Wombling around Stratford-upon-Avon – as is my wont – sooner or later you will bump into an actor or RSC acolyte: some famous; some not so. At whatever point any such person ranks on that supposed continuum of celebrity, though, if they have had an impact on me, then I will – should their body language not intimate that they “want to be left alone” – thank them for contributing to the richness of my life (maybe, though, not in such highfalutin language): perhaps, if they are willing to tarry awhile (which most of them are), explaining why. Although I have made fun of such encounters, before, most seem genuinely grateful for the gratitude I proffer (and which I do in the spirit of my paternal grandfather: who always taught me – as well as leading by example – that you should offer praise where it is due; and do your damndest to leave each place, each person, you encounter, a little better, a little happier, a little more positive, than before…).
Several such abutments or confluences spring easily to mind: the genial genius Oliver Ford Davies accompanying me into the RSC shop to sign my copy of one of his books; Greg Doran – a gentler soul than perhaps he may first appear – happy to chat about Hal and Falstaff, very early one morning, walking across Avoncroft Gardens, greeted with a smile by (and on a first-name basis with) the various RSC staff getting the theatre ready for the ensuing busy day; Richard Coles’ cheeky, modest repartee; Nicolas Tennant leaning over the dressing-room balcony to continue an earlier conversation about the scarcity of tickets for As You Like It (in which he was a mesmerizing, mirthful Touchstone); Matthew Kelly joshing with the Lady Bard about his part in Volpone – which we are to see later in the week – after being congratulated on the strong season he’s assuredly contributed to in the Swan; laughing with John Nettles about being mobbed by a group of ‘older’ female fans outside Holy Trinity, and how he’ll “always be Bergerac”; fellow Old-Blackburnian Jonathan Slinger sitting outside the Guild Chapel, quizzically watching the world go by….
And two very recent such path-crossings, I think, will stay with me for a very long time. It is too easy, too simple, to assume that actors never stop acting – but they can be humble human beings, too; and don’t we all crave hard-won approbation? I was too scared (not too strong a word, I feel) to approach Makram J Khoury, the first time he passed me by. But the next evening, at the same time, there he was again. He has left a large mark on my heart with his strong, heartfelt, justifiably angry, wide-ranging Shylock – and my plain “thank you” appeared to move him just as much as he had moved me. I was honest when I said that he was the principal reason I was returning to see The Merchant of Venice again, just before the play closes. A Shylock you understand and therefore sympathize, nay, empathize with, is a rare thing indeed….
And then, a couple of days ago, limping back to my car, in the drizzle, a kind soul stepped off the pavement to make room for me. It was only when I looked up from my fumbling feet to say “thank you” that I realized this kind man was “most honest” Iago. “Startlingly engaging and dominant” I had called Lucian Msamati’s portrayal – the pivot around which Othello revolves. His warm hand shook and then clasped mine for what felt like a long time whilst we discussed the shift a black Iago had caused; how I jokingly thought (but it really was – and by a long way) his performance so much better than the strangely-muted Hugh Quarshie (not difficult, when your rôle has so many more lines: but his charisma and power helped greatly…). “You have made my week… – and it’s only Monday morning! What a great start!” he exclaimed – and that velvet voice was accompanied by a bright and sincere laugh that “made my week”, too. A gentleman; a great actor – someone I would easily look up to – happy to talk; grateful to be acknowledged and praised. I haven’t yet stopped grinning….
It seems a miracle to me that anyone can learn so many lines, so many complex words and phrases; never mind make them meaningful, inhabit them. What if – as the marvellous Alex Waldmann did, a couple of years ago – you have major parts, simultaneously, in three of Shakespeare’s dramas: the aforementioned As You Like It (Orlando: 190 lines); All’s Well That Ends Well (Bertram: 240 lines); and Hamlet (Horatio: 273 lines)? What magic does it take to convince us each time, over many, many performances, that you have now become the completely different characters we witness?
Truly, gods walk amongst us mere mortals, here in Warwickshire; treading the boards for our delight. But yet, their footsteps mark the earth in the same way as ours. I still believe, therefore, it is only just – presented with the opportunity – that we should tell them, express in our poor, stumbling words, how much they mean to us; and thank them for their ability, their graft. After all, it is a privilege to live in such a crucible of talent; and we should not take that privilege for granted.