Labour Of Love – stepping back “on stage”

Labour Of Love – stepping back “on stage”

A week ago I found myself putting the following message up on social media

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Lockdown had seemingly put paid to any dramatic activity for the foreseeable future and although I had been able to shift my theatre reviewing to the myriad of possibilities being streamed and uploaded onto video platforms (click here), it seemed impossible that any actual productions could possibly be mounted. Just the week after theatres were shut, I had been due to appear in a production of Joe Orton’s Loot as a last minute replacement for an injured actor; this was cancelled indefinitely. Since then I had been busy setting up Tower Theatre’s online play reading group, Virtual Tower, using something totally unknown to me (and, indeed, most of the rest of the world), Zoom. Little did I know that taking a crash course in the latter was to prepare me for something exciting just around the corner.

The Show Must Go Online is a brilliant project created by actor and Bard buff Robert Myles. The idea is that each week a Shakespeare play is cast, rehearsed, performed as a Zoom reading and then loaded onto You Tube for posterity. The plays are being performed in the order they were believed to be created and feature professional and amateur actors from around the world who come together for just 2 ½ days before going live, equip themselves with basic props and costumes and perform their characters in the isolation of their own homes creating, in the process, something rather unique. While there may be other such schemes now hitting the Internet this one was the original and has a head start; it is just about to record its tenth Shakespeare and the project has already had over 100,000 views.

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I had wanted to apply right from day one, but other things kept getting in the way until a couple of weeks ago when I finally sent off my details. Knowing that some 600 people had applied the week previous to that, I had no great expectation that I would be selected but, to my amazement, I was offered the part of Costard. Now before anyone points out that Costard is actually a young(ish) country swain, one of TSMGO’s guiding principles is that of inclusive casting. This means gender, ethnicity, disability and even age are no barriers. I felt the part followed on from my earlier stints as Bottom  with the RSC and Dogberry and Falstaff with Tower and so I gratefully accepted.

And, I’m glad I did because what an experience it was. Putting on any play, let alone a relatively unknown Shakespeare, in 72 hours is a tall order but Rob and his producer partner Sarah Peachey have enough drive and enthusiasm to keep all the balls in the air as well as all the plates spinning. All I had to do was turn up and say the words wot Shakespeare wrote, didn’t I?

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On Sunday evening, just as the rest of the UK tuned into his Borisness’s crystal clear explanation of a ”road map” to start taking us out of lockdown the cast gathered together – by Zoom, of course – for first discussions (I think this was time more wisely spent than listening to the fact that I could go out but I couldn’t and that I could use public transport but I shouldn’t!) I had anticipated we would read the text through but there was simply never enough time for that – it only happened once, when it was performed. Rather we discussed some of the ins and outs of the play, contemplated pronunciation and how relationships within the piece might function given that we would all be appearing in separate little boxes on the night. Rehearsals of specific scenes and character tracks through the play took place over the next couple of days whenever and however they could be fitted in. Rob had very clear ideas about what he wanted to do with the play and how it could be achieved – which I think is always a helpful trait in a director! He was endlessly inventive and upbeat, given that everything normally done in the intimate atmosphere of a rehearsal room had to be mediated through a camera lens; he was also remarkably unflustered and patient.

Gradually I found a character emerging. The temptation of course was to go for a “local yokel” approach but I ultimately decided that was too obvious; instead I thought I’d make him a northerner. A couple of weeks ago I had watched the famous and fabulous RSC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby in which the great Alun Armstrong played the Yorkshire schoolmaster Squeers. One of his memorably pronounced words was “remuneration” – stringing out the vowels to get all the juice out of this particular expression. And when I discovered that Costard also had a fondness for that word, well, that did it for me. A flat cap and braces seemed to be an obvious if slightly stereotyped addition, though I’m afraid I found a whippet too difficult to conjure up! It occurred to me that Rob himself was from north of Watford but he tactfully held his peace.

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Prop gathering was interesting; basically, it had to be everyday items from around the house. There’s quite a bit in the play about misdirected letters which meant that those involved had to put their heads together and come up with items which looked similar so they could be “passed down” the camera lens from one character to another. Fortunately, paper isn’t difficult and we all had had red ribbon. I fashioned a crude pair of handcuffs for when Costard is arrested (ironically for failing to observe social distancing rules) out of a wire coat hanger, a black sock doubled as a purse and I actually had some genuine farthings, so this aspect gradually came together.

There’s a section at the end of the play in which the locals put on a pageant of the Nine Worthies for the toffs; Costard plays Pompey the Great. This is a bit of a dry run for the Pyramus and Thisbe play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream so doing this revived some wonderful memories for me. I suppose it’s no accident that Pompey/Costard’s costume was remarkably similar to Pyramus/ Bottom’s right down to the paint brush helmet – this time mounted on a large flower pot – and that the attitudes he struck and declamatory voice he used were also eerily reminiscent. I did manage to differentiate by giving him a big ginger beard though.

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The actual performance was ever so slightly terrifying. Although the words did not have to be learned (there wasn’t time) reading them out presented its own challenges as the script was on screen alongside the Zoom boxes and meant I couldn’t do it without my reading glasses. The text had to be constantly scrolled through in order for one’s place to be kept. For entrances and exits cameras had to be turned on and off and mics muted and unmuted; I’d been at bit dilatory at the latter in rehearsal so was particularly pleased to get this aspect right. Add to this changing costume, sorting out the props needed for each scene and trying to keep an eye on the rolling chat in case of any directorial or technical notes and it was all a bit daunting.

After the first few scenes the pressure started to ease a bit and enjoyment creep back in. One of the aspects I never felt I quite cracked, though, was being “on stage” when not speaking. It is very tricky trying to react to what someone else is doing/saying when instead of being in your eyeline they are in another box off to one side and, if there are too many involved in a  scene, not even visible. Thus, I decided that Costard should keep falling asleep with boredom in one scene and that in another he should chomp his way through an apple. Actually, this last was a bit of an in joke –  a costard being an old word for an apple; I’m not sure anybody picked up on that, but it kept me happy.

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The performance fairly flew by and before I knew it my Beecher’s Brook moment loomed into view. Love’s Labour’s Lost contains the longest word Shakespeare ever wrote – honorificabilitudinitatibus* – and of course the joke resides in the fact that Costard says it without turning a hair. I had broken it up phonetically on a Post It note stuck to the edge of the screen and just as the scene in it which appears began the yellow square decided to detach itself and flutter down behind my desk. I retrieved it with seconds to spare before I had to turn my camera on. I was relieved that I wasn’t actually on stage although I suppose if I had been, I might just have taken the trouble to learn it.

This was a fascinating way to spend a (very) few days and I’m so grateful I was I given a chance to add some new skills to my armoury and get back to another Shakespeare comic role. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world but then I’ve generally found that nothing worthwhile is and simply getting back on the stage (albeit virtual) was a real lift in these dark times. The project has a very long way to run yet and I can only thank Rob, Sarah, the rest of the TSMGO team and my talented fellow actors for having me along for the ride and say that I’m glad that “It pleas’d them to think me worthy”.

*Pleasingly my spell check appeared to have no suggested corrections – I wonder why not.

The Show Must Go Online premieres a new Shakespeare production via a live stream every Wednesday evening at 7.00pm and is then available on You Tube. Click here   

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

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