History ensemble member Nick Asbury on standing ovations, hugs and goodbyes...
Listen. Time passes. Listen.
It's three days after our final show - a final Octology which lasted from Thursday night with Richard II, through Henry IV Part I & II and Henry V on Friday; Henry VI Parts I,II & III on Saturday; and a final Richard III on Sunday. And I have yet to be peeled off the ceiling.
In about two weeks time, when I realise that we're not on holiday and the absence of a pay cheque is not an administrative error, I'm sure I will have to be peeled gently off the floor, but for now I'm content to sit back and revel in the standing ovation that we had for a good seven or eight minutes on Sunday, the delight and warmth in the bar afterwards, the goodbyes and hugs, the wonderful party at Sir Christopher Bland's (the Chairman of the RSC) on Monday. It's strange, but talking to people, I think what we all felt was going to be the high emotional point - namely, the curtain call on the final show - became relatively numbed. I certainly felt a little self-shielding at what was happening. Almost as if it was too much. It will take weeks, months fully to be able to appreciate, enjoy and let go of this experience. But we can finally, I suppose, start thinking of a job well done. The past as well as the future. (And, until the money runs out, the present.) Maybe, just maybe, we can start to feel a little warm glow of achievement. And a thrill of excitement for what's to come.
I started working for the RSC in November 1999. On April 23 2000 (Shakespeare's 384th Birthday), my father died. A week before he died I had to go back down to the Barbican and perform (and play piano) in The Seagull. The last thing I ever said to him as I kissed his forehead and left the room where he lay was, "You know, I think of you every time I go on stage." He laughed a little laugh and then said, "Oh, I think of you every time you go on stage. Now go on. Go." And I left and never saw him again. A week after his funeral, I met Michael Boyd for the first time when he auditioned me to play Somerset in the first ever staging of his Henry VI trilogy. I must've been pretty wild eyed, but I suppose that's fairly good for the Duke of Somerset...
Now, I grew up in Herefordshire, an hour or so away from Stratford, and my father used to take us as children to visit and see the shows. I would revel in the theatrical images whilst my father would fill me in on what was going on. I remember my 10 year old eyes widening at the picture of Richard Burton in its rightful place at the head of the bar in The Dirty Duck, having heard his lilting Welshness, a heritage of which my father was so proud, on a tape of Under Milk Wood. The words. The sounds. The words. And I made my first resolve to be here. To live that life. Now, my father did indeed rage, rage against the dying of the light and as he passed away, so the RSC and Stratford and all it represents have almost become a 'cradle' for me too. And as his dying and my grief have pushed me on, so I have been working for the last two and half years on these plays written by a man who not only mourned the death of his father, but who in the later plays was mourning the death of his son. So much about fathers and sons - what they mean to each other and how their death can affect the other. Inspiration, re-creation, wailing, affirmation, aching loss, completion. With this job I have been able to begin, perhaps, to understand it all.
This, of course, is just me. There is so much of everybody else that I have been privileged to share. I cannot even possibly begin to list here the things which stand out in this extraordinary, amazing job. I can't, indeed, 'begin at the beginning'. The friendships, the work, the more work, the joy, the life, the sadness, the arguments, the making ups, the love. The quality of the work. The collective drive and desire to do better. To do that extra run through of the scene late at night even though you could just go home or down the pub. The joy of sitting backstage and hearing the shows sing out and develop. The rush of putting on first one play, then two, then three and so on until eventually we had eight in our heads and up and running. We used to say, in the height of summer during the Complete Works Festival 2006, when we were putting on three shows and working 13 hour days, 'Blimey, what's it going to be like when we do all eight?!' Well, now we know and it was unlike any other show we will ever do again. There really will be nothing like it. We played. At times, I was that wide eyed innocent 10 year old boy at play again. And I cannot believe that it's over.
The truth is, of course, it never will be. Not in the minds of the many cast, crew and creative team; and those who saw and loved it. I DID think of my old man every time I was about to do my first entrance of each play. And I could feel him thinking of me. Through me or not, he was there. During this job I have finally been able to walk free from the shadow of his untimely death. I was safe within the bosom of a great group of people and from within that could let go. Perform. Live. A couple of weeks ago, staying in the flat (overlooking the Roundhouse) where I lived for three years from 1999 to 2002 I wrote down on a scrap bit of paper: 'Living in a flat where I lived when Dad died; working (on a show I first started a week after he died) in a ROUNDhouse; things have come full circle. TIME to move on!' But if the death of my father and these shows (by that I mean the experience AND Shakespeare) have shown me anything, it is that one life, one moment in time, be it theatrical or not, or however ephemeral, can last forever. As long as we remember. Then, we can let it go. And THAT is history. In these History Plays we have found history and play. And I hope that is our future too.
"Listen. Time passes. Listen". As Dylan Thomas wrote in Under Milk Wood. And as Shakespeare wrote: "Small time, but in that small, most greatly lived" this wonderful, wonderfilled 'job'.
Respond to Nick's blog
Responses to Nick's blog
Such a beautiful read, Nick - and eerie too, that you've come to the same conclusion about the Histories cycle that myself and a fellow addict from your wide-eyed audience arrived at when we caught up for a debrief about the experience over the weekend. We'd both long, long been dreading the end and I thought I'd be a wreck at that final curtain call last Sunday. In fact, the hugeness of the moment seemed not quite to hit - it was thrilling and I did get teary-eyed, but it was not the full-on punch of loss that I'd been steeling myself for, and dreading. For a couple of days I thought "Oh, I'm just in denial - it'll hit soon". But it hasn't and that I believe is because something this loved does not end, and my subconscious must have realised this. The fellow addict has had the same feeling all week. As you say (and you put it so perfectly) one moment in time can last forever, as long as we remember. And so this glorious moment will always be with us. A good lesson for life.
Great good luck with whatever you do next - there are a lot of us eager to go and see whatever anyone in the whole Histories company does in the future. Just to top up those precious memories, and to create new ones.
Thank you for producing these last three blog entries - I couldn't believe you would leave us waiting for an ending and not produce one. Ending well is the first step in grieving for something and grieve you all will, for the ensemble, the mission, the plays.
I shared in the moment with just 12 of your performances, but find that I mourn the passing of them, never to be repeated, never re-experienced. Perhaps as you say, they continue if we remember them and I do regularly. I re-read the plays and look at programmes and remember an idyllic lunch on the Roundhouse Terrace in the sun, watching you all laughing. I enjoyed seeing that interaction as much as that of your characters on stage.
I'm very interested in what becomes of you all now - you, Lex, Geoffrey S. I see that Patrice is touring as Othello next year - wow! Well done him - I'm already working out which will be nearer Liverpool or Oxford! How can you let us know what happens next? Can you reply to these posts?
A final well done and good luck in your future ventures. It is impossible to put into words the joy you have conveyed in these performances. For some of your audience, sharing this magic was life changing.
I saw all the Henrys with my family one week in February. We had planned the trip from Canada for months, just to see these plays. We were all so blown away by them, we still talk about them, all the time. I couldn't put them out of my mind, and starting looking for tickets to May performances in London. It was just a fantasy; they were all sold out.
Wednesday before the last eight performances, tickets to 5 plays showed up on the Roundhouse web site. I sat stunned, unable to push the buttons to buy them, and they timed out. I quickly looked to see if I could get an Air Canada ticket for that afternoon. I could. I went back to the Roundhouse, and bought the tickets. Three hours later I was on a plane from Victoria B.C., for the greatest experience of my theatre-going life. I arrived at Heathrow, and called the theatre. No tickets for Richard II, but there would be a standby list. I went straight to the theatre, was fourth on the list, and waited for hours with a theatre student from Italy before getting a ticket. Raced some Americans the next day to get on the list for Henry V. Landed a ticket.
Unfortunately, 6:30 in the morning wasn't early enough for Richard III. I'm still mourning the fact that I never got to see that Richard. Friends say, "Well, you know, that's the one that gets staged most often." No, I respond, you don't understand. I will never see that one. I have examined the web site thoroughly, to try to construct as much of it in my head as I can.
But I should not complain. I am one of the few lucky North Americans who got to have the experience of seeing any of these amazing productions at all, and I got to see most of them twice. Yes, they have changed my life. It would be impossible to explain exactly how, and why, but they have. So many moments--the moment I realized the same amazing actor who had portrayed Joan la Pucelle was also Margaret of Anjou. The moment I realized this Richard II was going to go in a completely different direction from every other production I had ever seen or heard of. The feathers. The sand. The moment Warwick died.
Thank you all for your amazing work. Thanks for the web site, the blog, thanks to kind Mr. Chuk Iwuji who took the time to sign an autograph for my 12-year-old son who so loved him as Henry VI. Thanks to the British people who are so mad about their Shakespeare that they share it with the rest of us. At each play, I sat next to someone who had sold back the ticket I had purchased, and had an amazing talk about the productions--they had all seen the plays multiple times. The whole experience was festive, sad, stimulating, phenomenal. What a gift.
Watch extracts from the Histories
View scenes from Henry V and behind the scenes in rehearsals.
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About blogger Nick
Likes: Cricket and music. Fields and dark pubs with no music
Dislikes: Lager, crowded streets and light bars with music