When you find yourself in heated discussions about whether to say “isn’t” or “is not”, when you anguish about whether to stand or sit or walk in a circle, when you take a stand about whether you have or haven’t seen something that’s just happened inches in front of you… you’d better hope you’re in a rehearsal room because if you’re not, you may need a nice lie down.
I’ve spent the last week rehearsing the role of Hector in Alan Bennett’s modern classic, THE HISTORY BOYS, which opens at the Greenwich Theatre a week tomorrow (yikes!). That’s Monday 18th til Sunday 24th June (10 performances in 7 days – more info at www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk ) and I couldn’t be enjoying it more.
It’s a short run with a short rehearsal period, and it’s shaping up really nicely. The cast are great, and the writing… oh, the writing!
Happily, this casting was confirmed a few weeks before rehearsals began, so I was able to spend a bit of time in the sunshine (remember the sunshine?) getting to grips with the lines and learning a bit about the character I’m playing.
If you’ve seen other pages on this blog thing, you’ll know that I’m a lover of poetry. But not a well informed one. Nothing like Hector. The man’s a cultural oracle! He speaks largely in quotes and references, so preparing for this play has been a little like swotting for ‘A’ Levels. But in a good way.
On which point, incidentally, I now realise why I was such a thicky at school all those years ago – no Google! How I wish I could have had the facility to type “Larkin unspent” into a search engine and immediately discover the poem “I Remember, I Remember”. No, I’m not going to reproduce it for you here – go search!
Another reason I underachieved, I think – and I’ve always been resentful of this – is that I had no Hector at my school. Someone who engages his pupils and makes them WANT to learn. I wonder if anyone ever did have as Hector a Hector as Hector, to be honest – and if you’re familiar with the play, you’ll know there’s a darker side to him too, which creates a brilliant theatrical dilemma when deciding how the audience feels about the character.
But back to the research. I have really enjoyed unpicking Mr Bennett’s intricate needlework; I have revisited the works of WH Auden, AE Housman, Larkin, Coleridge, Kipling… read passages from the Bible and dusted off my prized hardback edition of The Wind In The Willows, which my father took a good deal of convincing to pay a whole guinea for when I was 11. That’s £1.05p, kids. The equivalent of more than 4 months pocket money at the time.
I even found myself, on a recent trip to Belgium, sitting in this War Cemetery in Ypres for a reflective hour, reading the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others.
I’d love to tell you that was an exercise in Method Acting or something, but the truth is, I was in Belgium buying cheap fags anyway. Which doesn’t change the fact that I often have a pensive moment somewhere in Flanders whenever I go there.
How much a moment like that affects the performance is difficult to gauge, of course, but it is certainly the sort of thing Hector would do; it provides a useful picture in my head in a particular scene, but perhaps most valuably, I found it personally moving to see those regiments of gravestones, most of which acknowledge merely “A soldier of the Great War” or “A Lance Corporal of the Great war”, with the addition “known unto God”.
I stood at the end of a line of stones and it seemed to stretch forever. I briefly imagined that line as so many young men in their late teens and early twenties, then looked around me, at what was actually a pretty small War Cemetery. Why, there was probably only about a thousand people buried there.
As I wandered among the stones, a very touching thing happened. Three noisy schoolboys were laughing together as they walked home on the other side of the low wall between the cemetery and the street. They saw me and immediately quietened down. They continued their joke as they walked by, but in hushed voices. As a mark of respect, I assume. I don’t want to say that wouldn’t happen in the UK. I don’t want to say that.
Hector’s boys would have done the same, of course. They are lively, funny, bright, clowning kids on the threshold of the rest of their lives, but Hector has also contributed to the development of their sensitivity and humanity.
You really should come to see this play if you possibly can. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s thought provoking. And it’s only on for a week – get booking!
Here’s a little trailer the company has put on YouTube. I’m not in it, but it gives a flavour of the hijinks we’ve been enjoying this week.