Acting is, let’s be honest about it, something of an ego massage. A massage in the form of clapping and whooping and hugs from people you fancy and wise handshakes from people you wish would adopt you. It’s an activity based on being looked at and listened to by a crowd of people. If you’re good at it, lots of people want to look and listen to you, and it will be a large crowd. If you’re really good, they’ll want to do this for an extended period of time. They may even be willing to forgo common first world luxuries such as long, open-mouthed yawns of boredom and inconspicuous genital scratching. The best actors can render a very large crowd silent with awe and provoke most unusual behaviour: phones are switched off to prevent the distraction they are intended to provide; eating is done quietly or not at all; whispering will result in frowning and negative telepathic waves from nearby crowd members; and a laissez-faire policy on toilet breaks is repealed in favour of fascistic bladder discipline. Why? All to create an atmosphere more conducive to watching and listening to a bunch of actors prancing and yelling like their lives depend on it.
It’s nearly the Easter Vacation. I, like all the other actors in Two Gentlemen of Verona, are going through the usual process of poking around with the script, working out why on Earth we’re saying and doing the things that our scripts tell us to say and do. Kate O’Connor is going through the usual motions of a director, caressing everything into the right shape and right consistency, like a potter sketching out the first curves of a new pot. So far, it’s like any other play. It’s Shakespeare so we feel grand and impressive; as though if we say anything with enough conviction it’s bound to make an impression on the audience, who, in their jaw-dropped state of amazement at our fabulous diction and dextrous facial expressions will no doubt be mesmerised by such an inspiring, perhaps even intimidating abundance of talent.
Except this isn’t just like any other play. And if they’re silent something has gone wrong. If they don’t involuntarily wolf-whistle at Amelia Sparling’s Silvia then something is wrong. If they don’t cringe in agony at Ed Seabright’s Proteus then something is wrong. If they don’t palm their foreheads with embarrassment whenever Tim Gibson’s Valentine opens his mouth, snort with laughter every time Stephen Hyde’s Launce steps on stage and audibly roll their eyes every time Speed makes a horrific pun, then something is wrong. No: this will be a proper garden play. And that means the sun will shine (it will), the wind will be light but noticeable, and the grass will be bouncy and comfy for you to roll out your table cloths and unfurl your meticulously packed picnic sets and sip your Pimm’s and scoff your scones. So please, please do whisper to your friends; do laugh and point and spit your drink out in surprise. No it isn’t a pantomime, but it isn’t in a stuffy theatre somewhere either. You aren’t going along with that bizarre game that we all play every time we decide to top up on some culture and become ‘theatre-goers’.
You see, we will be having fun. We’ll be singing Sinatra and skipping around and cycling across stage and climbing trees and then jumping out of them. In fact, take this as a challenge: if you can have more fun than us then I’ll buy you drinks.* We’ll be having fun not just because we’re actors who love strutting about on stage (love that though we do), but because we’ll be playing around with a hilarious script, with a group of hilarious colleagues on a beautiful summer’s day in one of the most beautiful gardens in the country, if not the world.
I guarantee that I’ll be in good company. Hopefully, you too will be with friends who want something nice to do in the sun. Well, Two Gentlemen of Verona will be jolly, jolly nice.
*I probably won’t buy you drinks, but I will make you tea or give you a high-five.
Barney Iley-Williamson is playing ‘Speed’ in Barbarian Productions’ The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to be performed May 1st-5th in Christ Church Cathedral Gardens. Tune in next term for perspectives on memorising lines, finding props, bonding with toy dogs, and the run-up to opening night. For more information about Two Gents visit their website, www.barbarian-productions.com, or follow them on twitter @twogentsox.