The Water Engineer                             Posted Monday 15 Sep 2014 14:09 PM

The tables for hotel breakfast were all occupied so I chose to share with a Japanese gentleman, as my one visit to that country had been a life-affirming experience. As he took trouble to create more space than was necessary to accommodate my breakfast tray, I remembered the studied courtesy and hospitality I encountered in the Japanese people.

As we exchanged pleasantries, we learned that we were both in Cambridge for the rest of the week and having respectfully acknowledged my claim to be an actor with a slow nod of his head, he explained that he was a water engineer. 

Seeing my bemused curiosity, he said: "We learn by watching. Observing how the rain falls on a roof, for example, we can follow its natural gravitational path and, by a minimal diversion of that course, conceive a drainage system which is created simply by the water itself. It's not about the engineering: it's about the water."

"When we prepare a play,' I said, after an appreciative pause, 'our work is perhaps like yours. We must approach the telling of the story as one would go about guiding the journey of a river to the open sea: we must shape its path by digging the earth around it's banks to maximise natural confluence to the running stream, taking care never to step into the water or put rocks in its way, but letting the flow of the story take it's most simple and unobstructed course to the audience. It's not about the acting, it's about letting the narration do it's work."

In the serenity of his Japanese countenance, I beheld an untroubled blend of salutary respect and wary incredulity. I never saw him at breakfast again.
Lacuna Jane                                                        Posted Saturday 20 Sep 2014 14:53 PM

If my English teacher hadn’t asked me to be in the school play as Rauguel in Tobias and The Angel in1966, I doubt whether I’d have become an actor at all. He took the same chance on a girl in my school year called Jane Green, for that indeed was her name and, at only thirteen years old, he knew - and she proved - that she was, in no small measure, a promising actress. 

He encouraged her to play the part of Estella in Dickens’ Great Expectations in a specially prepared selection of scenes performed after morning assembly before the whole of our School. Even in a gritty industrial suburb of the Midlands, there could be no denying the talent that Jane Green possessed and as accolades abounded, her classmates were as supportive as their envy allowed them to be, for to be sure, should airs and graces suddenly attend her, they, of all people, would be the very first to take pleasure in letting her know. 

In our school production of Oliver Twist in 1969, no-one but Jane could possibly play the part of Nancy. I held my own as The Artful Dodger but Jane Green was simply and irrefutably charismatic in her death scene with Bill Sykes and even the most cynical among her classmates would have been hard put to disagree. In a suburban industrial milieu where fame belonged only to film stars, pop singers and the occasional sportsman, it took only two public performances for Jane Green’s reputation to spread modestly in the community with the help of the local gazette but after the final performance of Oliver Twist, it spread for a very different reason. 

Jane Green suffered the fateful Dry. Not a fluff nor a stumble; not a stutter nor a split-second lapse of memory; she dried, as they say, stone dead, right in the middle of a speech. We watched in horror as she was given a whispered prompt from our school librarian in the wings after a seemingly interminable silence. Jane appeared not to hear it, as if too dumbstruck and terrified to respond. 

Taking a second prompt, this time audible to the spectators, Jane Green turned white. The audience of parents, friends and relations began to chuckle and shake their heads. The poor creature froze, she stood as if apart, adrift on a lonely ice-floe leaving the hushed gossip and giggles of others far, far behind. To make matters worse, one or two of the spectators actually called out the line they heard the prompter volunteer. 

This turned to open laughter as the prompt rang out a third time, for all to hear and Jane Green, fighting to retain her dignity turned in tearful desperation to the prompter, quite forgetting her character and hissed audibly, ‘I’ve said that!’ The cruelly sudden uproar and tumultuous applause that followed must have stayed with Jane Green for all the wrong reasons. 

Though she finished the scene onstage, afterwards in the wings she was bitterly inconsolable, even by teachers and the curtain call, which, as Nancy, she knew she had to take and sobbed throughout, only added to what she must have felt to be her eternally indelible shame. 

In a gritty industrial Midland suburb, actors who forgot their lines couldn’t be much good and during the remaining four years we shared at school, Jane Green never set foot upon a stage again.
Posted Thursday 19 Feb 2015 13:59 PM

There's a possibly apocryphal story about Laurence Olivier, on being asked by a drama student who was playing Henry V if he had any advice about the speech "Once more unto the breach ...", replying, after a little thought, to the bewildered young actor; "Shout the first two lines, gabble the rest; shout the last two."

My very first acting job was taking over the role of Captain Jamy in Terry Hands’ production of Alan Howard's world renowned Henry V and prior to the aforementioned speech, my fellow captains and I would leap over a raised wooden wall in retreat, clinging onto the slope by ropes followed by Alan Howard, urging us “Once More Unto The Breach...’, after which, we would haul ourselves back up and over, into the fray and out of sight.

Significantly, however, Alan Howard was also playing the roles of Henry VI (three plays) and Coriolanus that season and was often prone, due to understandable tiredness, to the occasional blip in memory. At one completely sold-out matinee, our leading man blanked out after the first two lines of this, one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, his renowned vocal clarity and precision deserting him. Two of our captains (they'd already been in the production for three years) began to shudder and giggle, hiding it as best they could. And when Alan, lost for words but anxious to maintain the passionate energy of the speech began to improvise nonsensically, they spluttered aloud and shook visibly. We knew that hewas always loathe to take a prompt but when his improvised verse ran dry, in fevered desperation Alan began to make what sounded like animal noises by which point we all four of us realised that we were so uncontrollably hysterical that we'd never haul ourselves back over the wall.

This was my first job; the Royal Shakespeare Company and this Tony Award winning associate RSC actor was making animal noises; lions, tigers, bears and possibly even Golden Eagles, they were all, to-a-species, deputising for Shakespeare's inexplicably absent poetry. Miraculously, Alan suddenly remembered the last two lines which he thundered out as if in triumph in that unmistakable and effortlessly resonant voice of his and disappeared over the top with a cry of St. George, leaving us poor captains to slither unceremoniouslydown the wooden rafter unable eitherto walk or speak, drowning hysterically in a Stygian miasma of stage smoke, steel and Guy Woolfenden's squealing trumpets. The hilarity continued as we collapsed into the Green Room: "but he made animal noises ' I kept repeating, 'Alan made animal noises!"

Two of my friends from drama school had been watching on that August afternoon but when I attempted to share with them the tale of Alan Howard's monumental dry their faces remained blank. "When was that?" said one. Incredulous, I went on to describe the event in detail. Still they shook their heads absently recalling nothing of what I described. "But he made animal noises!" I protested. One of my friends placed her hand on my shoulder and said, her eyes brimming with tears, "I’ve just witnessed the greatest Henry V I’ll probably ever see in my lifetime. His performance this afternoon will stay with me forever. The man is a genius."

© David shaw-Parker 2015

Alan Howard: A Tribute             Posted Thursday 19 Feb 2015 13:15 PM

People often used the word magnetic to describe Alan Howard’s stage personality and, having spent two and half years playing messengers in Terry Hands’ award winning history plays in the 1970s, I believe the magnetism was due to a natural pulse that characterised Alan’s work, less a stage-presence than a seemingly effortless stage energy that made him unique among so many leading actors of his generation. Audiences were attracted to it when he walked onstage and actors onstage could feel it, too; it provided a subtle wave of rhythmwhich gave a vitality to the texts of scenes on which Alan’s delivery would ebb and flow buoyantly, at a lesiurely or break-neck pace and would often be the key signature of the many successful productions of what is often referred to as the RSC’s golden years .

Audiences would leave the theatre quoting Alan’s line-readings from the memory of having seen him perform and he had that gift which most actors envy of making lines familiar to lovers of Shakespeare and classical authors sound as if one was hearing them for the very first time. I doubt that one could begin to teach the natural skills that Alan possessed but if you stood watching at the back of the stage carrying a spear, the was no end to what you could learn.

© David shaw-Parker 2015
Remembering Alan Howard
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