The Empty Tate

A photo visual essay

It’s empty. That’s the first thing you notice when you go into the Tate Modern.

It’s August Bank Holiday Monday and I decided to got to the museum because tbh in these lockdown-on lockdown-off times it is one of the few things you can do irl that isn’t pub or a walk.

The Turbine Hall looked like it was deserted. I turned right to the new building to wonder the cavernous spaces of the Boiler House. There is only one exhibit: a tight rope walker carrying works of art between two mountain peaks.

Making my way up the empty staircases to the fourth floor I became aware of the space.

How inviting it is around every corner.

The light drawing you in, reflected off the wooden floors. Scooping you up and gently coaxing you further and further in.

Space as if divided and existing on its own, without crowds and individuals to break it up.

To disrupt it.

A donation box

Then, some colour among the austerity of light woods and grey concretes.

Its glorious emptiness broken by a human passing.

An oblique view, like Toto drawing the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz …

exposes its secret.

And on the way down arrows arrows everywhere.

Then the shop. A glimps not only of brighter colour but of that element that made this journey so magical and was so missed – people. I go in and buy a birthday present for a special artist friend.

Outside the shop more colour.

The Tate itself an exhibit.

(Too meta to chew, darling)

Over on the old building it’s less empty. Feels a bit more like a visit on a Tuesday morning rather than the end of days.

In and among the exhibits of varying degrees of interest and relevance – a gem!

I must film this!

Its time to go.

Just one last arty one with my shoes.

At Blackfriars I feel obliged to spend two pounds on a bitter espresso I don’t really want, but feel a moral duty to do my bit for keeping the economy going.

The Asshole

A cunty poem

There is an asshole that lives on the hill

Tee lee, lee lee lee

Tee hee, hee hee hee

He does not drink cerveza or eat cured meats

Tee lee, lee lee lee

Tee hee, hee hee hee

He just wonders around like a fool

And tells you things about yourself he claims you don’t even know

He hasn’t asked you

He just “knows” where you are in the process

There is an asshole that lives on the hill

Tee lee, lee lee lee

Tee hee, hee hee hee

He is open and tolerant and caring

And manipulative and abusive and weak

Only some people have the true vulnerability

Only some people have the special sensitivity

Only some

Quite attractive people – quite weak people

But some people

The asshole, you “know”, the asshole that lives on the hill

You’re Finley (the) Best

In the production of Table by Tanya Ronder (City Lit Theatre Company 5 – 7 December 2019) I was cast in two roles: Finely Best and Jack Holman. Two characters that couldn’t be further apart from each other both in physical and mental state.

Finley is a wretch: a poor working class kid who lost his mother and stillborn brother at the age of six and never quite recovers from the trauma. His life is marked by serial abandonment: he loses his innocence at the age of sixteen as an infantry soldier serving in World War One and his father at eighteen. His relationship with the neighbour’s daughter slowly disintegrates into animosity and downright hatred over twenty years of marriage. In a final cruel twist of fate his body abandons him too and the last time we see him he is incapacitated, unable to feed himself. His only comfort in life seems to be sex, or crude references to it.

Jack Holman on the other hand is part of a breed of what were called “white hunters”. Posh boys who roamed colonial Africa in the middle of the previous century, hunting game and leading the original safari holiday hunting “expeditions”. He is ‘Gentleman Jack’, who happens to save a nun from a leopard attack and ends up having sex with her. We know little about this jolly fellow apart from the fact that in his late forties he tries to connect with the nun and his son, but fails miserably to do so.

So that was my challenge for the play – cocksure Jack and Finley the wretch. Naturally I was drawn to the latter.

Finley is interesting because we follow him throughout most of his life from the age of six to forty-nine: or at least we visit him during or just after major events have taken place.

Six year old Finley

The crux of Finley’s first scene is a conversation with his father David, about his stillborn brother and his mother Elizabeth who dies at birth.

I was gifted a real helping hand by the playwright in the song that Finely sings with his mother when he first appear on stage. “Oh Jemima where’s your uncle Jim? He’s under the water teaching the duck to swim” etc. It’s a fun little song they sing together, which allowed me to embody that six year old in my forty-nine year old, heavy set body with a shaven head.

The song made it easy to put on a child’s voice and sing at a higher register than my normal voice. It also helped to do the scene in this voice and made it easier for the audience to accept the premise. The interaction with Elisabeth (he constantly referrers to her for assurance about the words of the song and the actions that accompany it) also help establish him as a child.

The second gift came about sort of by accident. After rehearsing the scene a few times it occurred to me that it would really help Finley if he had a toy to play with while singing the song, and later while having a rather awkward conversation with his father about the loss of his mother and baby brother. I put in a request to the production team for a toy “maybe a duck?”. I got a fantastic wooden duck.

 

Over time I developed a real close connection with the duck; showing it proudly to Elizabeth when singing, and interacting with it while sitting at the table on my own and later talking to David. In some way it had become the proxy for the dear brother Albert.

In creating this relationship I drew heavily on a clowning workshop I did over the summer. Learning to focus entirely on my inner world and developing a relationship with inanimate objects, a fundamental of clowning practice.

At the end of the song Elizabeth leaves the stage, symbolically signalling her death. The song also ends rather abruptly with the line: “Now you might think that this is the end, well it is.” Finely looks up from the table, having been completely immersed in singing the song to his toy duck (and assuming his mother is still beside him all the time) only to see here walk off. It is a sad moment. But I did not make a “sad face”, I left it vacant.

I learnt this from the Yoshi Oida’s book The Invisible Actor in which he describes a scene where his character experiences great sadness. Rather than being sad he talks about being “empty”; emptying yourself from emotions and letting the audience place the emotion on you or in you, based on the given circumstance of the scene.

Teenage Finley

We next see young master Best when he is sixteen, heading for war. It’s a quick transformation. I walk off stage get rid of my props, lose the jumper, tuck my shirt in, Kim (the costume designer) throws a World War One infantry jacket on me and out I go.

The body changes completely. From boy Finley’s rounded shoulders, slightly bent knees and arms hanging loosely at my sides I switch to a stiff, somewhat repressed and lost teenage boy.

When creating grown up Finley I relied heavily on what I learned in a Laban workshop at City Lit. The first element, which is not strictly a Laban effort, was based on an exercise in which we were asked to walk around the room imagining first that we were only a skeleton (bones and tendons only), then muscles only and finally tissue and internal organs.

The skeleton-being seemed immediately ideal for Finley. The transformation required standing perfectly still for a moment and focusing the bones of my feet touching the ground, then a quick scan up the body to the other key physical component: tucking in the armpits. This would create a restriction of movement in the upper body. Only the armpits are tucked in, the elbows and rest of the arm were free to move. I also wanted to make him a bit wide eyed, but that didn’t work so well and I think it naturally flaked off during the performance.

I also decided to give Finely his native accent. He was born in Lichfield in the Black Country, an area of the West Midlands, England, west of Birmingham. So a West Midlands accent seemed appropriate.

The accent sounds a bit like a Birmingham accent but is distinct from it in certain sounds. I used How To Do Accents by Edda Sharpe & Jan Hayden Rowles to learn the accent. For West Midlands they use Walsall dialect featuring a lovely young woman who describes, among other things, going to see the Queen in Birmingham when she was a teenager. Very happy I don’t have to hear that again!

It took me a while to tune in to the accent and I kept slipping into Newcastle and Liverpool accents on certain sounds like ‘baby’ and ‘you’, and saying ‘me’ for the word ‘my’, which is one distinctive differentiator of the West Midland accent from the others.

I was very self-conscious about getting the accent right. I have done RP in a few plays before (used also for Jack in this play) but that is easy. Anyone can put on a posh accent and with a bit of refinement it drifts from a farcical Monty Python impression to a convincing RP tune. But the West Midlands accent was far from my native South African accent. I made a couple of coy attempts during and around rehearsals to mixed reviews. The thing that sealed it for me was talking to a friend from Liverpool late one night in the pub. I finally mustered up the courage and did the accent (no doubt the alcohol had nothing to do with it). His feedback was that it was not a Southern accent and not a Northern accent- which was good enough for me!

So sixteen-year-old Finley is waiting in the wings ready to go on. Costume – check, body – check, accent – check.

I walk onto the stage, stand at one end of the table, David is on the other, he says a line, I say a line and I walk across the stage and out.

Then it’s a transformation to Finley after the war (aka PTSD Finley). By now the full horror of war and life have smacked him in the gut. His hand is injured and I added a limp, which will be reinforced later when he becomes fully disabled. I continue with his constraint skeletal physicality now enhanced by a limp in the left leg. I’m careful not to make it too pronounced, he does not need a crutch or walking stick there is just some additional movement to the leg. It rises a bit higher than the right and slower to move. On the way to the dress rehearsal on Thursday I saw a man walking that way at Leicester Square tube station. I followed him until it started to feel creepy and applied what I could to Finely.

In this scene he is talking to Margaret the neighbour, while trying to prepare David’s body for the undertakers. It is here that his ugliness emerges proper; the West Midlands accent is fully developed and his manner is clipped and terse (DAB or FLICK in Laban terms). He is dismissive and often rude and his creepy sexuality emerges, both in the dialogue (he reveals going to prostitutes in France) and an inappropriate physical advance towards Margaret. As the stage instructions explain it, in response to her asking how he could sleep with prostitutes: “He grabs her and ruts her fiercely, then, just as quickly, moves off. She recovers herself.”

 

This is probably an appropriate place to reflect on the fact that as Finley and Jack, I land up having most of the sex in the play: both insinuated and, in one case, the actual physical act (spoiler alert! …its fully clothed).

After Finley’s scene with Margaret there is a nasty off stage exchange between the two of them signalling the fact that their relationship has become fraught. And I get to shout “a fuck maybe!” at the top of my voice (as a boy that is a pleasure always to be relished).

Shortly afterwards Finley reappears in a short scene with Veronique the prostitute and they have sex on the table. We are fully clothed but other than that it is all huffing and panting and quite realistic. Oh, and I bang my groin on the edge of the table rather than full pelvis-to-pelvis contact.

This was my first sex scene and I owe a lot to my scene partner with whom, from the start of production, we developed a light and business like approach to the whole thing. Lots of laughs and banter, always being careful and mindful of each other. Thinking of sex in such a perfunctory way is strange: “I will put my hand here, then you grunt there…” A strange disconnect from what is mostly quite a revealing and exposing experience (even with a long term partner).

The next time we see Finley is an awful family dinner, which ends with his son Albert urinating on the dinner table. For me it became easy to play Finley by now – he hates. He hates Margaret (and the world around him) and everything he does is aimed at showing that hate or upsetting her.

We also have actual food on the plates and I chose to eat it in an aggressive uncouth way. Chewing with an open mouth and directing every clench of the jaw towards Margaret. I am told the whole scene is quite an uncomfortable watch (the dinner all of us dread being at) made all the more chilling by the fact that Finley laughs at the top of his voice when Albert is standing on the table holding a prosthetic penis and urinating everywhere.

Finley’s last “stand”

The last time we see Finley in the play is at the age of forty-nine. The only stage instructions are that he is spoon-fed and his speech is reduced to the occasional “Nnng” and “Mmnng”.

I decided to play him after a stroke that paralysed the right side of his body with limited mobility on the left. The inspiration came from a man I saw having coffee and a cigarette in a café on Warren Street. This is the note from my diary:

14/10/2019: FINLEY – character left side paralysed. Like left cheek was scooped out. Right eye and side of mouth as if pinched together. Left shoulder lower, right shoulder higher. Gaunt. Eyes pondering and [in]quisitive as open as possible. Legs close together but one more forward. No symmetry. Fingers long and shaky.

I used most of it. The staging was such that I had to walk on stage on my own, which made him even more grotesque and pathetic. I recall on one or two nights hearing a sigh from the audience.

In the role I do nothing. Completely at the mercy of my son Albert. If he splashes food on me or positions me uncomfortably I don’t move; once some soup splashed on my faced and remained there for most of the scene until he noticed and wiped it off.

The only way of expression is his voice with nngs and mmnngs and the left eye which is wide open. It made for a powerful and chilling scene. Helped by the fact that Albert fully carries Finley’s weight when sitting him down and lifting him up.

And as he is helped off the stage Finley is gone from the play. He was revived briefly on the final scene, when the whole cast (in costume) go on stage to sing an Italian pop song that has featured throughout. When I walked on dressed as Jack I brought the wooden toy duck with me. It now stands on the windowsill in my flat, looking at me.

First steps in the theatre

These are some of my experiences from my first theatre performance, playing the doctor and constable in Tom Jones a foundling, performed at Incognito Theatre in North London in May 2019.

It was fun dressing up and wearing a horse hair wig for the first time.

Full details on the project page: Tom Jones.

Me (right) about to tell Tom Jones to take his “young noise elsewhere”.