Sunday, 31 October 2010

Interview with Emily Richard

Emily Richard in a theatre in Kyoto looking at a shrine to the Shinto goddess of actors. Image by Edward Petherbridge

I often find myself in discussion with other like minded women where we acknowledge women of note and those that have a particular significance to our lives. More often than not the women we chose are those we’ve never met; they’re famous writers, thinkers, feminists, actors and singers. However I’ve been thinking recently about women in our own lives, the ones who arguably have a greater influence and significance, yet don’t always get the recognition they deserve. These are the women of note that don’t always get to tell their stories. As regular readers of this blog probably know the actor Edward Petherbridge sometimes features, his witty anecdotes and fascinating tales of the theatre make an appearance not only on his own rather excellent blog but over here too. Edward’s wife Emily Richard is also an actress, and with the help of her daughter Dora (who occasionally features here) I interviewed her on her experience of the business. What she has contributed is a fascinating insight into the life of a performer.

Emily’s career began in the late 60’s and has spanned stage, screen and radio. She has worked extensively with the RSC as well as appearing in many television productions. She also performed in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun based on J G Ballard’s autobiographical novel about being separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in December 1941. In the film Emily played Mary Graham, the mother of Jim (played by Christian Bale).

Emily has two children, can make lace and has conducted historical tours around London.

What was your time at drama school like? How did you become an actress?

‘In 1966 I went to drama school in London when I was 18 but got kicked out after a year because I was too much of a ‘rabbit’. I was told I was too timid and would never survive the business. It was very crushing. The training was awful because they used to make me do improvisations that I didn’t understand such as inappropriate things for my age and experience. I was very innocent and I just didn’t know anything. I was once humiliated in class when the principal said I was no better than a dog and should go to Battersey Dog’s Home. He made me do an improvisation all in dog noises.

Now I realise that they were trying to push me into retaliating, into saying ‘fuck off I’m not doing it!’ but I just couldn’t then. The only constructive thing to come out of my year there was that the voice teacher told me to get my voice back to my bra strap. I thought ‘how can you talk about my underwear? But I knew what he meant.’

So then in 1968 I sold programmes in West End theatres and one day I walked down the Charing Cross Road looking for an agent. I went into Smithy’s Theatrical Agency and asked for work. The agent just shook his head and looked at me as if I was mad. But he gave me some telephone numbers of children’s theatre companies. Just as I was about to leave he looked at me and said ‘your heart is going to be broken many times.’

When I got home I phoned the first telephone number and was told the company were wanting a young girl who looked a bit like a boy to play Mr Mole in Toad of Toad Hall. I said ‘but that’s me!’

I got the part, got my Equity card and toured schools round the country. Touring is hard work, I wasn’t paid very much so would often have to hitch-hike home to London. I even hitch-hiked once from Bristol to London for my sister’s wedding.’

The theatre is a place of heightened emotion, how do you sustain this night after night?

‘The theatre is my favourite medium because it is the most immediate. I’ve played a few particularly intense and tragic roles and sustaining heightened emotion every night is not difficult when the material is good, you just do. It’s never been a problem for me. In the big emotional plays you trust your fellow actors - it’s such a team thing. But everyone has their own technique; I once knew an actress who in order to prepare herself listened to sad music before she had to do a melancholy scene.

Photograph of a dress rehearsal of Three Sisters taken from the balcony of The Other Place in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The three sisters played by Emily (centre), Janet Dale (left) and Suzanne Bertish (right). Image by Edward Petherbridge.

But I do get awfully nervous. One evening doing Chekov’s Three Sisters I was standing in the wings visibly shaking and Edward, my husband, who was also in the play, came up behind me and said very sternly ‘nerves are waste of time.’ That told me then! You develop different rituals for coping with your nerves in different productions. I used to drink a glass of milk before the play to help calm me down. Also when I was doing The Secret Rapture by David Hare in Newcastle, I used to say to myself every night before going on ‘into thy hands oh lord, into thy hands.’ These were the last lines the actor Henry Irving said when he played Thomas Beckett before he died.

Does costume effect performance?

Edward as Feste and Emily as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photograph by Chris Arthur, courtesy of Edward Petherbridge.

‘To me costume is very important. Some people don’t like corsets but for me in certain roles wearing one has been invaluable because they make you stand and breathe differently. They are difficult to laugh in though; in 1971 when I was playing in Charley’s Aunt, a terribly funny play, I used to have to preserve my modesty by concealing my heaving bosom with my fan.

However on occasion I’ve had problems with costumes. When I played Lady MacDuff in Macbeth the costume designer had made me a dress with great swathes of material, and the coarse serge just swamped me and I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m not wearing that!’ Thankfully they came up with something more fitting - I was playing a Lady after all.’

You were in Empire of the Sun, which was a big budget Hollywood film and was chosen as the Royal Gala film in 1987. That must have been an amazing experience.

'There were women queuing practically around the block to audition for the part. I was pregnant at the time and held a clutch bag in front of my little bump to hide it. Spielberg and I talked a lot about China where the film was to be shot. During the interview he asked if I’d do something, and I said ‘of course, anything’. He asked me to put my hair up on my head, so I gathered my hair and held it up and instantly my face turned cherry red, it felt like a flashing beacon. After that I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and I thought, I don’t mind if I don’t get the job because at least I’ve had such a good talk with Spielberg. By the time I got home the phone was ringing, it was my agent. I’d got the part.

Filming began five weeks after I had my baby. So leaking milk all over the place, I left my children with my husband and I went to China travelling first class and drinking champagne all the way.

With Spielberg there’s no messing about because he is very precise. Rupert Frazer who played my husband and I just used to follow exactly what Spielberg told us to do. I think Spielberg liked working with British actors - they don’t constantly ask what their motivation is like many American ones!

Shanghai street scene. Image by Edward Petherbridge.

The first scene to be shot of the entire film was with Rupert, me and the young Christian Bale running through a panicking crowd in Shanghai to escape the Japanese soldiers. Spielberg had organised 5000 Chinese extras and then I also had special extras like bodyguards to protect me from the crowd. It all had to be very exact. We did the take a few times but then I tripped on Rupert’s legs and fell flat on my face. The camera man shouted ‘Cut, cut, Emily’s hurt’ I just said ‘I’m terribly sorry I think I’ve laddered my tights!’

Falling over isn’t great, but falling over in front of 5000 people is something else! I said ‘I just need a minute.’ So I sat on the kerb and Spielberg came and put his arm around me and said ‘Shall we talk about our babies?’ It was at this point that I burst into tears. I didn’t know he knew I’d had a baby. After a while, I was aware of a man pacing up and down in front of us tapping his watch, Spielberg said ‘Shall we go for it now?’ So Make-Up tidied me up and the next take we got in one.

Afterwards I went back to my Winnebago and Spielberg was the first to come round and say thank you. He was a gentleman.’

What have been your most important roles?

‘One of my favourite parts to play on radio was Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I was part of the BBC Repertory Company which was wonderful fun. We recorded three plays in a week sometimes. Radio is particularly liberating because you are not cast by physical appearance; it’s all down to your voice. While accent is key to creating characters it is their words – their vocabulary – that gives them their individuality. Although the business is renowned for being greatly concerned with what you look like, I personally never felt in competition with other actresses purely on the basis of appearance. You have to know what you are, for example no one cast me as a sex symbol and I was okay with that.

In theatre definitely Viola in Twelfth Night. This was the first time I did a play in the RSC with Edward Petherbridge and Ian McKellen. It was a gift of a part because Viola goes on a real journey, has great progression and speaks the most wonderful poetry.

Chinese programme for Twelfth Night. Image by Edward Petherbridge.

Emily as Viola in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Image by Edward Petherbridge.

Irina in Three Sisters was also wonderful because Chekov created such a vivid individual who undergoes profound change as her ideals are obliterated by the harsh reality she inhabits. Also, I was one of three sisters so I particularly related to the role. We performed the show in what is now the rather smart Donmar Warehouse but at the time was literally an abandoned warehouse. I have so many amazing memories from that time, one of which was when Meryl Streep waited for the cast to come out of our communal dressing room after the show. She kissed me on the cheek, as did her mother!

Emily as Kate in Nicolas Nickleby. Image courtesy of Edward Petherbridge.

Kate Nickelby in Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s 1982 RSC production of Nicolas Nickleby – from the minute we started rehearsals I knew I wanted this part, but for six weeks the cast sat in a circle devising the show without knowing which role they were to be allocated. I thought everyone would want to play Kate, but they didn’t. As it turned out the play ended up being eight hours and forty minutes long so the audience were really immersed in the action and it all became something of a phenomenon. This production attracted movie stars and huge cultural icons. One evening Liza Minnelli even told me ‘You gotta take this show on a world tour’. Ironically that’s what we were doing, but I didn’t think it would be right to correct the great Liza. Kate Nickelby was a very personally important role that took me to Broadway.

Perhaps I wasn’t such a dog after all!’


Firstly I’d like to say a huge thank you to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions. She has provided an honest and interesting insight into her life and work as an actress at a time when theatre made more of a cultural impact than it does now.

I would also like to thank Dora Petherbridge for her help with the words and Edward Petherbridge and Kathleen Riley for their help with sourcing images for this post.

More generally I’d like to say thank you to all three for their support and encouragement for the blog.

Monday, 20 September 2010

A Manifesto for Culture? Guest post by Dora Petherbridge

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010, image by Dora Petherbridge

Dora works for two large cultural insitutions. She has a particular interest in theatre and after attending the Manifesto for Culture event at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival I asked her to write something for the blog. In her spare time Dora likes collecting postcards and she's also been know to make a rather good carrot cake. Some of her women of note include Virgina Woolf and Judi Dench.

Here is her response to the event:

Ruth and I went to see the promisingly titled ‘Manifesto of Culture’ event at the Book Festival. After kindly asking me to write something about the event for this blog Ruth reminded me of a French mime artist I reviewed at the Fringe, Julien Cottereau. She did so as I was getting tangled in the problematic issues raised by the talk. As I concerned myself with the government’s role in the sector and all those buzz words – engage, educate, include, inspire, collaborate – that appear in the strategic aims of cultural institutions I was doing exactly what I had been so frustrated by in the speakers. I was spending all my time recognising faults and exercising grievances to no end.

The Manifesto event needed an artist in residence, someone to take us back to the germination of creative work and to lift us above the managerial, institutional and corporate. Someone to propose a daring vision, to imagine how things could be. I don’t think the audience would have minded if the vision was unrealistic or foolishly utopian, but would have appreciated an enlivening departure from the knotty problems of finance and marketing. None of the speakers, not Fiona Hyslop Minister for Culture, Vicky Featherstone Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, or Penelope Curtis Director of Tate Britian, gave one example of an artwork, artist or group of artists they took to be important today or demonstrative of the qualities of culture.

At least we could have thought of the hundreds of street performers in Edinburgh just minutes from the Book Festival tent, beacons in the resource cutting climate reminding us that art happens on the shortest of shoestrings. These performers without venues, box-offices, producers or press attention attract intimately watchful spectators and large, appreciative crowds.

Julien Cottereau, who was also performing only a stones’ throw from where we sat would have been my choice for artist in residence. Cottereau needs nothing but his body to create numerous realities. In his hands unsuspecting audience members taken on stage are transformed into masters of comic timing. They become dashing premiere football players, glamorous models, fairy-tale ogres, and expert marksmen. Cottereau’s clowning seemed to say much about culture’s survival instinct. Clowning? Mime? Irrelevant and passĂ© surely! Well, yes, sometimes. But when it’s really, seriously good the ‘limits’ of the genre disappear. And this artist gave everything to his performance; his simple desire to please the audience was full of heart and courage. For me Cottereau made manifest the transformative properties of art, he is a living manifesto for culture.

Seeing, reading or listening to something good does something to the mind I’m sure – bolsters it, leaves it feeling a little reckless perhaps, but stronger.

At the end of his show Cottereau interrupted the rapturous applause we were giving him, signalled for us to stop and demonstrated that he wanted us to tap the palm of one hand with the finger of our other – as we did the sound of raindrops filled the air. This simple motion done collectively invoked a summer downpour on the suddenly realised canvas above our heads.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Peter Brook, The Empty Space, 1968.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Breakfast back to normality

A poem from the actor who needs no introduction -

Improvised Verse On A Rainy Sunday

By Edward Petherbridge

I'm off to buy organic eggs
I'll pass through dross and doubt and dregs

This is how I spend my day
So let the rain clouds have their say

And if I can I'll make a joke

Look forward to the golden yoke

Image by Dora Petherbridge

During this year’s Edinburgh festival one of the many things that kept me going was the promise I made to myself that the first Sunday after the fringe I’d make a glorious breakfast of scrambled eggs. It’s funny how these simple things can keep you going, for after a month of eating pre-packaged sandwiches and more takeaways for dinner than I care to recount, all I craved was a decent, honest Sunday breakfast.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Coincidentally this day falls on tonight’s close to the Edinburgh International Festival, when a beautiful fireworks display will light up the sky above the castle. Yesterday I noticed the first leaves of the trees beginning to make the change from lush green to rusty red – autumns’ not far from us now (although we are experiencing what I assume are the last summer days with unseasonably warm sunshine). All good things must come to an end though and with the change of seasons will bring the good – a new wardrobe, oh how I enjoy winter clothes, and the not so good – shorter days and darker mornings. As we bid farewell to another crop of Augusts’ festival characters Edinburgh will for a short time enter a slightly calmer phase. This is at least until the hustle and bustle starts again with the beginnings of the winter festival.

Hello to all my new readers!

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Edward has the last word ... for now ...

Image by Dora Petherbridge

So that’s it for another year. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe comes to a close. As always it’s been emotional and I’m officially festival fatigued. I had high hopes to blog more during this year’s run but alas the daily grind of reviewing and the rush of seeing many shows left me with not enough hours in the day. I will endeavour to post a few belated festival posts, as I have seen some fantastic and fabulously cultural stuff that I really want to write about. I’ve said this before but the festival really is a wonderful opportunity to remind oneself that culture is alive and well in the 21st century. Indeed it has been humbling to have had the opportunity to take part in a festival that at its core celebrates art and performance on a level playing field – from the street level up (with street performers and the like) to the theatres of the top venues. The variety of the programme itself is a reminder that talent comes in many forms.

Amnesty International art exhibition in C Venues. Image by Dora Petherbridge

In the meantime, in something which is becoming somewhat of a tradition around here, Edward Petherbridge shares these words. Given he’s something of a ‘fringe veteran’ perhaps it is fitting that he should have the last word on the festival. For now at least ...

'I very much liked the ‘Festival Food’ post. It felt like an evocative elegy for the Edinburgh Festival and I wish I could have chatted (no more) to the lady with the Chanel bag.

I remember one Festival wind up - in both senses of the phrase - it was on the last night of the 1978 Festival Fringe when my wife and I had been playing in Trevor Nunn's production of Three Sisters. We were having a drink after the fireworks in the Festival Club on George Street. Most of the cast were there, Trevor was with us and Ian (McKellen, who played Andre) - when two rain coated men came up to the table and one said, “It's midnight. The Festival's over. Finish your drinks.”

I recall an Edinburgh actress telling me she remembered a woman on a bus the day after one Festival saying complacently to her shopping companion, “Oh it's nice to have the city to ourselves again!”

Being a veteran of four Festivals, I certainly remember being on the Royal Mile and thinking - if I see one more juggler or stilt walker ... but there was the extraordinary day about 12 years ago when there was a band from Russia playing. Suddenly they struck up a Russian march I had only ever heard in the last act of our Three Sisters in that poignant off stage music as the soldiers leave the town at the end of the play.

Thank you for stirring the sediment – that is partly what blogs are for, that and topping up the drinks - not finishing them because 'the Festival is over.’

Here's a small selection of Dora's snapshots from the Fringe.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Image by Dora Petherbridge

And finally ...

The E4 Udderbelly - a venue literally in the shape of a giant purple cow! Image by Dora Petherbridge

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Festival Food

The life of a festival reviewer can take many forms - a regular routine goes out of the window as days can start at 2.00pm and not end until 10 or 11 in the evening. Suffice to say a balanced diet can also suffer. Still, I tell myself that all the exercise I’m doing running from one venue to another is burning off the unprecedented amount of carbohydrates I’m probably consuming this month. Indeed random eating in venue bars and quintessential Edinburgh establishments are all part and parcel of being at the festival. It sits happily alongside using your fringe programme as protection from the rain and consuming all your drinks (including wine) in plastic cups.

The other night we had legendary Negociants’ nachos for dinner after a splendid evening of vintage Edinburgh festival comedy. A while ago I wrote a somewhat literary post about this place and I thought while I’m in the midst of writing a few longer festival related blog posts I’d recycle it so to speak, here. In some ways it is a bit of a continuation of the many Edinburgh insights I’ve come to write on this blog.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Negociants’ Nachos

Flanking Bristo Square, Negociants gently nurses the art students' quarter, and by day the faint hum of the skater boys in the square are its musical accompaniment. By night the tables and chairs outside are surrounded by artsy student revellers swaddled in paisley print scarves as they usher themselves into its basement nightclub Medina, the throb of the sound system under their feet.

Although overshadowed by McEwan Hall's austerity, its faint bohemian quality still sits well with the burgh's darker Calvinistic history. At the weekend Negociants is open into the witching hour, historically the time when Auld Reekie's less savoury grave digging characters got all their best work done. Tonight, although its cold and faintly wet there's not so much as a shovel in sight. But this bar's interesting mix of clientele surely come with their own stories.

Across from our table there is a tall lady huddled over her laptop. She sips from a perspiring glass of white wine. On her knee rests a Chanel handbag curled over like a resting, gentle lap dog. The scene is almost achingly Parisian if we discount the less subtle nods Negociants' decor makes to its more southern European sisters. The wicker chairs and potted plants, the terracotta hues and chalk boards give off a Latin Tapas feel, while the eclectic mix of magazine covers, black and white photographs of models and movie stars pasted to the ceiling give the look of a funky late night New York haunt.

And it's in this mode that Negociants really comes into its own, for it lends itself well to the shabby funkiness of the last place open in town. A place where the clubbers can come down from their highs over curly fries, powdered with cayenne pepper and washed down with coffee. This is where, safe from the metropolis, the late night writers, insomniacs, the people with nowhere to go and the outsiders can congregate. They can even have fish finger sandwiches if they like.

And if you are a regular you know there's only one thing really worth ordering on the menu. Piled high, greasy and carbohydrate laden, the Nachos fly out the kitchen's hatch to the tune of the bell being tapped to summon the waitress. They are an un-showy creation, but not unlike the establishment they have a charm; the comforting finger food shared between a couple of friends over bottled beer or glasses of totally drinkable, always crisp, white wine.

Dora's fringe snapshot for the day. The colourful lampshades are so pretty.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Edward on the Critics

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Star ratings mean an awful lot in Edinburgh this month. It seems every performer is holding out for that elusive number of twinkly stars that will catapult them into the big time. Indeed they play on the mind of critics too. Probably for different reasons in so far as the critic only has their own opinion to go on, whereas a production has to take into consideration the writers, the performers and the crew when they open the paper and discover their labour of love has been given a pitiful write up and horror of horrors a one star rating.

At times likes like these we could all succumb to an existential crisis.

But I prefer to turn to the wisdom of Edward Petherbridge.

Here in this email he turns into something of a philosopher on the whole business ...

‘Your vivid evocation of Camille’s cabaret performance set me thinking about high praise - Time Out having thrown convention to the wind and awarded her six stars. I opened the Sunday Times Culture this last weekend and there was Steven Fry advertised as doing a one man show at The Albert Hall no less, with a quotation from a review calling him "a towering genius" (The Melbourne Age). The Albert Hall is used to towering genius: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart - but it is not often it is used as a venue for one night solo stand up comedians - or, as he is billed "The UK's consummate raconteur." I was called a genius recently, not towering I admit, but a 'genius turn' which was rather nice, almost believable, then again it was only in the West End column of a local Islington paper (but then I know what talented writers even ThreeWeeks has amongst its critics). How does The Islington Gazette compare with The Melbourne Age I wonder? I know what the critic meant by calling me a genius, but nonsense of course - I didn't change the way mankind and womankind thinks about the world, which is surely what a genius does?

But I was struck that you talked about Camille's candour and that struck me as a very rare and powerful attribute in a performer...’

And now for a few examples of the creative ways in which performers use their star ratings to their advantage when promoting their shows.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

We particularly liked this one for handing the job of 'critic' over to an audience member:

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Tales from the Fringe: Camille O'Sullivan

The poster for Camille O'Sullivan's 'Chameleon', Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010. Image by Dora Petherbridge.

Camille O’Sullivan is always one of the more polished acts on the fringe. Often defying publications’ rigid five star ratings with special six star status reviews she’s an alluring prospect too. She’s the Irish-French cabaret singer with the gravelly voice, who seemingly explores the multi-facets of femininity or rather womanhood, as she emotionally unravels on stage with orchestrated costume changes and cheeky banter with the crowd. However she’s no flake. Never once do you get the impression that she’s losing her audience to introspective hysteria, rather one, especially as a woman is partly mesmerised by her candour and certainly swept along for the ride.

Last year’s performance ‘The Dark Angel’ encapsulated this sense of emotional exploration particularly well with its deceptively feminine backdrop of crochet rugs and sparkly frocks adorning the stage. It is as interesting then as it is ironic that Camille favours the songs of male singers: Nick Cave and David Bowie to name a couple. And all this perhaps sets her apart from other cabaret singers, for she refuses to sing quietly and simply look beautiful and the more feminine songs she sings neither pander to romantic notions nor lost loves. Indeed her version of ‘Look Mummy No Hands’ seemed to engage with the complex relationship between mothers and daughters in a spooky pool of light amongst a crowd, many of whom were tearful women.

This year’s show ‘Chameleon’ marked a change in setting (this time there was a fairy light lit swing, mini piano and neon bunny rabbit light). Perhaps the electric pull of blue light was a tell tale sign that Camille was taking a different approach to proceedings – the songs had changed, she’d added a rocky element to her set and she, adorned in cape and sparkly black trousers banged drums under flashing lights. Indeed this was Camille engaging with the music, darting around the stage giving gutsy whistles. Given last year’s emotionally charged fare all this was somewhat of a diversion. Still she’s not the ‘Chameleon’ for nothing.

In many respects this new show appears to engage with the more masculine aspects of the music she chooses to sing. There’s a new sense of danger as recordings of dialogue from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are piped from a stereo over the live band. And under the glow of green light, Camille’s delicate facial expressions transformed her from something of an Absinthe fairy to the Wicked Witch. Camille the cabaret singer is evolving. Yet there were still hints of the dark angel - the on stage persona that rests on a volatile trajectory spanning sultry all woman singer to clowning around geek. At one point in her set as she makes her way over to the swing she accidentally trips over her bunny rabbit light, jokily uttering ‘Oh dear cruelty to animals!’ The Celtic humour and Gallic charm seem to both fuel and allow her to get away with the randomness.

Camille O’Sullivan shows are always a hot ticket at the fringe and well worth a look if you are heading to Edinburgh. I hear that no two nights are ever the same so each new audience is in for a unique experience every night. Indeed it is fascinating to watch a multi-layered performance by a woman who is not going through the motions with her material, for one senses she feels it deeply.

Camille on stage. Image by Dora Petherbridge

The set with the bunny rabbit light. Image by Dora Petherbridge

Random Chandelier. Image by Dora Petherbridge

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

An insight into the festival

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Programme 2010, with Edward Petherbridge's flyer for his 2005 fringe one-man show 'Pillar Talk/Slapdash'. Image by Dora Petherbridge

The first time I saw Edward Petherbridge perform on stage was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2005 when he brought his one man show ‘Pillar Talk/Slapdash’ to the Pleasance Dome. To say it was an experience would be an understatement. This was my first proper insight into the world of fringe theatre, the stripped back nature of which allows the actor to perform freed of the trappings of distracting props and other such trickery. Luckily we were in the capable hands of Mr Petherbridge, who is nothing if not a consummate professional. However in lesser company I’ve seen this style of theatre go horribly wrong. And this always puts you in an unfortunate position as a critic at the festival, for many companies rely on a good review to attract people to their shows. A little known fact, but apparently ThreeWeeks (the festival reviewing publication) and the Scotsman are the only reviews that really translate into tickets sold off the back of what the critics have to say.

So when Edward emailed me this: ‘I know it is a testing discipline to review sometimes 2 or 3 shows a day, each of them in 120 words: it seems everyone is in it together in Edinburgh - August is a cruel but exciting month’, he’s not kidding. There’s an art to this business whether you are a writer, reviewer or performer. Most of the time it seems like the fringe is one of the most culturally invigorating places to be, at others mainly when you are traversing a city made of hills, alleyways and secret stairways on foot, just as the heavens open a torrential down pour, you are on the verge of an existential crisis. I suppose what I am trying to say is that you can’t come here and have an authentic experience if you don’t at least live a little bit by your emotions. It is after all impossible to be indifferent to the world’s largest arts festival.

In response to my previous post ‘Scotland Has Talent!’ Edward took the time to write these words about his experience of the festival as an actor. As you will read there is more to the fringe than turning up on stage and performing your piece. Indeed one becomes their own PR and promoter, as well as fitting in the time to watch other performers embarking on their own fringe experience.

Edward Petherbridge as Pierrot. Image by Arthur Petherbridge.

‘Your vivid Fringe piece takes me back; you and another critic made up the entire audience of a one woman show! Last time I performed on the fringe a journalist from the Guardian who was going to interview me came to see my one man play about Saint Simeon Stylites. I was up my pillar and he was in his seat on the front row - end seat on the left. Nichola McCauliffe, a fan of the play, had come to see it a second time and sat on the back row near the exit, but had to leave early for her own performance, so for the last three quarters of an hour it was just the journalist and me - worse - in the last 15 minutes I did a separate piece, a stand up comedy routine. He did not laugh. I remember stapling the good review from ThreeWeeks to my attractive flyers and trying to tout for trade with charisma and dignity - and still finding time to see 22 shows on the Fringe or in the main festival between times.

I finished my run with a sudden heady rush of punters coming to see me - at least twenty for the last performance! But I remember their laughs still and pin drop silences, their cheers and whoops at the end, and felt vindicated. I know it is a testing discipline to review sometimes 2 or 3 shows a day, each of them in 120 words: it seems everyone is in it together in Edinburgh - August is a cruel but exciting month.
Edward P’

Monday, 2 August 2010

Scotland Has Talent!

Image by Dora Petherbridge

So we’re gearing up for the largest arts festival in the world this week, with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe officially opening on August 6th. During this month long festival the hoards will descend upon the historic capital, happenings will abound, colourful street theatre will make traversing the city at a steady pace impossible and bright young (and old) things will thrust flyers into your hands enthusiastically promoting their shows. The fringe is a competitive business with over 2400 shows going on in the one relatively small city.

Over the years the festival has grown hugely and has become as much commercial as it is creative, artistic and a showcase for up and coming talent. Major players in the world of entertainment, comedy and theatre will perform alongside lesser known names and tomorrow’s big stars. I do believe I once read that Emily Blunt was discovered here. And many of our most celebrated actors have graced the boards of the fringe venues at one time or another. And as much as the locals might grumble about the city often coming to a standstill, the price of beer in their favourite pubs increasing and snap-happy tourists taking up space on the pavement, one has to marvel at how the capital of Scotland becomes something of a cultural epicentre for a few weeks. For all its frenetic pace and the overwhelming choice of shows on offer, one must yield to the buzz of the fringe. Go with the flow and you’ll discover the gems in the rough.

As a seasoned fringe reviewer I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have stories that abound with tales of nauseating comedy (Mr Methane was a low point), to wonderful comedic discoveries such as Jon Richardson – one to watch out for and a hot ticket if you’re heading up north in August. At times it is even emotional, for as a reviewer you experience both the highs and the lows, the shocking four seasons in one day and the harsh realities that many young performers face as they begin their careers in entertainment.

I remember reviewing a one-woman show in my rookie year where there were only two of us in the audience - one look at each other and we knew we were both reviewers as we stuffed our fringe passes inside our coats. In a venue that could be effectively described as a vault, under pounding rain and the throb of the feet from the revellers above this woman delivered a powerful performance, which included the story of a woman with a crush on David Tennant. I couldn’t help but be moved by her brave determination to carry on under difficult circumstances, to lay bare a part of her soul few of us could contemplate, for there is surely something very exposing about performing in a one person-show.

I bumped into her a few days later in another fringe venue and felt obliged to talk to her about her performance. She said she’d remembered me and recounted her disappointment upon realising we were both reviewers. She admitted that my fellow reviewer (unfairly in my opinion) had given her a woeful review – such is often the cut-throat nature of the business. Still I do wonder if we’ve forgotten the art of fringe theatre, its rawness being part of its potential. I told her I’d given her a good review and we laughed about the crushes we’d had on celebrities over the years.

That’s another thing about the fringe, the crowd is good, particularly those who go out mid-week, for these are the old timers, the ones who barely miss a year and schedule their summer holidays around August. Indeed the festival is a hugely friendly, celebratory and positive experience, an open show case where for a month the fourth wall is literally torn down and performers, artists, writers and ordinary folk come together.

Princes Street Gardens bandstand 'Scotland Has Talent' , Image by Dora Petherbridge

First snapshot of the Fringe

One of the main venues at the fringe, Assembly has taken over the old bandstand in Princes Square Gardens in the heart of the city centre this year. On Saturday we stumbled across this fringe oasis where they were warming up with a showcase of Scottish performers on the stage, under the rather amusing and not entirely misleading ‘Scotland Has Talent!’. That afternoon there was a young chap playing guitar and singing songs about his fiancĂ©, who was in the crowd nursing a Yorkshire terrier puppy. With songs such ‘I fall in love with you over and over’, this guy had something of the Paolo Nutini about him. And such is the beauty of the festival, you might never know, he could be the next big thing ...

In which Edward responds ...

Please forgive another foray into Edward Petherbridge’s colourful world. In response to Saturday’s post Edward emailed me this amazing insight into his weekend – a story of dogs, iPhones, toilet seats and nature. I couldn’t possibly allow such a story to languish in my inbox. And so with his permission I’m posting it here. If I have inspired this then it must be encouraged with a grand acknowledgement. Here we go:

‘Well! I see my iPhone features prominently – I was offered it as an upgrade to replace a lost, much humbler mobile, and now I notice 'everybody' seems to have one. I was being chaperoned by Bean yesterday on our local green and got talking to an iPhone owner, a young woman on a park bench; I was lamenting that I didn't know how to send a text. There and then she offered to demonstrate! I must send a text before I forget how – if it's not already too late. I believe I could make a short film on my iPhone to enter into the Sundance Film Festival if I could find out how to use the camera facility – I haven't even managed to take a snap with it yet – pathetic when you consider how cumbersome my lap top web-cam is...perhaps I should take Bean for another walk on the green...

Meanwhile I have created an image in pastel on paper in just two sessions over two days and I am daring to feature it on my weekly posting this week end (forgive me if this sounds like advertising) – yesterday I had had a particularly laboriously mundane day spent schlepping in Cricklewood and Kilburn, buying a new lavatory seat amongst other things, but God I am so lucky to be able to go from the Kilburn High Road (one of man's less happy creations) to sunlit woods on Hampstead Heath – where God does most of the creating. I am convinced that the sylvan interlude gave me the energy to finish the drawing... Felicitations, Edward.’

In case you are wondering who Bean is, she’s Edward’s dog, a rescue orphan terrier mix.

Ambassador Bean by Dora Petherbridge

Sunday, 1 August 2010

A day at the Farmers' Market

Round these parts we have a weekly Farmers' Market that takes place on Saturdays. While it can’t quite yet rival the markets of say France, the flatmate and I were impressed by the wide range of ethically and locally sourced produce on display. Produce that ranged from organic and free range meats, including venison and ostrich, eggs, vegetables, fruit, Isle of Arran cheeses and preserves.

Navigating the market is easy as it takes place on one long strip, allowing for an eclectic mix of locals, tourists and foodies alike to enjoy the various producers’ wares. As well as food there are stalls selling organic and natural bath and body products for the conscious beauty enthusiast. We were thrilled to discover that the vegetables we bought were significantly cheaper than if we’d got them at the supermarket. And frankly, you’re not likely to see the wonderful characters at the market down your local Tesco Metro. So everyone’s a winner.

This lady was already being photographed by her husband, so Dora felt it was a gift of a picture.

The rather trendy ladies selling strawberries, raspberries and jams.

The vegetable stall.

Judging by the numbers of people having spiritual experiences over the burgers, I gathered that they are something of a draw, so I headed for the nearest Aberdeen Angus stall - the rather suggestive ‘Well Hung and Tender’ where I purchased one such burger with cheese and onions. I can only report good things. The flatmate, a lifelong vegetarian even had a bite.

At home we decided to put our farmer's market produce to good use by turning it all into a spicy Thai red curry with prawns.

And the result. We both agreed that given the origins of most of the ingredients, that this was possibly the freshest and most herby curry I've made. To use Dora's phrase it was indeed, 'an ethical success!'

All images are by Dora Petherbridge.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

What an actor's dressing table looks like

I’ve had lovely emails and comments over the past few weeks – thank you to all of you who have taken the time to write. It is both humbling and thrilling to know that I have readers from West Hampstead to the West Coast.

The fantastic Edward Petherbridge left the following comment under my most recent blog post and I really felt I must dedicate a post to it. I admire anything of a literary persuasion, and what I feel is surely the lifelong literary student in me takes great joy in beautiful words.

So here is Edward’s comment, inspired I believe by our series of photographs of the view from the room with the view.

‘Your sky-scapes perhaps gain from having no quaint or noble towers - only chimney pots and an aerial is it? Nature puts on her magical displays despite our banalities. A blossom tree round a couple of corners from us this spring would have graced a palace - once more made me marvel that it was prepared to display its white magnificence adjacent to the crude red brick and plastic framed windows of a block of flats.

Today, walking into The British Museum, I passed a man whose job was scraping the chewing gum off the stone steps under the magnificent portico - was he set to work there to remind us of our crudity in the face of thousands of years of high culture?

I feel like seeing the films you tell us about - even failing a Retro Tastic Cinema.

All the best, Edward.’

Here's Edward (and his daughter, the much featured Dora) in his dressing room at the Duchess Theatre, London, when he was appearing in The Fantasticks.

And just in case you ever wondered what actually graces an actor's dressing table ...

Edward Petherbridge's dressing table image by Dora Petherbridge

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Leaving (Partir): A Film Recommendation

A week ago I watched Inception, a visually stunning film, not entirely without emotional engagement. After all it is fundamentally (in my humble opinion of course) the story of a man trying to get home to his family. This is a story not unlike Homer's Odyssey, where a man must endure all manner of dangerous and fantastical adversities in order to return to his wife. One of the most striking performances of Inception was surely Marian Cotillard's Mal, the constant haunting presence of Cobb's subconscious. Indeed she is the Penelope to his Odysseus, the driving force behind Cobb's decision to take the one last job that is effectively his odyssey.

For all the explosions, high speed car chases and sharp tailoring, this is a movie about relationships; those based on power and love, all-pervasive but equally fragile. I suppose the beauty of cinema is that it can be a medium based on visuals and aesthetics. Those that demonstrate the labour of love that it surely is to make a film such as Inception. But cinema is also a literary format and the same concepts are just as easily explored in the dialogue that can be reinforced by the power of acting with one's eyes.

And this brings me to Leaving, a far humbler but arguably more powerful exploration of relationships, marriage, honour, loyalty and betrayal. Set amongst the French middle classes, the soullessness of privilege and bought lifestyle compete with the more basic human need for love and understanding. Kristin Scott Thomas is fabulous as a woman who enters into a passionate affair that challenges the illusions her marriage have created. Scott Thomas brings to the role the powerful ability to appear both austere and innocent in equal measure. Its all about the eyes I tell you. Well, the eyes and incredible bone structure. I don't wish to say much more about this movie - like I said last week, just go and see it.

On a personal level Leaving deeply affected me, indeed I left the theatre a little shaken. For it has been a while since a performance by a woman has so genuinely depicted the impossible situations we can find ourselves in; the choices, the gender power imbalances and finally the unpredictability of the human heart.

Film poster for Leaving, image by Dora Petherbridge

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The flatmate and the film

So I’ve been having a pretty rubbish week. I wish to remain opaque about the whole thing but I’ll say this; I’ve been upset by unkind and hurtful words, not in the blogsphere I hasten to add, you are lovely people, but in real life. Funny old thing this living business, you’d think your fellow peoples would make it easier on you, but quite often it goes the opposite way. Still, none of this is the end of the world: I have our view -

Photograph by Dora Petherbridge

and my fantastic flatmate, who incidentally is rather a lot more than that. She’s my best friend and she’s been looking after me in my hour of need.

So on Monday evening she took me to see the movie Inception. She promised it would be visually spectacular and provide a welcome respite from a week of bullshit. Indeed in the movie we entered a dream world, of which I don’t want to give anything away. Just go and see it. To describe this film would be as if to describe that amazing dream you had last night, the one where that awesome thing happened with that person, you know who ... erm oh wait, it wasn’t like that, or was it? I’ve said enough, it’s boring when people recount their dreams, they are always so imperfectly told. Suffice to say Inception was an exceptional piece of visual cinema with a wonderful cast – Leonardo DiCaprio, Marian Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were particular highlights.

We saw the film in our favourite ‘retro-tastic’ (yes, I coined the phrase) independent cinema and it played to a packed audience buzzing with a sense of excitement, the likes of which surely hasn’t been seen since the last media-hyped blockbuster I went to see. That was probably in 1998, and I think the film was called Titanic. It certainly wasn’t a film about blue people. The less said about that the better ...

By way of a bit of social documentation Dora felt the need to take some snap shots of the cinema and the film poster. So here you go -

Retro cinema sign advertising the latest films. How often do you see one of those nowadays? Not often enough surely. Photograph by Dora Petherbridge

And for good measure, the film poster. Photograph by Dora Petherbridge

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A Room With a View

In way of a continuation, here's another evocative skyline. This time its all orange and firey swirls, befitting of a warm July night at sundown. We truely do have a room with a view here ...

'Firey Sky' image by Dora Petherbridge.

Tonight I'm linking back to Edward Petherbridge's 'Petherbridge's Weekly Post' which is full of literary insight into the world of an actor and the theatre. He also posts some wonderful poetry - that rhymes, always the best kind I think. Edward will be 74 this year and he's been in the business for about 57 years, so he's bit of a veteran. On his latest post he said positive things about our free-writing exercises, so by way of thanks I'm mentioning him in the hope that whoever drops by here might fancy a look at his blog too.

Recently I read something on a blog that questioned the motives of some bloggers, namely those who self promote by posting their blog's address in the comments section. This blogger made a point of saying they do their blog for free. One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I made my first tentative steps towards telling people that I wanted to write was, 'do it because you have to and don't expect to get paid. Don't let that be your motivation because your writing will lose its spirit.' I hold this to be true, although of course no one's going to turn down a book deal. But it would be foolish to go into a blog with the words 'book-deal', 'fame', 'fortune', 'name in lights'. I certainly don't blog for these reasons and I think I'd be plunged into an existential crisis if I woke up tomorrow and I had hundreds of followers. I could never imagine my random musings yielding such interest. I see a blog as a way for anybody irrespective of class or education to explore creativity and probably the majority do them for free. Edward said on his blog in response to our 'free-writing' exercises that he felt that this should be the nature of the blogging experience, a place where ordinary people can write from a perspective outwith the confines of commercial media and its chosen few. Self-promotion? Whatever ...

Let's finish on a high note, here's a rather wonderful picture of Edward as Pierrot. It was taken by his son. Photography clearly runs in the family.

Photograph by Arthur Petherbridge.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Jazz in an Art Gallery. 'Free-Writing' part two.

Photograph is of two postcards. Top one, 'Jazzy Waters'. Bottom is of Ertha Kitt by Ernst Haas, 1952.

Tonight we attended something of a 'happening' in the form of a free jazz ensemble in the auspicious surroundings of the National Gallery of Scotland. Beneath Renaissance paintings we were treated to jazz renditions by three talented players who according to the lady that announced the proceedings have performed for everyone from Bob Geldof to the Queen. Our motley crew of tourists, OAP's, art students and those who had happily stumbled off the street were clearly no pressure then.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I live in this city, where at any given time there is an outlet buzzing with cultural activity. Indeed we are after all surveying what truly is the calm before the storm, for next month will host the biggest fringe festival in the world.

In the spirit of last night's free-writing exercise we decided to make the most of the opportunity to listen to some free jazz in the National Gallery of all places, by committing to paper and memory a small snap shot of that half hour outwith the daily grind. I do believe it is a far better way to honour the experience than some of the ruder spectators who saw fit to flout the 'no-photography' policy by snapping away during the performance. Consummate professions the musicians didn't let it phase them.

Same as yesterday, Dora's is first and mine is second.

'The trio walked into the gallery all suits and sharp black, seeming rather formal for the somewhat ad-hoc proceedings – a jumble of folding stools and wandering rucksack-tourists, but joining the audience in its almost domestic repose, they took their places with informal humility. They were not grand with the ethereal harp, trumpet of brilliant brass and veteran double bass, but everyday, relaxed. At first I did not remember to look up at the paintings to see what they were doing while the musicians played their jazz. When I did glance up at Mary amongst angels, the servant girl with her geese, the pastoral scene, the anonymous lordly gents, I found the paintings mocked the music, remained aloof, wryly concerning themselves with other things. And in turn the music mocked the paintings, making light of the dull oils, cracking gilt frames and frozen figures. Until that is the trio gave us ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’, and I’m sure something happened to the Crucifixion canvas high up on the wall – the tension in the picture leapt a little, muscles strained and the drama moved.' (Dora Petherbridge)

'The harpist tickles the strings with a lightness of touch, gifted by slim feminine hands. Standing her fellow player holds the bass like a woman he’s attempting to coax into a dance. A hand rests on the curvy waist of the instrument, mirroring a soft, yet firm femininity. A bald man plays the trumpet in defiant oblivion, blowing out the higher notes with an increasing vigour and reddening face. Jazz follows its own wild courtship, a union between player and instrument as the spectator watches on hot faced like they’ve just walked in on a pair of lovers. Although perhaps not here, where on the outer corner of the audience an old lady watches on, flannel hat clad head cocked to one side. Interspersed are the young, the old and the in-between, hands rest in laps, some close their eyes and rock to the tune, connecting the beat to an internal register. A sweetie is unwrapped and popped into a mouth. But if you’re watching and you're listening then your eyes will make their way back to the hands. The hands that convey a music of contrasts, the pinging of the strings and the masculine grip of the bass waist.'