Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

An Edinburgh Diary

Mark Jenkins writes on taking Rosebud to the Fringe

Edinburgh 2004 has passed and I’m left musing on the entire whirlwind experience and the watershed it seems to represent in my journey as a writer.

After ‘Playing Burton’, I swore I would never write another one-man show because I didn’t believe I could match its success and, because solo shows are hard work for writers, actors and audiences, alike. So, what changed my mind? Quite simply, in 2002, I met a young RSC actor, Christian McKay, of prodigious talent, dynamism and stage presence. The fact that he strongly resembled the young Orson in looks, build and voice was really only a starting point, a casual remark, made over a pint in the ‘Dirty Duck’ pub in Stratford on Avon. I felt very strongly that he needed to be given a vehicle, through which he might establish his reputation.

In this, he has just brilliantly succeeded at Edinburgh, and I am one of his beneficiaries. The show won a ‘Fringe First’ and a second award, open only to Fringe First winners, – the first ‘Carol Tambor Edinburgh to New York Award’. I am convinced Christian is going right to the top of his second chosen profession (He’s already a concert pianist of the highest order!). I consider myself lucky to have been introduced to him by my old friend and ‘Burton’ collaborator, WCMD-trained, former RSC member, Tenby-born Josh Richards. Josh directed the play. His quality and immense experience is self-evident in Christian’s performances.

Readers may be interested to know how a show gets to the public’s attention. Here’s how it happened. We had no money, no resources and Christian was out of work. He and I watched all of Orson’s movies again, either on tape or at the National Film Theatre’s Welles’ season, last year. Then I did a lot of book research, homing in on the major turning points of his life- War of the Worlds, Citizen Kane, Rita Hayworth and finally his slow transformation into Falstaff – on film and in reality.

To those who might think that writing a solo show is a simple exercise in scissors-and-paper chronological montage, allow me to enlighten you – the secret’s in the narrative structure, the editing and the poetic vision you bring to it as a seasoned writer. It’s taken me twenty years to acquire these arts. The script took me an entire year of exhausting work and numerous rejected drafts.

Direction began in Halifax (where Josh now lives) in February, 2004. Christian then self-rehearsed the entire show in his back garden every single day for three months, with whole weeks in between, where Josh would give exhaustive director’s notes on the delivery of every single line. Josh also designed the set, lighting and props.

Meanwhile we had booked the Assembly Rooms for Edinburgh, 2004. We figured if we were going to take the show to Edinburgh, we might as well book a major venue, where it stood a chance of being seen. The trouble was, we didn’t have any money, but the venue didn’t know that. They accepted our booking purely on the past reputation of Josh and I, with our sell-out run of ‘Playing Burton’, back in 1997, produced by Guy Masterson!

We next decided to apply for a very small ACW grant for four previews at Narberth, Swansea, Newport and Cardiff – so that Christian could get to play in front of audiences. But more than that – so that Wales would get to see the show first. So often, my plays have been obliged to have their first performances in London. The ACW missed their chance to support a winning project. They turned us down. So, what’s new? Who the hell cares! Don’t waste time whingeing about failure to get public funding! Believe in what you do and let the Gods (your audiences) prevail!

Theatre managers at the four chosen Welsh venues (Queen’s Hall, The Grand, Dolman and Chapter) proved incredibly supportive. So, we did the four-preview tour and at last had a little money. Then, an ‘angel’ appeared, in the form of businessman and publisher, David Hughes with an investment in the show. David had already accepted the play for publication. This was just enough to secure the Assembly Rooms and an essential student ‘flat’ in Edinburgh. The rest, food, travel and expenses, we would have to finance ourselves. And we did.

Sound and lighting were covered, gratis, by 25-year-old Louise Tait and Christian’s young wife-to-be, Emily, who gave up her full-time job to be in the team. We sub-let a room to another actor so that we would have money for food. Now it begins. We open on the sixth August. Within three days we have two superb four-star reviews from the Scotsman and the Daily Mail. Audiences immediately begin to pick up. By Friday the thirteenth (our lucky day), we start getting five star-reviews as Christian’s performance builds. The Daily Telegraph and other nationals do us proud. The Glasgow Herald and British Theatre Guide award us five stars. Audience figures rise again, steadily, every day.

But now, I need to go back to Cardiff, to be with my partner, Elaine, who isn’t very well. I have no intention of returning to Edinburgh. But on the last Wednesday of the festival, I am summoned back for two days for the awards ceremony. We get not one, but, to our great surprise, two awards. The young ‘Rosebud’ team are dancing around, ecstatic. They’re going to New York, all expenses paid, for five showcase performances. They’re all invited to a reception at Melrose Castle, but I need to return to Cardiff, post-haste.

Nonetheless, I am really pleased for Team Rosebud. It’s an Edinburgh fairy-tale. Coming from behind, with scarce resources, a wing-and-a prayer production, ‘a plank and a passion’, as my old friend, Alan Osborne, would say. It’s the true story of the Edinburgh fringe. Uphill, uphill all the way, with the prizes at the end. It’s all for love of theatre. It’s all belief in the project. And it’s all very disciplined and professional even though none of us get paid a bean!

In Edinburgh, when you arrive at the airport, express buses speed you into town, one every ten minutes. At dear old Cardiff airport, I languish for 40 minutes and have time to dwell on the entire experience of the past three weeks.

August 2004 has, quite simply, been too much to take in – somewhere between triumph and regret. I am about to have my third separate show put on in New York within twelve months. I have had two books published this month - ‘Rosebud’ and ‘More Lives Than One’ - PARTHIAN. ‘Playing Burton is going on in North Hollywood, Dublin and, in December, at the new Wales Millennium Centre. Rosebud has offers from San Francisco, Adelaide, the Haymarket and King’s Head, London. The Rosebud team fly out to New York with it on November 2nd.

But ‘Rosebud’ is dedicated to my partner and inspiration for the last twenty years, Elaine James, and she missed out on all this. Maybe she could make it to New York? That would be just great.

author:Mark Jenkins

original source:
06 September 2004


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