The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away

Plague-Time = Less Play Time + More Playtime

Edward’s Boys’ 2020 production

The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson

Planned Performance Schedule

  • 7.00pm Friday 20th March – Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • 7.00pm Saturday 21st March – Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • 7.00pm Monday 23rd March – Durham Cathedral, Durham
  • 2.00pm Tuesday 24th March – King’s Hall, University of Newcastle (Workshop performance)
  • 7.00pm Wednesday 25th March – Riddle’s Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh
  • 7.00pm Thursday 26th March – Workshop Theatre, University of Leeds
  • 6.30pm Sunday 19th April – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Well, sir gallant, were you struck with the plague this minute, or condemned to any capital punishment tomorrow, you would begin then to think and value every article o’your time, esteem it at the true rate, and give all for’t.

The Silent Woman, Act I, Scene i

It should come as no surprise that Jonson understood only too well what it meant when plague struck.

We were asked by Dr Andy Kesson (Roehampton) for our responses – “practical, creative and emotional” – to the cancellation of our production of The Silent Woman in March 2020. So here goes.

Well, for a start, the timing was truly terrible! Threat developed only gradually into rumour… And then so sudden! A massive shift in a very short space of time – so abrupt! The situation became clear to me with perhaps seven days to go before opening night. Inevitably, this added to our frustration. So near yet… At this point, it seems timely to mention that it was Friday 13th.

In retrospect, we pre-empted the national decisions. (Has anyone else noted that where Edward’s Boys lead, the world of theatre, particularly the RSC, follows?) Within days of our making the decision everything was put into perspective. Anxiety and fear had taken over.  Many people are dying in our country. And no one seems to have any idea when and how it will end.

At the time, my chief concern was how to bring about the decision(s) amongst/within/with the agreement of the whole company. There had to be a sense of collegiality. Should we still tour? Carry on regardless? Just do the home (K.E.S.) performance(s)? Could we film what we had ready?

In the end it took two meetings either side of a full run-through. 

Our first discussion, which took place in the morning, was exemplary, extraordinarily so given the circumstances. Everyone was thoughtful and measured, even after I announced that the tour was going to be pulled. I began by taking them through the twisting and turning process of my own thoughts during the previous few hours. And then I asked for their thoughts. Everyone was mature, intelligent, frank, sensitive, thoughtful – and good-humoured – throughout. However, it gradually became clear that there were different opinions about what we should do with regards to some sort of performance at school. At one point the discussion was in danger of becoming divisive, factional, recriminatory. I headed that off and warned them of the dangers of adopting such entrenched attitudes and where that might lead. Our meeting finished in good spirits, but no firm decision had been taken. I sent them away to mull it over, and to contact their parents to glean their views. 

We re-gathered at 4pm in order to continue with the planned full run-through after school. There was a clear sense of anticipation. The backdrop was in position for the first time, having that morning arrived from the printers; the Tech Team asked if they could focus a few lights; the band joined us in the hall, albeit a little under-rehearsed; many of the cast elected to wear costume, especially those playing female roles. Then we ran it, with a ten-minute interval which we padded out with a few notes.

Inevitably, there were occasional slips, the odd prompt necessary – we were a week away from opening night, and we hadn’t had a proper rehearsal for five days – but there was much to encourage, a tremendous sense of company and lots of laughter.

And yet…

It was clear to me that most if not all of the company had realised how hard it is to mask disappointment, to pretend that nothing significant has happened. Final production week is very exciting and enjoyable, but it is also exhausting, requires great sacrifices and complete focus. It is perfectly possible to accept that, indeed embrace that, when the reward includes large, appreciative audiences, a tour to extraordinary places, and the overwhelming adrenaline rush forced by collaborating within a tight-knit company working to the same end. It is much, much more difficult in other circumstances. 

I gave them the opportunity to review their feelings frankly after the run-through for perhaps 30 minutes, after which time we packed up and left. And then I made the decision. By that time it must have been obvious to most, if not perhaps quite to all.

Dear All,

It is with the greatest regret that I inform you of my decision not to continue to rehearse our production of The Silent Woman. Consequently, we will not perform the show for a film camera, even behind closed doors.

I have not made this decision lightly, but I hope you appreciate the reasons I have taken it. I am deeply sorry for the severe disappointment this has caused you. You can perhaps imagine how I feel.

Please can you pass the attached letter to your parents as soon as possible?

We must gather and return props and costumes as early as possible next week.

It has been a pleasure to work with you. I trust that in spite of our present mood everyone will look back on The Silent Woman with some measure of affection and pride. The general sense from those of us who know about these things is that it would have been a “perfectly adequate” show. I suggest that this is the time to tell everyone who will listen that it would have been “the best one ever”.

Especially Jack.

Onwards and upwards!

Thank you.

Cheers,

Perry

Immediately, of course I had lots of stuff to do. I threw myself into distracting activity – The Joy of Admin: lists/emails/letters/texts/twitter/website. Informing – in addition to the company and their parents, there was the wider school community, universities and other sponsors, hosts and performance venues. Cancelling – venues, accommodation, restaurants, wigs, costumes and props. And then there was starting the process of negotiating finances – how were we going to avoid heavy losses? We are a state school. Edward’s Boys survives mainly on ticket sales, with the occasional welcome support from a parents’group (faux pas: FOPA – Friends Of the Performing Arts – geddit?) and academic projects. Would this decision to cancel put us out of business?

And there was the Overwhelming and Massive DISAPPOINTMENT! Different kinds of disappointment for different members of the company. Loss of performing. Loss of touring to such wonderful cities and venues. Loss of a profound sense of achievement. All those months of work… for “nothing”… And for some of the boys it was their last one! And for some it was their first one! And for some this was their first one and last chance because they were leaving school this year – indeed, as it turned out, the next day!

However, the changing situation across the country swiftly put everything in perspective. Precisely one week later all schools were closed! But we were lucky since we were able to remain in contact and support each other that evening, over the weekend, the next week. We went back to our families who offered further support. At least we were able to receive regular news updates providing the latest scientific advice about how to keep safe and what to do if we felt unwell. Even though there was a strong suspicion that some of this seemingly contradictory news may not have been the whole truth…

How much worse if you were immediately isolated and lonely! More rumour, and no doubt a greater sense of threat.

Does any of this offer ‘glimpses’ into what it was like in early seventeenth century London when the theatres were closed on account of plague, either in comparison or contrast? Since we are never concerned with theatrical archaeology, that is for others to consider.

For us, the sense of a wider support network was evidenced by the deluge of messages in the form of texts, emails, twitter (and all those other forms of social media about which I am happily ignorant). Many people inevitably asked the question, “Can you revive it later on?” But the production had become about this group of people at this time. Time is all-important when you’re working in Edward’s Boys. Boys move on – even if they don’t grow up. A year is a long time in a boys’ company, as someone never said. No one could countenance the thought of reviving the production in the future after partial re-casting. “That would be flogging a really dead horse!” There had been a strong sense by the end of Friday 13th that “we do it properly or not at all” from pretty much everyone. There was no desire to produce a film of a shoddy, half-baked performance. This reflects a great sense of ownership, pride in what they do, but also a profound awareness of the responsibility they owe to each other

Then there was Dr Jose Perez Diez (University of Leeds)! Jose wasn’t the only person to suggest donations, but he was the one who generously set up a JustGiving website on behalf of Edward’s Boys. Here was evidence of even more support and generosity, but this time it was in the form of money!

On Saturday 14th I went out for a walk in the Cotswolds with Mary, my wife, and mid-ramble I had the idea of making an audio recording of a few extracts. So the following day I posed another question:

Dear All,

I hope you’re enjoying yourselves and not frittering your time away.

I have been thinking.

We all know it was the correct decision NOT to attempt to film a ‘pretend’ performance. However, it comes as no surprise that many are wondering/asking/demanding a film. It strikes me that what would be feasible and would provide some sort of record for posterity would be an audio recording of some scenes.

We know we were performing a ‘radio play’ version back at the end of January, before we began the frantic blocking process. In my opinion, you are able to do that version now – and better, practically without rehearsal. As well as providing a record of sorts, it would also be a delicious suggestion of what might have been…

There’s an old showbiz adage: “Leave ‘em wanting more!”

What do you think?

I’d only want to do it if there were general agreement. I contact you because most scenes selected would require you, but others might be involved. 

My feeling would be that we need to get it done very soon, over the next few days, for several different reasons.

Onward and upward! Sideways and round the back!

Cheers,

Perry

There was indeed general agreement. One senior member of the company suggested trying to do it as a documentary. So on Thursday 19th – one day before UK schools closed – we went into the Drama Studio. The initial motive was to offer a suggestion of “what might have been”. At the end of the recording those present also took part in a ‘Question and Answer’ session. The questions had been posed by Professor James Loxley (Edinburgh), Dr Tom Harrison (Edinburgh/Newcastle) and Dr Harry McCarthy (Exeter) who had taken a great interest in this production throughout. A few hours before recording took place, we received that additional question from Dr Andy Kesson (Roehampton) about how it felt to be the first boys’ company in 400 years to be prevented from performing an early modern play on account of the plague. It was added to the list. 

At the time it was really sad. “Bitter, heart-crushing sadness!” “There are no words to describe what we do.” “Tragic.” It was exacerbated by the fact that everything was being brought to a halt – even school! “So many things no longer happening all at one time!”

However, there was a clear awareness that there were many positives too: 

“We may not have got to perform but we’re still a company.” “I’ll never lose those memories.” “Remember what we’ve gained through the whole process of rehearsals.” “We’ve still built that company and had we’ve had so much fun.”

The whole event was conducted in our usual manner: unremitting, bitter, sarcastic wit. And a great deal of love. And Rhys popped out to get the biscuits.

Unexpectedly the conversation had turned into a means of saying goodbye, group therapy, what Aristotle might have termed catharsis.

So we got the chance to say goodbye to the show. Again, we were privileged.

The few days following the cancellation were similar to what follows a bereavement – the five stages of grief were certainly experienced: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, eventually, acceptance. Certainly, little thought was given to the future. Even now as I write six weeks later we are not at all certain that the company will continue. How long will the break be? The disruption to the ‘rhythm’ of work may be too great. As an example, within a few days our next planned production (a revival of the 2019 Wit and Science for the International Shakespeare Conference 2020) was cancelled.

At that stage, in the ‘white heat of painful disappointment’, it was largely personal heartache. It was all about ME (as well as ‘us’ of course). But selfishness inevitably had its role to play. “No one understands the personal loss I have suffered!” They are adolescents, after all.

However, the situation now was developing very fast indeed. The government decided the time was right to move on from ‘containment’. The data revealed the increase in the numbers of those infected and those dying day after day. Social distancing and self-isolation and their implications became the daily experience for us all. Inevitably, we began to appreciate the true context of our disappointment:

“Given the increasing gravity of what is actually going on with the virus, the initial wallowing in self-pity over not getting to do something I wanted to do has faded.” “When I think about the cancellation of the play, it feels ludicrous that we even considered a final performance, what with the seriousness of the current situation.” “Yet, in retrospect, as the weeks passed and the scale of the Coronavirus crisis sunk in, I feel we were lucky in getting an audio version of some extracts recorded – the best outcome we could’ve got in such terrible times. Indeed, the fact that we never performed or went on tour underlined to me the most important reason why I do these plays. I do it for the process: the joy of feeling part of something special; the joy of sitting round a table with a couple of mates and having a right laugh; and the sheer joy of creating something unique and brilliant.”

And yet… 

To focus on the loss was still oddly comforting, in the unfolding circumstances. Sure, there was a little comfort to be taken in cosseting our grief in a way that might be seen as self-indulgence, but there was something else too. 

So often I have read and heard (and thought) the phrase, “It’s just a play!” And of course it is. We are all of us currently sharing a point in time where people are dying, where the threat is growing and where no one can offer an answer to the questions we all want to pose. How long? How many? How can we protect ourselves, and those we care about? What will the world be like when all of this stops?

Even a bunch of adolescent actors (and their director) had to stop thinking about ourselves; we were forced to think of others.

And yet…

You can’t think about death all the time; nor should you.

“It’s just a play!” Yes, of course it is, and that’s the very point. To play. To provide – and to be provided with – a distraction, a divertissement. To entertain and to be entertained. To tell and to listen to stories. Taking us out of ourselves for a short time. At this very moment, I am more aware than ever of the importance of play. A play. The play. To play. A shared, a communal act. Going to the theatre in company with others. Or a concert. And sport. (Oh, even to listen to a lower division football match on the radio where the outcome is of no significance whatsoever!)

Perhaps one consequence of this terrible period is that we have been given an opportunity to recognise the true worth of a theatre company putting a play together for performance before an audience; what the point is of playing with Edward’s Boys. Over a very brief span of time we have been forced to recognise the real value of what we do. And to cherish it.

Onwards and upwards! 

Well, sir gallant, were you struck with the plague this minute, or condemned to any capital punishment tomorrow, you would begin then to think and value every article o’your time, esteem it at the true rate, and give all for’t.

Perry Mills