Some months ago, I had finally caught up with the success of the show and had thought it would be good to get to see it sometime. It was, as I expected, an extremely well drilled, physical play, which makes it sound a bit stern, when in fact it is a hilarious farce. Those words ‘hilarious farce’ are the kind of trope repeatedly attached to any comedy that’s successful in the West End and Broadway. In this case, the words could have been new minted.
The premise, of an amateur play, a murder mystery (put on by the so called, Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society) which rapidly descends into an unintended farce, is not original (and immediately made me think of ‘The Art of Coarse Acting’ by Michael Green) but its strength lies in the execution of the physical action (including a very dynamic set, which is really a character itself) and the snappy, joyful humour of the script.
I enjoy farce but I haven’t been to see one in sometime and I’m not much in the habit (I admit rather shamefacedly being an actor myself) of going to the theatre. The reason I was sitting in the audience was not because of the excellent press the play has received but because I know the director, Mark Bell. I haven’t spoken to Mark for probably a couple of decades. I think I last saw him on stage, as an actor, with a company called Hoi Polloi maybe ten years ago and I haven’t kept up with his career much since.
I knew he had an good career, as an actor and director, always making good work and drawing strongly on his own training (at the very prestigious École Internationale de Theâtre, Jacques Lecoq), and that he himself had also taught, at the well know acting school, LAMDA. His was a successful career, full, I’m sure, of half a lifetime’s pleasure, hardwork and satisfaction at work well done in the world of theatre. But ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ and his association with Mischief Theatre has been, as he himself says ‘a life changer’ catapulting him into what could seem like another career.
Of course it isn’t, it’s the same career, the same job, the same art, that he’s been working on, and making stronger, for decades. This ‘overnight success’ is, like so many similar stories, based on years of hard graft and dedication. The best thing that such success brings, I imagine, is a sense of validation of one’s efforts. Naturally, throughout his career, because he’s excellent at what he does, Mark has received compliments from colleagues in the trade and from audience members. That is good and helps and validates one’s work. But nonetheless, it’s good for your friends (if nothing else) to see someone they know, being given praise and awards and kudos for their excellence.
I said above that ‘I haven’t spoken to Mark for probably a couple of decades’, that was, up until last night. So, when I bumped into him (and his AD Sean Turner) in the foyer, during the interval, I was especially pleased. The show has been around since 2014, has had half a dozen casts, at least, and is on not its first tour, so I really hadn’t expected him to be there. What was also nice was that, although I hadn’t seen him in a long time, he hadn’t changed all that much. He was perhaps a little gentler than I recall, as last time I saw him in a rehearsal room, he was probably shouting at me, in his Geordie accent, saying ‘That was shite, do it again!’ But apart from that, he was, if anything quite gracious, certainly friendly, to someone who was an acquaintance from many years ago.
I asked him a few questions, about his life and the show and the future but I really wished my good friend Caz Tricks was there, who knew Mark better than I back in the day. She is much more forthright and quicker witted than I and I would have enjoyed seeing her give old Biffa a hug and ask him properly how the hell he was. She, like I, probably even feels a bit of pride in Mark’s achievements. Which isn’t really warranted and perhaps pride is the wrong word but it is great just to see an old friend doing well for himself. I was asked recently if I felt jealous of Mark’s success and I have to say there are plenty of people that are doing as well as he is, if I wanted to indulge in feeling jealous (which is truly one of the stupidest emotions) I could just be jealous of them. As for Mark, I wish him continued, on-going and greater success.
He told me he was working on other plays and interesting projects which I’d expected. Well good luck to him. (Given Mark’s success, I was going to call this blog ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ but in the end decided that sounded too much like Mark was about to cop it, which was not my intention at all!)
It’s funny how projects can snowball and become bigger than planned. In fact, that’s one of the delights in the acting world. Success, on whatever level, often means you go further than expected, push your own limits and improve you craft and sometimes your life. In a related, tangential way, I was thinking the other day about nepotism in acting, and in the Arts in general, and concluded that, in fact, it’s very difficult and possibly counter-productive (in the same way that Soviet Art was counter-productive and in the end vacuous), to try and get rid of it. The reason being, that nepotism in the theatre world, is one way of insuring you work with people you work well with (often mates, friends or good work colleagues, at a minimum), people who read each other well and know how the other person operates. Time is not wasted, the machine turns over immediately.
Filmmakers especially, again and again, work with the same team. Sometimes this includes actors, sometimes not, but almost always a director or producer will choose to work with the same technical team behind the camera. There is room for ‘new blood’ and sometimes that’s vital but as illiberal as it sounds I think a bit of a dictatorial or nepotistic attitude in the arts is necessary. Just as the world would benefit from a benign dictator, so does a play! I don’t make this point overly seriously but human co-operation is vital to the art of acting, in both play and filmmaking, and that co-operation, counter-intuitively, often has to be co-opted and controlled by a good director.
When I was younger I used to think, the actor did all the work and a director, more or less, looked after the set and directed traffic. Now, I much more relate to Hitchcock’s statement that actors are cattle! The more experience you gain as an actor, the greater the respect you gain for directors, and the more you realise, that in theatre as much as in film, you need an auteur, an author with a single vision of what works and what doesn’t. The actor serves the story and the director, if they don’t, they may be impressive and smash a bit of china, like the proverbial bull, but their work will be bullshit in the end, it will stink of undigested ego-glory.