A THOUSAND MILES OF HISTORY
by Harold Finlay.
Bussey Building 133 Rye Lane SE15 4ST To 30 March 2013.
by Timothy Ramsden
Showing the show no longer has to go on.
He’s not mentioned in the list of characters, but Andy Warhol apparently plays a part in the action of Harold Finlay’s play. And, in response to Warhol’s notorious 15 minute of fame’ idea, here’s what happened in 15 minute last Saturday afternoon.
The performance was due to start at 3.30pm. Around 3.42pm the audience was finally summoned to ascend two flights of stairs from the Bussey Building bar to the auditorium. The lights snapped off. Some other lights snapped on as author/director Harold Finlay appeared on stage in very apologetic manner to announce the performance had been cancelled. This was apparently owing to health and safety considerations. The roof wasn’t falling in, the floorboards weren’t threatening to give way. There wasn’t even a leak of noxious fumes. Instead, it was cold.
As I believe the Bussey Building frequently can be. And most audience members were still in coats and jackets. The wings were very cold apparently. Some actors wore skimpy clothing on stage.
Disappointed audience members offered suggestions. Could the actors wear coats and give a reading suggested one (who it seems had tried to see the show the previous Saturday, only to be rung up and told it had been cancelled then). The apologetic Finlay, whose idea the cancellation clearly wasn’t, had it suggested that those who had made the decision might come and explain themselves. He went and asked them, returning with the argument they’d doubtless boldly advanced in their place of concealment that it was his job as he represented them to the public. Apparently.
So, eventually, like the grand old Duke of York’s men, having trooped to the top of the stairs, we trooped back down again. Whatever internal arguments had been going on, it leaves the question why people couldn’t have been told earlier, wasting less time, and downstairs rather than climbing up – though the journey at least exemplified the adage that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
How long the heating problem had persisted I don’t know. And it is miserable to work in cold conditions, perhaps especially when it happens over a period and you know it’s going to be as cold today as it was yesterday. Yet, if this was the case, it was strange Finlay should suggest the evening performance might go ahead – it’d take more than one engineer and a spanner to sort out those premises.
And this year’s unexpectedly cold, the unexpectedly severe late March weather making matters worse. But there’s another side.
I don’t know how many, or which, members of the company were involved in refusing to perform. But I think of some actors who weren’t involved. Like Emily Winter. She was in Dundee Rep’s Dancing at Lughnasa several years ago. There’s a scene where the play’s five sisters break into spontaneous dance. Except at Dundee, where it was four sisters. Winter sat it out. Apparently she was unwell but had decided to perform, missing only the physical exertion of the dance episode, so the show could go on.
Helen Woolf wasn’t there. Woolf played Beauty in Mike Kenny’s four-character Beauty and the Beast at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield last December. There was movement and singing. The night before she’d been well on the way to losing her voice. Director Matt Aston came up from London specially, hiring a potential replacement to take over after watching the show, saying he would have cross-dressed the part if need be to save the performance. In fact, Woolf went ahead and performed. Aston said that anyone who’d seen her before the virus struck could have told it impacted on her singing, but in its own terms her performance didn’t seem at all compromised.
Or Catherine Thornborrow, who in her early years fell ill while working with a Theatre in Education company I saw rehearsing. Come lunchtime, they left for the pub; except Thornborrow who took some medicine, lay down on a rug by a radiator and spent an hour doing what most people in her state would have done all day. Then, when the rest returned, she was up and fully involved in rehearsing through the afternoon.
There’s a word for what these three people were doing, and the word is professional. They were taking seriously the actor’s responsibility to perform and be prepared to perform to an audience. Actors have hobbled on damaged ankles or rearranged performances to be given from a wheelchair to keep the show on the road.
Elsewhere, as was pointed out, actors have performed despite danger to their lives or liberty. Those locked out of a theatre have taken to the open air. Belarus Free Theatre someone called out. That company, under severe political threat, have held bucket collections when performing in London to fund their performances back home. Next time they’re here, perhaps they could raise funds to buy cough mixture and thermal underwear for the Bussey non-performers.
More practically, given the amount of money the Thousand Years company will potentially have to refund, it might have been simpler to have gone out and spent the cash on a couple of fan-heaters for the wings. That way, the show could have gone on and theatre’s best traditions been upheld.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Michael Walters.
Keith Haring: Simon Ginty.
Gerard Basquiat: Joseph Mydell.
Mary Boone: Lisa Caruccio Came.
Juan Dubose: Miles Mitchell.
Mr Universe: James Kermack.
Fab 5 Freddy/Shenge: Emmanuel Imani.
Director: Harold Finlay.
Designer: Mike Lees.
Lighting: Anna Sbokou.
Sound: Jamie Flockton.
Projection/Film: Tommy Lexen.
Movement: Alice Jordan.