I have a scar on the back of my hand. It’s about 2cm long and I’m not entirely sure it’s fully healed. It’s a frequent reminder of that piercingly cold day we spent at Somerville College, Oxford in March 2010.
During the afternoon’s fraught rehearsal, I sprinted from the chapel’s main entrance to the back door, stepping ever so carefully past the blessed snowdrops but slipping comically on the steps, which I had been told a number of times were hazardous and slippery. I didn’t make my entrance, but to be fair it was always going to be tight. So as I danced around in pain (perilously close to the snowdrops) I could hear someone screaming “Harry! Harry! Where’s Harry?”
There was a lot shouting that afternoon and there were a lot of things that didn’t go to plan. I could feel the tension mounting and as boys competed to be the most angry with each other, I nursed my wound with a coarse paper towel. I remember trying very hard to keep smiling, partly because inside I was tearing myself up with fear, but mainly because nobody else was. We were in trouble, and for a moment a destructive atmosphere had descended upon us all.
And that’s when I was sick. And that’s when you walked off, I recall.
But in the two hours before we went on, we pulled ourselves together. In the tightly packed room of shivering bodies we went through, in whispers, virtually in silence, which entrance our props had to come on from:
“Promoters basket – one or two?”
“Crucifix – one or two?”
And it went on like this with a hypnotic effect. It was either “One” or “Two” because that was all we had. We did it though, we got the job done – a relatively simple task but it brought us together and made us focus on what needed to be achieved. But in truth, none of us knew what was going to happen. The stakes had been raised, we were about to perform in a radically different space from that we were used to, and we had to alter our performance there and then, on our feet. And in front of an expert and expectant audience. And it was freezing.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget our performance in Oxford, and I hope I never forget the things I learnt there. We were forced to learn and to learn on the job. It forced us to take risks, to use and to respond to space. The intimacy of the chapel forced us to communicate with our audience on a new level. It was a connection like no other and unusually I felt free. I felt at liberty to play, to lose myself in the action rather than worry about the words.
It didn’t last long. By the time I got to my final scene it had gone, as far as I was concerned, but something else had happened off-stage. Regardless of age (first year of secondary school or first year of university) we were wholly working together effectively and communicating with both sensitivity and practicality. We knew what needed to be done. Younger boys foresaw doors that needed to be held open and props that had to be delivered, whilst us older ones offered encouragement and things like, “Let’s keep it up.” And maybe that’s what mattered most about our performance there. We achieved something many professional companies fail to get anywhere near, typically hindered by insecurity, ego and let’s face it, sex. Surely at a time when there’s so much fuss about the ‘ensemble,’ that evening we displayed the true power and meaning of the word.
These plays have given us an opportunity to affect, provoke and move an audience and that’s a great privilege – and great fun – but our work together has made me more enthusiastic about rehearsing a play rather than that rush of emotion a performer is supposed to feel as they take their bow. Our rehearsals proved the most stimulating and exciting educational experience I can remember from my time at school. And now, a few years down the line and nowhere near a play, I can feel that and appreciate how important rehearsals were. Good rehearsals are an opportunity for shared discovery, thinking together in a way that we just don’t do when reading alone. Ours were intellectual without being pompous and competitive; they involved sensitivity, empathy and a sense of humour. I miss this.