And I was not nervous.
I was prepared.
Sober Thursday night, I’d slipped under He-Man duvet extra early. Alcohol, I’d resisted. TV – switched off. This was a new regime, ruled by steely dictator who would suffer no insurgency. I wouldn’t oversleep through tiredness. No. I didn’t desire the proper actors to think me lazy or ill-disciplined. I didn’t want to stand out like the new kid in class with flash haircut and sexy mum. No.
This, Reader, was my first bona fide professional production. I’d flirted with amateur fringe theatre (distinct from AmDram). I’d performed comedy in Edinburgh. But I’d never been on a paid contract to emote dramatically.
And, upon this slate-skied winter morning, I was very close to being on time. Although three red buses were missed and two grey trains delayed, I arrived at the Menier Chocolate Factory (trendy South London site of rehearsal space) at 0959 – with one whole minute spare. Time enough to be early (but no time to toilet).
In Reception, however, a pug-faced security guard spunked away ten golden minutes. He claimed that my Red Box Blue Company had no booking at the complex and refused persuasion. I swore. I shook my fist. It made no difference. He asked if I were ‘mental’. And I said I was.
Five frustrating minutes passed. And my loud protestations were ignored. I made a run for the stairs. The security guard caught me in granite arms, shouted of the Police, and ordered me to leave.
I cried (acting, of course). And it was only when tears were spilled, that the (stupid) man (finally) consulted a superior on his walky-talky.
“Turns out I was wrong,” he said, after consultation. “Soz.”
I was directed to the third floor. The security guard advised against walking the stairs. He said that five people had died tripping down them in the last four years.
The lift was massive and smelt of old dogs.
My rib-cage tensed as I pushed open the set of tall, white double doors from which hung the sign ‘Red Box Blue Company – Macbeth’. But, Reader, I was ready.
The rehearsal space that opened past the doors was, disappointingly, just a large room - about the size of three tennis courts. A chunky conference table, central, dominated the area. Not one acting soul sat at it, however. They were busy with the doughnuts.
The walls were dark wood; the floor much lighter. There were no windows. The ceiling was high and caused the scrum of actors (surrounding some coffee and doughnut-loaded trolleys at the far end) to appear far shorter than they truthfully were. Their scrummy backs were turned to me. Most wore hideously fashionable slacks. One type wore braces. Later, I was to discover that this was Macbeth. Such braces should have pricked fear. Learn, Reader: never trust a man who wears braces (unless he’s over 60 or works in 1980s Wall Street).
Framed by door, I didn’t prevaricate. Yet interestingly, I headed not for the doughnuts. I had spotted the director, you see, and like an (s)Exocet missile, I shot unerringly towards her. She stood at the edge of the doughnut crowd with a frown. Target reached, I didn’t explode and kill; rather, I smiled and extended my hand. This director-woman possessed Worzel Gummidge-hair. And teeth that God had inserted as an afterthought. As she’d auditioned me and offered the part of Malcolm, I decided to look past the bad face.
I was greeted with the mock enthusiasm you’d reserve for somebody whose name you’d forgotten. I reminded her that I was to play Malcolm, King Duncan’s son. The lines on her forehead grew deeper and she asked if I were sure. I told her that I was sure. Double sure, innit.
“I’ve got letters and that,” I told her. “You sent them me.”
She called some runner to fetch her notes, which she studied at length before shaking my hand and saying ‘of course you are’. She did not smile. She murmured ‘Kay Richardson’ into her chest. And frowned further.
“You’ve cut your hair. I didn’t recognise you,” she grumbled, like some divorcee meeting dodgy ex-husband.
Yes, I had shaved my shoulder-length locks to a much more manageable justgotintobed-look. A symbolic disassociation from a past of auditional failure, it was. There followed a slight conversation as to how I should have consulted her, the director, before such a radical change of haircut.
“You didn’t employ me because of my hair, though,” I said, smiling, and she didn’t reply, but looked away.
Somebody mentioned a wig and before I could utter any response, I was left alone with only a black coffee and raspberry jam-filled doughnut to keep me company (I didn’t remember picking either up).
The doughnut was soggy. The jam was bitter.
Seconds passed before a woman approached. I could tell she was fussy as she had tiny eyes. She alleged that she was assistant director and had massive breasts. This ‘assistant director’ suggested that I took a place at the table “as everybody else had done so and I was delaying the start of rehearsal”.
Any read-through, Reader, is dull. Even my past amateur shit would bore me faceless. This reading, however, was something special. It was fucking tedious. And I was yet to visit the lavatory, which made the whole process doubly painful. The director introduced everyone around the table (she needed a reminder of my name). And, instead of listening, I wondered whether I should ask to be excused to visit the toilet. I considered whether emptying (by drinking) one of the many mineral water bottles that stood upon the conference table and then pissing into it surreptitiously (under the table) was a workable plan to alleviate the growing sting of bladder.
I decided that it wasn’t. But I didn’t ask to be excused either.
Know well: I have an abnormally low boredom threshold. This is a genuine disability. One Summer, I applied for an orange disabled parking badge. I have no car and cannot drive, but these documents fetch a wedge on the black market. (SE London is itself a MASSIVE black market – I was once offered an Uzi in a library in Eltham).
Yeah, so they started reading the play and it was dull and they were all trying to outdo each other with their Scottish accents and words just fell into words and time just mistily drifted.
A sudden moment of clarity – I’m sitting upright, my (already) dog-eared script lies on the wooden table under my hands and there is no reading of Macbeth in the air. I stop thinking about a tennis-kit-wearing teenager I saw on the train. Mouths are open with expectation. Eyes, unblinking, stare. There is much silence.
Macbeth spoke first.
“We’re waiting,” he said.
Without a Scottish accent, his true voice was reedy and dripped with private school inflection. Its ability to annoy was matched only by the ridiculously ostentatious haircut that sat upon Macbeth’s round head. It reminded me of a Peacock. I wondered if he’d asked the director’s haircut permission. Macbeth possessed the bagged-eyes of an age-denying thirty-something that had been on some rubbish BBC2 soap until last month when it was cancelled due to falling audiences. I watched it once – lots of thirty-somethings playing twenty-somethings with nothing funny to say. It was deeply shit.
I imagine he lives in Hoxton. Or Clapham. A Hoxton-wannabe. Yeah. Tennis skirt.
It was this that I thought, as he continued:
“We’ve reached the second scene, friend.”
I made some excuse – I was waiting to find the correct voice. I assured the director that I had been concentrating. I mentioned to the group that I was disabled and found it hard to concentrate when bored. There were a few sniggers.
I cleared my throat, surveyed those myriad eyes that fell on me from all angles, and began:
“This is the sergeant who like a good and hardy soldier fought 'gainst my captivity,” I said and it was bloody brilliant.
I nodded and smiled at a watching witch. I was the shit.
The director asked if I intend to portray the Scottish Malcolm with an English accent. I told her that I did. She weakly smiled, lips parting to reveal vampiric canine teeth. My body involuntarily shuddered.
The read-through lasted from 1030 until 1400. A break fell upon us at 1200. I ate the last jam doughnut (some rings remained) and drank as many cups of coffee as time allowed (seven). I spoke with no-one until the busty assistant director hassled me again to my seat at 1405, this being the precise moment that I remembered my need for the toilet. The director’s inventive plan was to read over the script once more.
J’accuse: It was Macbeth whom caused this second reading to crawl at such a ridiculous pace. He stopped after almost every (of his) line, asking the director if the delivery had been appropriate. An arm delivery of fist to face would be appropriate, said my brain. The director was always sure to congratulate Macbeth upon his ‘fab’ reading.
At twenty past one, Macbeth broke the drama and threw his script upon table with theatrical flourish. He exclaimed:
‘it’s not enough!’
Something was lacking, he declaimed. Umms followed ahhs followed umms, until Macbeth decided that it was the Lady Macbeth at the root of his worriment. He realised that he needed to sit next to her. This would enable their dynamic to evolve, he banged on.
Now I (Kay Richardson) had somehow managed to grab the seat to the right of Lady Macbeth, undoubtedly the foxiest woman in the room (think English Rose). And on her divine left sat the immovable director.
Macbeth sprang to his feet and pointed.
“You, Malcolm, swap places!” he shouted and dashed around the table, expecting me to obey.
Shaky head. I refused to move.
I was happily positioned, as it was, close to the fair Lady Macbeth. I could smell her perfume and was planning to make future chit-chat.
You see, my position was also at the prize end of the table that offered proximity to coffee and doughnuts and toilet exit. And … I was (and still am) uncomfortable with sitting in a seat that is still warm from another man’s bottom-heat.
So I crossed my arms, shouted No! and shook my head some more.
Sweet Lady Macbeth asked me, in the most angelic manner, to (please) move. She even smiled. I countered her request by suggesting that the director should shift. The director announced that she was happy with her position; it was central and afforded her sight of the whole cast.
“But it’s a round table,” said I.
The director shrugged.
There followed a few awkward minutes. A number of voices failed to cajole me into swapping positions. I saw my stagnancy as a matter of principle, and I wanted to display to the whole group (at this early stage of production) that I was NO pushover.
Finally, one of the witches who had originally been sitting next to Macbeth offered to swap seats with Lady Macbeth, thus affording the Macbeths proximity. It was agreed and Macbeth grumpily returned to his original place.
In your face, I thought.
I said nothing, however.
Despite my victory, I was still pissed off. I’d lost Lady M and my new witchy neighbour was hideously annoying. She owned a triangular nose and her skin pulsed a definite green. She also mouthed others’ lines as they read. I elbowed her on three occasions to stop this.
I delivered the rest of my lines in as sulky a manner as manageable. Interestingly, I thought a moody Malcolm to be an innovative interpretation. The director, when she addressed the cast at the end of the reading, intimated that she did not concur.
And so my first day of professional acting ended. I said farewell to a few other cast members, and made doubly sure not to speak to Macbeth. I left him boring Lady M in a plastic chair.
I sat silent during the train journey home to Outer Blackheath. I wanted to tell the thirty hooded teenagers that ran up and down the aisle of my carriage from London Bridge to Lewisham to fuck off running about. I didn’t, though. I’m no hero. They probably carried blades. The youth do.