Mcphereson Pantomime – a bath of fire
The pantomime went well; I must say it was a stroke of genius to make it interactive, with the audience throwing fruit. I think it made them feel very included in the theatrical family, and some of them even loitered in the foyer, out in the street and down the lane by the fire exit just to show their appreciation. Cheryl Baker and I were most pleased.
I think next year though we will encourage a more experienced writer; I didn’t feel my character was properly defined in the script, and I think the audience thought I was a baddie. That’s what I took from the booing anyway.
Pantomime is a particularly British thing. Everyone who is anyone in British acting has done it. Blessed, Olivier, Guilgud, Ritchie – they’ve all donned the tights and taken on the mantle. I well remember my first time with Dame Peggy Ashcroft. It was October 1962, and PA and I were busy rehearsing for Aladdin in Doncaster. I was a total shambles, I am not afraid to admit. My Iago lacked motivation, depth. Lack of experience and my youthful exuberance made it worse. I could not spot my errors but a thesp of Dame Peggy could see the miscellany of mistakes I was making. But, thank goodness, she saw some crumb, some tiny spark of potential in me, and took me under her wing.
“darling” she said, in those husky tones “you are going about it the wrong way”. I looked at her like a child looks in marvel at a parent who has just carved a toy train out of his own wooden leg. “Dame Peggy, please, teach me all you know about actoring, for I am keen to learn”. Firstly, I learned the word is acting. A schoolboy error. And I was not an actician, I was an actor. This merely encouraged my thirst for excellence – I needed to know more. But Dame Peggy insisted that six hours was enough for that day and I was to go away and think about things. And, should I return, she would share more of her bounteous know-how. I did indeed spend the evening thinking about things. Mostly acting related but also about tortoises, shadow puppetry and boiler maintenance. But my mind always returned to acting.
The next day, following rehearsal and a subsequent punch in the face from Jack Warner, I attended her dressing room again. “To act is to be” she said “to understand how a mind must function, one must first live in that mind”. To me now this seems so obvious, but to the callow youth sat in awe on her futon, this was a load of old mumbo jumbo. “Tell me, oh wise old hag, more of this which you speak” I said. I have to say my words did not meet with her approval. When I awoke a couple of hours later, I met up with her in outpatients. “You are ready” she said, and wordlessly lead me on the first steps of the journey which has lead me here, today.
To become a character, one must live as that character. You cannot expect to portray a person, be they fictional or real without first living as that persona. It is known as The Method. Dustin Hoffman uses it all the time. So does Al Pacino, Robert DiNiro and Yahoo Serious. Little known that Pacino actually joined the Police, worked outside the law as a maverick cop. DiNiro worked for eight months as a taxi driver, although he was tempted to carry on because of the hefty soiling fees. Yahoo Serious researched his role of the Invisible Man. As far as I know he still is. This side of the pond actors are utilising the method; Penelope Keith, Peter Bowles, Dennis Waterman all have tried their roles for real to get into character. It can work the other way as well. The man who played Bungle in the popular television series Rainbow was so inspired by the lifestyle choice of being a bear he finally went to live with real bears in woodland in Canada.
So, back to the Method; Dame Peggy extolled to me to find an ‘in’, a way to unlock a character, in the same way one might unlock a window from outside during a burglary. I didn’t like to question this metaphor of how she knew these two things were quite so similar. I don’t wish to assume anything about the great lady but she did have a remarkable amount of jewellery and electrical items on sale in her dressing room pre and post show.
I tried everything to get my Iago to ‘work’. I spoke like him, I walked like him. But the neighbours started a petition and I had to stop. “React as you think Iago would react” she advised “explore him”. So, dressed in Iago, I challenged several of my neighbours with a sword that they would feel the cold edge of my steel. Dame Peggy had some sway with the local Police so fortunately that didn’t go any further. “try minor things” she said “just work on it”. I was at a loss to know what she meant. “Well, everyday things. How would Iago react?”
Over the next couple of hours I reacted to things as Iago would have done. Including
Getting a bad haircut
Having the wrong paper delivered
An argument with someone who may well have actually been the Chinese ambassador
Enquiring about train times
Querying bills for food in restaurants
After the first two I decided it was wiser not to carry the sword. Also I stopped turning to empty shelves and using the phrase ‘doesn’t it boys and girls?’. It’s one thing to be interactive with children, quite another to try and illicit a response from value ravioli.
The next rehearsal went swimmingly. Everyone was so impressed. “I can’t believe you were acting” said one “That’s the best you can do” said another. A third was so lost for words he just left the stage, throwing his script to the ground and storming out of the theatre. Some people cannot stand competition.
Wednesday rolled around and I was in my flat when the door was rapped several times but knuckles unseen. Into my abode walked Dame Peggy, accompanied by a large man in a suit and sunglasses and the director Mortimer Bitch. Apparently, during discussions, an idea had formulated and they were all quite excited about it. I was to be the first to take the method to a new level.
“We’re going to make Iago the central character of Aladdin” said Bitch. “and we want you to do it” he said. I asked why the production was called Aladdin if the central character was to be Iago, pointing out this made no sense. My queries were resolved by his answer. It was simple. To the point. Precise. Eloquent. Everything that a good director should be. “Shut it, you” he said.
Iago was to be about mental illness. The Iago presented on stage was to be subtly different from the shallow husk he really was; he was to put up a front, meanwhile the inner turmoil of his depression and despair were cloaked from those he loved, protecting them but all the time sending himself into a dark abyss from which there was no escape. I was to be his angst, his pain, his malaise. Also I was to wear a different costume to give the audience the clear sign this was a different side to the man. A waiters’ costume would probably work. And I should do my lines in the foyer. And if I knew how to serve tea, coffee and a variety of snacks plus balance the tills at the end of shift that would be a bonus and something I could put down on my resume. When I asked about lines he said he had so much faith in my ability to improvise, he would leave it up to me.
Sadly my part in the production lasted two days. It was October 1962, the Cuban Missile crisis meant the world was on the brink, the future of our world and every living thing on it weighed heavy and made people anxious and worried and only to quick to anger.
Posted By Ed to Mcphereson on 12/25/2014 03:54:00 am