Nicolas Kent

Back to London

Monday, October 18th, 2010 by Nicolas Kent

I have just arrived back in London to catch up with what’s going on at the Tricycle. My last ten days in the States were action-packed – as most of this tour has been so far. On the middle Thursday of the run in Minneapolis, Lee Blessing arrived to see his play WOOD FOR THE FIRE for the first time. And he, the cast, and I met up on stage in an audience discussion before he had even had a chance to introduce himself to any of us. Fortunately he loved the way Rachel Grunwald had directed his play, and the work of all the actors, but rather nerve-wrackingly, we heard that, in front of a large audience who had stayed behind to take part in one of the audience discussions that had been going on all this week…

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The discussion itself was very interesting, with a lot of perceptive questions, until a couple of English people in the audience started to talk about the dogs and animals that were the victims of the Afghan war – with so many humans being killed, it seems only the English can sentimentalise about animals, rather than the children and civilian population that are suffering in this war. Apart from that, there was a vigorous discussion about America’s involvement in dislodging the Russians, and its neglect of Afghanistan during the period following the Russian withdrawal and that led to the civil war. Much of that is the territory of Lee Blessing’s play, and it was especially interesting that the audience were so engaged in those issues. After the discussion, we adjourned to the Guthrie’s very plush bar to talk further with Lee and get his reaction to seeing the play on stage for the first time – he was really enthusiastic and it was wonderful for the cast to get his approval.

Meanwhile the audiences have been slightly slimmer this week, I think partly because of the weather – it has been beautiful and up in the 70s (F), and also because the Twins (the Minneapolis & St Paul baseball team) are playing their five qualifying rounds for the world series against their arch enemies the Yankees who always seem to beat them! True to form by Thursday night, the Yankees were two up in the home games – one of which I had been lucky enough to see on the Thursday on the most beautiful evening in their fantastic new stadium as a guest of one of the Guthrie board members, Irv Weiser. On the Saturday, the return match happened in New York, and for the third time running, the Twins were beaten – so now everyone can concentrate on theatre and Afghanistan! By that time, I had left Minneapolis for my return trip home via Washington.

On Sunday morning in Washington, I was phoned in my hotel by Brigadier-General John Nicholson who had emailed me the previous day saying that there was a desire from the Pentagon to try and make a performance of the play happen in their theatre in the Pentagon. I had emailed him back saying I would be in Washington, and maybe he could phone me. On the Sunday morning he did so, and I suggested that as I was in Washington, I could come to the Pentagon and have a look at the theatre. We discounted the next day as it was a Public Holiday, but he suggested that I came in at 7.30am before I had to take the train up to New York. He told me to take the metro and get off at the Pentagon entrance and bring two proofs of identity – one of which should my passport and not to bring anything else. At this the point, the British Embassy kindly intervened and offered to get my luggage to the station, and to send Lieutenant-Commander Gus Carnie to help me through security and to drive me to the station after the meeting. When I arrived at 7.15am, I stood outside the main entrance where people were streaming into work, and on the grass next to the metro station, there was a small number of individuals holding up different placards against both the war in Afghanistan and the military in general. On my cell phone, I managed to tell Gus Carnie that I had arrived and a few seconds later, he had arrived and simultaneously Colonel Shaun Crowe had come out to meet me as well. Shaun Crowe is on Brigadier-General Nicholson’s staff, and told me that he had especially wanted the task to come and greet me, because he had seen Part 3 of the plays with his wife and had not caught the final line in the last play, and wanted to know what it was – which I duly told him. He then said that he had been so impressed by the third part that he had booked the other two parts separately, and had now seen the whole trilogy. He said he had found them incredibly exciting and interesting. After about 15 minutes, we got through security and started walking down some of the 17 miles, many shops, and hundreds of offices that make up the Pentagon. I noticed with some amusement that there was even a shoe-shine boy with a couple of chairs in one of the corridors. I asked Colonel Crowe whether the army didn’t do spit and polish any longer? And he replied that ‘it was a matter of time management’! We went past various offices, and glimpsing inside as we got to the more senior levels, I noticed each one was furnished with antique period furniture which seemed totally out of place in this modern building. The furniture seemed to get posher and posher as the officers moved up the ranks. The Deputy Secretary of Defence had even got a rather nice set of Louis Quatorze chairs.

We then went two floors down to a small lecture with about 150 seats, which looked both too tiny and ill-equipped to be a possible home for THE GREAT GAME. Even if the stage had been anywhere near the size we required, the idea of trying to get actors and stage management (one of whom was born in Baghdad) daily through Pentagon security, as well as all the guns and pyro explosives which needed to come into the building would have have been a near impossible feat. Added to that the theatre was two floors underground, and how we would ever have got the scenery down there I don’t know – the very idea, having seen the security, of trying to stage anything in that building without an American military uniform seemed impossible.

After seeing the theatre I went up to meet the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Douglas Wilson, and Brigadier-General Nicholson who both greeted me and Gus Carnie incredibly warmly. They said they were very keen to try and bring the trilogy to a Pentagon audience. I said that the auditorium was impossible for the plays, and they suggested that maybe we could take them to the National Defence University, but I pointed out that if we could go back to the Harman, where we had played three weeks previously, that would be the easiest possible option for us. The Harman were prepared to have us there in the second week in February. Finally everyone agreed this was the best idea, if they could arrange the money for the performances. Douglas Wilson said he would make a few phone calls, and was reasonably confident that he could raise the necessary £120,000 to make this happen. So now we will have to wait a couple of weeks and see what they come up with.

The Shakespeare is primed to let us have the theatre, the actors are primed and hopefully will agree to do it. By the end of October, we should have a rough idea of whether all this can be made to work. The audience they want to get are policy-makers; Congress people; Pentagon workers; the military who are about to serve in Afghanistan; and some of those who have already served, people who were injured in Afghanistan coming from the Bethesda Hospital facility. The advantage of doing it in this way was that they would be closed performances, and they would be in office hours, so that we could re-echo the success we had with General Sir David Richards’ all day performance of the trilogy on the Thursday at the Tricycle in July.

By 9.30am, I was out of the Pentagon and being driven to Union Station and from there caught the train on to New York. Candy Adams, the publicist for the Public Theater, kindly took me out to lunch in a New York deli. The bustle of New York is quite a shock after the rather sedate slower life of Washington. The two cities are worlds apart – Washington feeling like the hub of the empire: diplomatic, calm and measured, and New York: the economic powerhouse, hungry, raw and on speed. After lunch, accompanied by five members of staff from the Public, we had a mini production meeting at the Skirball Theater in Washington Square which is to be our home for the three week run in New York. The theatre is mainly used by the university for lectures, and lacks atmosphere – however I was relieved to find that it was not quite as antiseptic or academic a place as I had remembered. There was bonus – the acoustics were slightly better than I expected.

We then went back for a marketing meeting, and to look at the publicity material and discuss the sales strategy. For some reason they have not wanted to open booking until the middle of this month, so there is no way to see as yet how it will sell – I am only hoping that they have not missed out on all the terrific media attention we got in Washington, and people who might have picked up some of that on national public radio or the BBC, will not have forgotten to book. The Public have set up an ambitious programme together with the Play Company for a whole series of seminars and discussions around the trilogy, particularly for students of NYU.

That evening I went off to see Mark Rylance giving a glorious performance in ‘La Bete’ with the brilliant Joanna Lumley. When I went round to congratulate Mark afterwards, he told me he had had one of the best evenings in theatre at the Tricycle two weeks previously when he had gone to see ‘Tiny Kushner’ – altogether very gratifying to hear.

Back in London, my feet have hardly touched the ground. On Thursday a long meeting with the Arts Council to discuss the Tricycle’s situation against the background of the expected forthcoming cuts. Then a brief meeting with a West End producer to discuss the transfer of BROKEN GLASS to the West End followed by dinner with our key patrons and benefactors in the evening. The next evening I saw BROKEN GLASS, which I thought was beautifully staged by Iqbal Khan and wonderfully acted by a cast led by Tony Sher and Lucy Cohu. It was very moving and it was brilliant to know that the team at the Tricycle had put this together so meticulously and wonderfully in my absence. It is also great to come back and find us playing to full houses whilst simultaneously getting happy emails from the cast and stage management saying how well THE GREAT GAME is going down in Minneapolis. Fingers crossed that nothing will go wrong to spoil this dream scenario!