It is a truth pretty universally acknowledged in the world of am dram that playing the baddie is infinitely preferable to being cast as the goodie. Who’d want to play Peter Pan (flying aside) when you could play Captain Hook? Isn’t Iago so much more satisfying as a part than his dupe Othello? Lady Macbeth or Lady Macduff? No contest! Heroes and Villains (coincidentally the title of the first single I ever bought with my own money*) are the backbone of any drama providing opposition, conflict and ultimately a sense of resolution. Thus I’ve been looking forward to playing a couple of real life bad’uns just weeks apart in two of Tower Theatre’s latest productions.
First up was Kafka’s Dick by the wonderful Alan Bennett. On the face of it an intellectual comedy (it’s perhaps the closest Bennett has ever got to being Tom Stoppard) I took on the role of Hermann Kafka, Franz’s dad and feted as being “one of the most notorious shits in literary history”. It is he who knows the real truth about Franz’s inadequacy in the trouser department and threatens to reveal all to the world in a desperate bid to get his own part in the biographies rewritten. My research revealed that he has been branded as a serial emotional abuser undermining his child’s confidence and keeping his whole family on a very tight rein. On one occasion he made the young Franz stand on a freezing cold balcony all night for the “crime” of requesting a glass of water. Towards the end of his short life the author wrote his father an open letter which although he claimed it would be “very incomplete” ran to some 43 pages and set out his feeling about the emotional abuse, confusing double standards and constant criticism and disapproval that he felt he had faced.
Not that Bennett allows this to go unchallenged. As he cleverly points out posterity only has Franz’s version of the past to go by and it is perfectly possible that events recalled are as fantastical as some of his fiction. It’s certainly easy to see FK as a manic depressive with body consciousness issues who is unable to complete many of his literary projects or come to a state of finality with any of his intimate relationships. However, on balance, Hermann is a “wrong ‘un” and needs to be played as harsh, coarse and manipulative. This, of course, is where the fun lies. Cleaning his ear with a toothpick and then using the same implement to pick his dentures is bound to get a “Eww” from the audience. Bennett also gives him a very nice line in invective – “you teetering column of urine”, “shut your face, you wet dishcloth”, etc – which an audience can enjoy simply because it is watching someone else on the receiving end. At the end of the play Kafka Senior metamorphoses (see what I did there?) into God – for Franz this prospect is even more horrific than his ordinary father as he concludes “Heaven is going to be Hell”.
Kafka’s Dick is a relatively short piece which, given the heatwave that was going on and the Edwardian costumes that some of us were wearing, was no bad thing. It was difficult to have the windows in the dressing room open as most evenings there was the sound of World Cup watchers floating up from the pub garden below to the auditorium (the compact but very nice Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate Village). Fortunately my appearance was confined to Act 2 only so I could sit in front of a fan undisturbed for the first fifty minutes or so. After that I was on stage pretty much non stop so there was plenty of dialogue to master and Hermann being a quick thinker and driving the action in the second part I had my work cut out. In the end, though, a very enjoyable experience with a delightful cast and production team and I’m glad to have added this to my Bennett CV along with The Madness of George III, The Wind In The Willows and The History Boys. By the way, I’d love to have another crack at the latter so if there are any casting directors reading this please feel free to call….
A short pause for breath and then it was on to the stage version of Wolf Hall. I’d actually been cast in this play first and found myself rehearsing both productions pretty simultaneously at the Tower Theatre’s new home in Stoke Newington (due to fully open in September**). But with two understanding directors and a strong sense of self discipline when it came to line learning it proved manageable. Just two weeks separated productions so with no rest for the wicked – appropriate in this context – it was straight onto final rehearsals for Hilary Mantel’s slice of Tudor history which has become something of a modern day phenomenon.
This time I was due to play Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk – uncle to Anne Boleyn (and, incidentally, Katherine Howard). Once again a not particularly pleasant individual though by all accounts a skilled military strategist. In the play he is revealed as harsh, coarse and manipulative (yes, you have read that phrase before). However, unlike Hermann Kafka who reserved most of his spite for his immediate family, Norfolk takes a much wider approach. He despises (in no particular order), foreigners – especially the French, women in general and his wife in particular, the rest of his extended family, most of the Tudor nobility including (probably) the King, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, the common people and basically everybody who isn’t him. Essentially he is the embodiment of the recently much vaunted term “gammon” – red faced, choleric, vindictive and extremely prejudiced against all and sundry. Like Hermann he too has a great line in invective: “By the thrice beshitten shroud of Lazarus”, “Bet you ran away like a Frenchman too” etc. and again like Hermann will stop at nothing to get his own way – both Norfolk’s nieces, of course, were beheaded and having played a large part in initially advancing their causes he backed off rapidly leaving them to their unfortunate fates. So there is a definite overlap between the two characters although they are certainly differentiated by origin and class.
We’ve been playing Wolf Hall for a week now at the Bridewell Theatre just off Fleet Street – appropriately on the site of Henry VIII’s Bridwell Palace – and have reached the halfway stage as I pen this blog. Once again it has been phenomenally hot as the heatwave has continued and even deepened. I’m lucky enough to be wearing a high quality costume (previously it appeared in the film The Other Boleyn Girl) but, of course, high quality comes at a price. It’s possibly the heaviest thing I’ve ever had to wear onstage – basically it’s a thick overcoat topped by a portable double duvet – so keeping cool has become a bit of an issue. Indeed at the dress rehearsal I confess I came close to passing out. Still no pain, no gain and my scenes are relatively brief and spaced out so I can afford to shed the heaviest bits in between appearances. Neither does it detract from the overall experience of being in yet another first class show with another superb cast, first rate designers and super efficient crew (“Sumptuous Hilary Mantel intrigue” 5* ) If you fancy a stimulating evening we’ve got another week to play yet and on July 30th we even have a special one off performance in the Old Hall at Lincoln’s Inn – very exciting. Finally we get the pleasure of taking the whole thing out into the open air at the world famous Minack Theatre in Cornwall in mid August. All details of performances are on the Tower Theatre website.
I’ve had a great time getting to grips with and playing these two horrors from the past over the last couple of months. There is something wonderfully cathartic about finding the beast within and unleashing it on the world … just so long as it’s only for entertainment purposes where it can do nobody any real harm. Now who should I go for next – Bill Sikes, Richard III or Lord Voldermort?
*The Beach Boys if you’re struggling to recall
** If you’re reading this before 6pm on 24/07/18 please consider helping us at Tower Theatre by donating a tenner (or more of course) to The Big Get In our Crowd Funding Campaign