Tuesday 21 June, 2016

Children of Beslan

Although the subject matter of this documentary is harrowing I find it uplifting to watch. It is also an opportunity for actors to study the behaviour of people recalling trauma. Amongst many breathtaking moments the boy entering the room where his father was killed and then thrown out of the window is to me the most astonishing. Set aside an hour and turn your phone off.

Thursday 09 June, 2016

Wayne Will Move His Lips

Every two years the England football team try to win something and for half a century they have failed. I can’t bring myself to predict more of the same in Euro 2016, starting tomorrow.

Preceding each match are the national anthems of both sides.

God Save The Queen is the song you sing when you play for England. The rugby team exemplify this; they use it motivationally, as a declaration of togetherness. One doesn’t need to be a royalist to join in.



Every England football match begins with a statement of disunity. As the camera pans down the players there are those who sing, those who join in sort of, and others with mouths clamped shut; a defiant refusal to be involved. The latter are often castigated by the press in the aftermath of another defeat, or goalless draw at home to a below strength Estonia.

Wayne Rooney used to be a confirmed non-singer, now he has graduated to gently mouthing the words. I doubt any noise emits. There will be the usual complaints from the press.

No-one will state the obvious. It is that there are several million people in Britain – all qualified by various means to play for England  – who trace their descent to Ireland. For any such person God Save The Queen is uniquely a song which they cannot in any conscience sing. It is a jingoistic hymn in praise of the English monarch. Wayne Rooney and others quite legitimately refuse because to do so would betray their grandfathers.



I have no complaint against them. I dislike the inability of the press and others to admit the truth.

There are two solutions. Change the song. Wayne could manage Jerusalem without too much trouble (it has in any case a sentiment which transcends nationalism). Or get footballers to play for the nation to which they owe allegiance. The chances of the latter are zero of course.

Patriotism expressed through sport can be a beautiful thing. Euro 2016 will be won by a team who sing. I hope that’s wrong.

Friday 03 June, 2016


I have been asked several times, anecdotally, why there is so little bureaucracy at the school. The implication is that this is some kind of oversight. On the contrary. Here is our statement of intent.

A student who completes two years training at The Poor School will do so without being asked to sign a single document. They will have filled in one form online, which requires a name, email address, mobile phone number and age. There are a couple of non-essential fields. That’s it. We are possibly the only school in Europe to do this and there is a hard purpose, which I will come to.

We don’t ask for an essay statement of intent or for a summary of professional aims. I already know everything that matters when you apply. You want to become an actor, or think you do, and your aim is to have a training and a career. Whilst there are many good actors who are also academically intelligent and well capable of expressing themselves in written form, there are many who would struggle. There is also the temptation to write what you think the school wants to hear.

Acting is a practice, not a theory. I cannot think of any situation before or during an audition (or during the training that may follow) where an essay would become relevant or be referred to, provide insight or solve a problem.

We don’t ask your ethnicity because such is irrelevant to the success or otherwise of your audition. When you answer such a question you are not contributing information relevant to your acting but participating in a racially based survey. At best the information will be used to prove that the institution concerned is attracting the correct number of applicants from various categories. At worst it will be the basis for decisions, and a less talented person may be favoured over another on the grounds of race.

I am occasionally contacted and asked for an ethnic breakdown of students attending the school. I am happy to answer truthfully that I don’t know.

The Poor School doesn’t ask applicants if English is their second language. What matters, actually, is whether a potential student sounds as though English is his mother tongue. If an actor can sound authentically British, or if it is reasonable to feel that at the end of a training he will have that ability, then this has a positive impact on commercial casting once the training is over.

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But all relevant information is available in practice – at the audition. Ticking a box on a form serves no purpose.

At the school we treat everyone the same. That is, differently. Here is what I mean.

Everyone is different. If every nose on every human being is different then imagine how unique each individual is when the contents of their mind, soul and body are taken into account. Thus each student will have different attributes and shortcomings, relish different texts and classes. It is our job to respond, as well as we can and based on our judgement, to each individual. We do this to the best of our ability. Thus we treat everyone the same. That is, differently.

Therefore it is irrelevant to us, to the training, to a potential career, whether an individual applicant, for example, considers themselves disabled. We don’t ask. We have no special department to refer them to. We are going to respond to their specific needs in any case. All that concerns us is acting potential. If a disability may restrict a commercial career then it manifests at audition and we point it out. The same is true when a young person is overweight. We point it out. What we care about is acting.

Finally, the hard purpose.

When we train an actor we are asking them to be open, vulnerable, to dare go to places in their imagination that may be frightening. We ask them to physically and emotionally commit to every class, every rehearsal. We can be challenging and direct. What we are not is distant or invulnerable ourselves. Every ounce of bureaucracy creates distance and a sense of “us and them”, the powerful and the weak. No member of staff at the school sits behind a large desk whilst someone else is exposed. It is a specific decision, a matter of policy, to be ourselves as open and knowable as we ask the students to be.

Therefore you will not be asked to fill in forms at The Poor School.


Friday 27 May, 2016

THE PANTO AND THE STARS: banality at The Abbey

There are still pockets of the old Irish independence left in Dublin (the taxi driver who lets five into the cab when he shouldn’t, the pubs that turn a blind eye to smokers, good-humoured security staff at the airport) but on this, my third brief visit, my impression was of a depressed city.

I suspect that the Dublin of 100 years ago was a much more exciting place. The centenary of the Easter Rising is now being celebrated: there are pictures and monuments that revere the past and one poster proclaimed: THE CITY THAT DEFIED AN EMPIRE. The past tense might be right; will anyone remember Dublin 2016 as much more than a bankrupt minion of Brussels?

Since the late 1890s Ireland has produced more than its share of great writers. Wilde, Shaw, Synge, O’Casey, Friel. They had been influenced first by Ibsen, the daddy of the drama, and Chekhov. Then Noel Coward and Eugene O’Neill. Arthur Miller and Tennessee followed. What these writers had in common was that they composed a play in three or four scenes – or acts. The scenes played out in real time, ebbing and flowing, and all were based on naturalism (in the cases of Wilde and Coward, a heightened form). They are tough to act. Characters speak to each other, listen and react. No performance can ever be the same; either something new is created each evening, or the evening is dead.

The Plough and the Stars, set in 1916 and first performed, at The Abbey, 10 years later is a play with vivid, recognisable characters who are ordinary, common Dublin people. They are funny because life is funny. It is a great play because the writer observes, with love, the nuance, the detail, the frailty, faults, weakness and courage of the people who lived in the city he grew up in.

The Abbey 1926

The Abbey Theatre, circa 1926

William Butler Yeats also commemorated the Easter Rising. His poem ends:

“I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

The revival, which ran at The Abbey from 19/3 to 23/4 this year, was part of the celebration. Promoting itself as a “modern” interpretation the cast posed, pulled faces, and behaved like second rate comedians cracking gags. When a line occurred that was deemed funny the actor turned to the audience and delivered a one-liner in the manner of a stand-up at Butlins.

The Abbey Theatre

Thus O’Casey’s three dimensions were reduced to one, his passion for detail by-passed, and the tiresome business of doing proper acting neatly avoided.

It may be true that it’s modern to dumb down and to patronise the people that O’Casey loved but how does this pay homage to the heritage? A shame he wasn’t there; he might have started a punch-up in the foyer - at least that would have been in the spirit of the great history of the Abbey and Irish writing. Nothing that exciting, or that honest, happened.

The only way to love this show is to hate the past.

A terrible banality is born.

Monday 16 May, 2016

When Rachel Skyer interviewed me

Rachel Skyer is a student at The Poor School due to graduate in June 2016. In March she played the title role in Shaw's SAINT JOAN. She is an actress for whom I have a high regard and when she asked to interview me I was happy to agree.


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