Legacy – an actor on the pressures of making a classic new
26th Sep 2012
Our Country’s Good cast member John Hollingworth has written this thoughtful piece for us. Recommended.
Legacy. Post-Olympics the papers are full of the word and, as we present Our Country’s Good to the national press in Birmingham, so are my thoughts about the play.
This is Max’s third production of the play. He originally staged it at the Royal Court in 1988, reviving it in the West End and on Broadway; then it was toured in 1998 in a co-production with the Young Vic. Out of Joint have asked us to write something about the rehearsal process for their education pages but I found myself thinking more about the nature and inherent pressures of re-staging a modern classic.
It’s becoming something of a career trait, this revival business. I was part of the National Youth Theatre’s re-staging of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 2000. I reprised the roles created by the much-loved and sadly missed Bob Peck: John Browdie and Mulberry Hawk. It was a fantastic experience with a great company of actors, most of whom went on to drama school and professional careers, but wherever we went, the spectacle of the original hovered over us. A woman came up to me after a performance in Los Angeles, clasped my hand and thanked the company for ‘letting me see it one more time before I die.’ ‘But’, she added, ‘whyever get rid of that wonderful wooden stage?’ The original had unfolded on a double deck of latticed wood, something like the deck of an Elizabethan ship, but ours, alas for the woman in question, did not.
Since I became a professional actor, I’ve been in revivals of other modern classics: Frank McGuiness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at the Hampstead; Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London on tour for the National; and most recently Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar. All faced the same questions: how do we respond to previous productions? Is it cheating to do what they did? Can people remember the original productions anyway (like my accoster in LA)?
Max has been naturally very alive to such questions. In our first week of notes (when the director gives us feedback on a performance) in Bolton he recounted a similar experience to the one I had in LA. A woman of similar age tentatively approached our scribbling director and thanked him for bringing Our Country’s Good to Bolton. She said she’d loved Out of Joint’s previous shows Mixed Up North and Bang Bang Bang and was thrilled to see Timberlake’s play again, but what on earth had he done with a certain character? So fixed was the woman’s understanding of the play that anything but slavish reproduction of exactly what happened before was anathema.
Max has warned us that we’ll be treading on people’s cherished dreams of the show as it was in 1988 and 1998. A few hardcore fans have even been to Bolton in order to be the first to “collect the set” and see all three Stafford-Clark productions of the piece (at the time of writing the company have no plans to release a commemorative t-shirt.) But I notice we are billed at the St James Theatre in London as the 25th Anniversary Production, which sounds pretty definitive.
Last night, after a performance in Birmingham we had one of the company’s regular audience Q&A sessions. When someone asked what was different about Max’s approach this time his reply was, “nothing”. He didn’t set out to resolve problems with previous productions or design himself out of previous stagings, but simply to encounter the text again in the rehearsal room and stage it as best he could with the cast he’s chosen.
Given Out Of Joint’s recent funding cut Max concedes that there’s a financial imperative to mounting this show but in the rehearsal room he’s been driven by a love of the play and a sincere feeling that it should be seen by a new generation of theatregoers. I raced to see Out Of Joint’s production of Top Girls when it transferred from Chichester to London last year for precisely that reason. I’d never seen the play and jumped at the chance to see its original director revisit the text and reconnect with it. Sitting in the audience felt like an event as well as a night at the theatre.
The literary critic Harold Bloom talked about something he called “the anxiety of influence” – the difficulty for writers to overcome an awareness of what’s been done before and to make something new. And in the first weeks of rehearsal for Our Country’s Good I had the actorly equivalent. Now of course it’s much easier to be an actor than a writer. We’ve no blank page to face: the words are there for you and you’ve got to find the best way to serve them. However, I’ve been struck by the ownership surrounding Timberlake’s play. So many people have seen it, read it, studied it, sat in a theatre for the first time ever at a performance of it. For so many, the very name conjures furtive teenage romances and ticking down the school clock until adult life begins. It’s become a rite of passage as well as a canonical, curricular play. Some of the teachers who came to watch rehearsals even gave us notes, so clear was their vision of the play! All of which baggage made it more difficult than I’ve ever found before to get up and say the lines as if they’d come from me, and not from a book.
Timberlake’s response to this feeling of baggage and predecessors was “don’t be so respectful of the text, enjoy yourself more”. Max’s response came from his past at the Royal Court, the mission statement of which had been articulated by his predecessor Lindsay Anderson as ‘presenting new plays as classics and classics as new plays’. That’s been a sound lodestar by which to navigate the revival. Timberlake’s play has gone from new play to modern classic in twenty five years. Max has set about it with the same rehearsal strategy of improvisations, fact-finding exercises and status games that he’d employ in rehearsing any new text. My roles have been played by fantastic actors before me – Ron Cook in the first production. But I’ve forgotten about who and what came before and got on with having fun playing what is a physical and emotional gym of a piece.
We’ve had three weeks of performances in Bolton so far, and have just begun weekly touring in Birmingham. Only this afternoon Max made his final tweaks and blocking changes before we go before the first of the national press tonight. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond. Wish me luck – but just don’t mention Ron Cook!