What are the Osteopaths like in Cairo?
Bent, Richard III, King Lear
After seeing Bent, everyone assumes I must be exhausted. I often am, but mainly because of the rushed and enervating hot shower that I squeeze in before Fred, the stage doorman, announces the arrival of backstage visitors. "Not just the emotion but all those rocks!" Seven times a week, Michael Cashman and I lug granite boulders across the stage of the Garrick Theatre, saluting the Nazi victims in a pre-war work-camp. Ten years ago, when I was performing the same drudgery with Tom Bell at the Royal Court, a woman stopped me in the street and told me Dachau was just like that. She showed me the tattooed number on her forearm. She didn't mention exhaustion.
Granite is perfectly kind on the hands. It rubs away the dead epidermis, leaving the palms pink and smooth. As long as we bend our knees, we hope to avoid strained backs. The American actors in the Broadway production were less confident and used the lightest rock known to stage management — large lumps of lava. Now that must really have been exhausting, because with each featherlight rock they had to simulate a dead weight. Lava is cruel on the hands. It splinters and nicks the skin. And so, in Broadway's Dachau, they wore protective gardening gloves.
Although I am on stage for the entire two and a quarter hours of Bent, it is nowhere near as tiring as Shakespeare's leading roles. They have demanding long speeches, a mountain range of varying passions, climaxing with a fight. It's true that Shakespeare gives most of his heroes a break offstage, about the end of Act 4, to prepare for the final onslaught. Too many modern designers are less considerate and build steeply-raked slopes on stage, which put the actors' spines out of joint. It's time Equity members had an osteopath allowance.
During the day, I am back at the National Theatre preparing for King Lear and Richard III. I am associate producer for these two, which will play Europe and beyond by the end of the year; the most ambitious tour ever mounted in the NT's 21 years. For six months now, I and the plays' directors, Deborah Warner and Richard Eyre, have been preparing. It has been fun to be privy to the crucial decisions. I've made sure that our touring stage surface is flat — we don't know what the osteopaths are like in Cairo or Tokyo. Last month I flew from the sweet little City Airport to Paris for a working lunch at the Odeon theatre, where we play for two weeks in October.
Now the associate producer is an actor once more. Before starting on Richard III — that will definitely be exhausting — I'm have a comparative rest, rehearsing Kent to Brian Cox's Lear.
We surprised the company on our first meeting in the wine-less rehearsal room with early morning glasses of Buck's Fizz. Then we all lay down on the dusty floor for a voice class. Blank verse must be supported by a strong diaphragm and agile lips.
After lunch, there was to be a read-through of the play. This can be terrifying. Nerves can turn dyslexic the most experienced trouper. For the first time in 29 years of professional acting, I had learnt most of my lines in advance and thought I was ready for anything, until Deborah asked me to read the Fool. I did so, without expression. Peter Jeffrey, who will play Gloucester, read Lear expertly. But then, he understudied Paul Scofield 30 years ago — an unfair advantage. The next day I read Cordelia. It's always instructive to be aware of the problems of other people's parts. Putting on plays is a communal activity, but that's all too easy to forget in the early obsession with one's own part of it.
In the meantime, life goes by. I get up by 9am to read the paper and get to the National for half an hour of correspondence. The Bent audiences write more than most and always positively. It's that rare sort of play which changes people's lives so fulfillingly that they want to tell you. A couple from mid-Wales travelled home discussing the play for four hours nonstop. One girl has seen it eight times to date.
My one hour of relaxation is lunch in the NT's canteen, which has, after years of badgering, finally acknowledged us vegetarians. After rehearsal, I drive from the luxury of the South Bank's underground car park to the nightly search for an unused West End meter. Home by 11.30pm, I hope there aren't too many messages on the telephone machine. I watch a recording of Newsnight. And go to sleep. I haven't once dreamt about rocks.
Ian McKellen and Brian Cox at the National Theatre South Bank, 1990