playing the main roles with a view to doing it in the future with Aquila. The O'Neil play whetted my appetite to stretch myself again. I have played comedy all year. In the interval I was contemplating the future and wondering if the fates would be kind, when the woman seated in front of me, pointed to the empty seat next to her, and explaining that her friend wasn't going to make the show, invited me to take his seat. I thanked whichever angel was looking after me at that particular moment and settled down in the red velvet seat… ready for the next act.


It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

love and light

Richard



 

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