By Michael Wagg
So foul and.. foul.. a day I have not seen.
Last night during the fight at the end of our play a sword snapped in half. Roger and I battled on as best we could. The swords we use reflect the style of this work and are perhaps slightly less dangerous than the real thing, but still it was a shock and I’m pretty sure I’ve been holding my breath ever since. At least until I plunged into the hot tub this morning. Everything’s fine and we’ll have new swords soon, but it was hard not to see the mishap as a sign of the coming storm.
A hurricane, ridiculously named Ian, has caused devastation in Florida over the past 24 hours, and our thoughts have been with those affected there. We’ve had it a lot less harsh here, but heavy rain, high winds, and wise caution meant that our show was cancelled this evening. We were disappointed, particularly for the students we’ve been working with throughout the week who were due to come and see the show in the intimate Black Box Theatre. Even beyond Shakespeare, we’re told that for many of these students our performance would be their first experience of live theatre, so as much as the cancellation is put into perspective by the hardship and loss in Florida, we still felt the disappointment.
So, sitting here in the shelter of the hotel lobby in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’ve pause for thought, before we head back to base next week for our residency at Notre Dame. I thought I’d take the opportunity to do what I probably should have done long before blog three, and tell you who we are, and what the hell we’re doing here. Some of you reading may have a working knowledge of the AFTLS (Actors From The London Stage) experience, but even so its particular peculiarity is worth remembering; and for those who don’t know here’s, I think, what we’re up to!
Twice a year AFTLS, in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (Shakespeare at ND) put five UK-based actors in a room in south London for five weeks and hope they’ll neither murder each other nor fail to make a production of a Shakespeare play. The play is decided in advance: in our case, The Tragedy of Macbeth. There’s a playful feeling of being locked in and left to get on with it, like kids in a rather wordy candy store, but the truth is there is great support from the extended company alumni, and particularly now from the magnificent Jennifer Higham.
There is no director in the room; no designer, musical director or stage management. It’s just the five of us left to thrash it out before flying off with what we’ve got to our university venues – in this case a mouthwatering list of nine places. In addition the five, who also control the show budget, can choose to briefly bring in an outside specialist, and we opted for the fight director Philip d’Orléans – a lovely man who appears a sort of Zen-like personification of war and peace.
Beyond that the five of us are the director, designer etc. But rather than thinking of the scenario as having five different directors (which has, let’s be honest, nightmare written all over it) I prefer to think of it as one director split into five complementary parts. And as much as the work is highly collaborative in this way, I think it’s also a lot more than that.
Once the fretful five have finished the five weeks of making, we’re off on the road and in the air, with all the ups and downs that may bring. The need to look after, and out for, each other is absolutely to the fore. I make no apology for quoting Sister Sledge in suggesting that at its best we are (a strange Shakespearian) family! At its worst too, I’m sure. But I feel very lucky to report that I’ve felt fully supported by the other four from the off, and I hope I’m providing the same. I also know that we’re very proud of the show we’ve made. But enough of the niceness; who are these losers?!
There are 31 named characters in Macbeth, plus messengers, soldiers etc, and while we’ve cut a few of them, that means an awful lot of hat-switching, so bear with me:
Roger May plays Macbeth, the bloody Sergeant, Old Man and a messenger, as well as taking the off-stage role of education co-ordinator (in our world, Thane of Education). Claire Redcliffe plays Lady Macbeth, Donalbain, Ross, Fleance, Second Witch, Young Siward and a messenger, and is our Thane of Travel. Annabelle Terry is Banquo, Lennox, the Porter, the Doctor, Son, Menteith, Siward and Hecate, and Thane of Tech. And Anne Odeke takes on Malcolm, Lady Macduff, First Witch, First Murderer, Caithness, the Gentlewoman and a messenger, is Thane of Tech (2) and looks after our hectic social life! Finally, I’m Duncan, Macduff, Third Witch, Second Murderer, Angus and Seyton, while also keeping an eye on Covid guidelines and scribbling here. I also do a lot of swimming… But hang on a minute!
Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my …
I was about to introduce you to our brilliant colleagues at Notre Dame, tell you a bit about the style of these productions and about the other significant part of our work, as the play is just the half of it – but that’ll have to wait for another blog. We’ve just been plunged into darkness, scuppering a competitive game of Exploding Kittens. Power cut. Storm Ian really has got the better of us.
Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood …
I’ll see you in South Bend. All being well.