Given that I managed a measly ten hours sleep last night, after the far more respectable twelve to thirteen of the previous three nights, it begins to look as though I'm recovering from Edinburgh a little more quickly this year. Perhaps I'm getting better at it. Perhaps it helps that I'm living here for a week, with virtually no phone or internet.
It's also possible that I'm still recovering from Edinburgh last year. After The Price of Everything finished a year ago, I had one day off and then went straight into three weeks making Ash, the precursor version of what eventually turned into How to Occupy an Oil Rig. Then term started and when I wasn't teaching undergraduates I was touring The Price of Everything and when I wasn't doing that I was developing How to Occupy an Oil Rig and Story Hunt and when I wasn't doing that I was oh it's nearly September already.
So I'd like to write something taking stock of the month I've just had, when I could just as easily write something taking stock of the year I've just had. And what I've in fact written is a sort of loose diary taking stock of the month How to Occupy an Oil Rig has had, in a few rather narrow contexts. I've talked a lot about process, very little about the show itself. Another time.
How to Occupy an Oil Rig went well, very well, which it had little or no right to. It had predominantly four-star reviews with one or two either side of that. It sold well and sales improved day on day. It won an award. The spring tour is filling up.
It should have been a disaster. I say this in full knowledge of the fact that everyone always says this about every theatre show ever. Really. It had disaster written all over it. To start with, due to bereavements, illness and, you know, life, we started rehearsals far less prepared than was in any way ideal, with far more to do to get the material into shape than was in any feasible in a very short rehearsal process.
Let's be honest. The script, such as it was, was a fucking mess.
So it didn't help when four days into rehearsals our indefatigable director Dick Bonham was defatigated. Viz, went into hospital, with blood clots on both lungs. (He was finally to be discharged almost exactly an hour after we set off in the van for Edinburgh.) It's an unusual rehearsal process where you end a day's work by going to visit the director in hospital in order to tell him what you've been doing. And up to a point, there were things that we could do. There's plenty of work that a company of performers can do without an outside eye present. Sorry, directors, but it's true. Tone, rhythm, rapport, dynamic, these and other things were forged or strengthened in this surreal but strangely enjoyable few days.
There's also an awful lot that can't be done without a director, so after only a few more days we were in a stubbornly sealed jar of pickle, trying desperately to peer out, with absolutely no idea what the work we were making looked like. Thank then the stars, the skies and everything heavenly for Sarah Punshon, who was able to join us for the last few days, and take us through previews in Edinburgh. Without her insight, patience, wisdom and sheer determination we would have been in no shape at all. (I should mention at this point that Sarah Punshon also happens to be my wife. But when your substitute director has her CV, you don't quibble about how you got her in the room.)
I'm particularly grateful for her dramaturgical bloody-mindedness. There was a point, the Sunday about three days before we left for Edinburgh, where we'd just done a work-in-progress showing in Leeds. It was a bloody mess, partly because we were under-rehearsed, partly because the structure of the show just wasn't working. As the author of the show, I knew it needed a lot of mending; as a performer I just wanted to get my feet on ground solid enough to get the hang of walking and more change was a terrifying idea. With infinite wisdom and infinite patience, Sarah kept the company working for hours, coaxing, cajoling and pushing us until we had a shape that began to look like a show.
The immense forbearance of Jack Bennett and Kathryn Beaumont, who appear alongside me in the show, was another of that evening's miracles. On the very first day of R+D in July of last year, before The Price of Everything in Edinburgh, I'd warned them that I tend to keep rewriting until the very last minute and often beyond, and that the ways the show changes in front of an audience fuel its further development. But however forewarned, that was a tough evening. If I was them I'd have wept with the confusion and the mess of it all. I nearly wept myself. I love and admire them beyond measure for taking an increasingly heavy series of blows on the chin and not simply tossing the script in the air like so much confetti and marching out into the Leeds night. Cut the scene I just learned? Fine. Replace it with a whole new, yet to be written scene? No problem. Re-arrange all of that text just enough to make it completely different while retaining a ghost of sameness? Sure.
Without Sarah we'd never have had the ability to fix all of those problems that evening. Being in the same boat as Jack and Kathryn, I was all too aware of how mentally and physically shot they were after a tremendously tough week (it wasn't like we were doing nothing until Sarah turned up) and I would have settled for making more piecemeal changes more gradually. I also don't think I believed I had the intellectual energy to work through everything in such detail at that stage. But it turns out that Sarah was able to provide us, collectively, with that energy. Pizza helped, and fizzy drinks. But mostly it was Sarah.
There followed a few more days of rehearsal and re-rehearsal, during which the show remained by no means a fixed set of constants, but at least there was some solid ground. In the van on the way up to Edinburgh we almost knew all the words. And by the time we opened, we at least gave an impression of knowing most of what we were doing. There then followed several long days during which we rehearsed before performing, had notes over lunch, then rehearsed for the rest of the day. First day off? Cancelled. Rehearsal.
Aside from that Sunday, incidentally, and despite the huge challenges, this was all tremendously enjoyable. I might have happily carried on rehearsing all day throughout the fringe. Instead, we kept the early morning call, but after the first few days we had to lose the afternoon. I had another show to open. And a week after that, we had to lose the morning, too, so that I could open a third.
Premiering a show in Edinburgh is playing for terribly high stakes - most of the press and industry who come to see your show will come to see it in this run, and if it's not ready, this run will be your lot. So one of the real pleasures of How to Occupy an Oil Rig was feeling it grow and improve, becoming more reliable at producing its effects, take its audience on a consistent ride despite the threads of improvisation running through it. I had no idea, before the first performance, whether or not this would be a show I'd enjoy performing for a month. Unequivocally, it was, and it became more so. I can't wait for the tour. Given how the show grew in confidence, I can't help but feeling that, given the press came relatively early in the run, we got away with it a bit. Some of them were perhaps nicer than we, at that stage, deserved.
Jack and Kathryn were magnificent. I was adequate. This is in no way surprising, given that this is the first time I've appeared on stage alongside other people for something like twelve or thirteen years. One of the hoary maxims of acting is that all you need to do is remember the words and not bump into the furniture. Towards the end of the second or third performance I caught my head a proper crack on one of the side lights and spent the next couple of days sporting a magnificent shiner. As a director, I'm hugely admiring of those actors who get a note, ask whatever is necessary to assimilate its purpose, and then incorporate it into their performance without it ever needing to be discussed again. As Sarah observed more than once, I am not one of those performers. There are some things that I know I do well on stage - forming a rapport with an audience, for example, playing spontaneously with the present moment, perhaps even combining frivolity and seriousness. Reproducing similar effects, even similar text, reliably from day to day has not, hitherto, been one of those things. This show has been a tremendous learning experience for me as a performer, one that I hope was neither too obvious to the audience nor too irritating for my fellow performers.
So as a shape, as a set of experiences, as a journey if you like, as a set of rhythms and games and set pieces, I'm very happy with the show. There's still some work to be done on the ways it produces its meanings, some of which I think are still problematic, inaccurate or downright inconsistent. There's plenty I'm pleased with here, too - that a show consisting of three-quarters or more how-to demonstrations on forms of protest and direct political action has enjoyed any success at all feels ludicrously unlikely, that it's been very well attended and reviewed is downright daydream. Nevertheless, there's more to be had from it.
So sorry, Jack, sorry, Kathryn. Sorry Dan. No show is ever finished, it just stops getting booked.
I'm aware that this discussion of the material itself is perhaps the most potentially interesting bit for most readers, in a post that's otherwise a very late diary entry and little more. Sadly it's also the bit that requires the intellectual energy of someone more fully rested than I am. If I manage double figures in hours of sleep for a few more nights, then maybe next week. For now, here's a picture of the view from my bedroom window. A few more nights of this and never mind a discursive and thoughtful approach to the themes and content of my latest show, I might just write you a novel.*
* For those of you interested, I'm here, where several other folk are writing actual novels.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: