theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Robert Daws has not appeared on stage for seven years and David Harrower’s award-winning Blackbird is only the second play he’s done in eighteen years. Not only that but Ray, his character, is in marked contrast to the parts we are used to seeing him play on television, whether Sam in Roger, Roger, Roger Dervish in Outside Edge, Tuppy Glossop in Jeeves and Wooster or Dr Gordon Ormerod in The Royal.
“David Harrower describes his own play as a love story,” says Robert, “which on one level it is. I mean, the basic premise of the story is that a twenty-seven-year-old woman has gone in search of a man she had an affair with fifteen years previously, who is now working in a sort of lowly management position in one of these big warehouses. She turns up at his workplace and as the play goes on you very swiftly realise that this affair was conducted when she was the age of twelve and the man considerably older, so it was an illegal relationship and one that would be quite rightly classed as sexual molestation.”
Harrower based Blackbird on a true story about an American who conducted a relationship with a woman on the internet. The man came over to England to find her, not knowing she was underage. “Nonetheless, they convinced themselves that they were madly in love and ran off together, causing a sensation,” relates Robert.
Taking this as the basis for Blackbird, Harrower was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival to write the play and he examines the nature of this kind of relationship. Even the idea of such a subject tends to bring out the worst in people, turning each of us into the proverbial ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ without our having given real thought to the debate. Robert tells me that unlike other playwrights who touch on the subject, Harrower has thrown a great deal into the mix and “leaves an audience to come to their own conclusions as to exactly what they feel about this relationship and the tragedy it has been for the two people involved”.
The role that comes to my mind most readily when I think of Robert Daws is Sam in John Sullivan’s sadly short-lived comedy series of the late ’90s, Roger, Roger, which followed the delightful and disastrous comings and goings of a taxi cab firm’s drivers. It appears that everyone, not just John Sullivan, was disappointed that Roger, Roger wasn’t optioned for a further series.
Comparing his television roles such as Sam with that of Ray in Blackbird, Robert agrees that it is very different. “The challenge resonates around not just the fact that I am doing the play but that I am doing a play at all.” It is often assumed that actors plan their careers when the reality is often a case of serendipity, even with the best-known names. The fact that Robert has not done a play for so long is “just the way [his] career has gone”. It has certainly not been because he hasn’t wanted to work in the theatre. “It’s very fortunate for me either way that I can actually come back to it.”
To some degree, the majority of his TV roles have had, as he puts it, “a sort of comedic bent”, which he has always enjoyed, but the Blackbird part certainly offers its challenges. “None more so than the shocking subject matter,” continues Robert. “David Harrower has written a very complex play – it’s a two-hander, eighty-seven pages and just two people talking to each other.”
It is all too evident what a major return to the stage this marks for the actor. “It does tend to focus the mind and wake you up at three o’clock in a blind panic!” he says. “David’s dialogue, certainly in this play, has been compared to David Mamet. It’s that he writes very often in half-finished sentences; he writes, some people have said, poetically. So, structurally it can be torturous thoughts that are half-finished and then returned to within the same speech. And he plays with the time within that. It’s wonderfully effective, and extraordinarily naturalistic. At the same time, underlining all that is this very highly structured writing that you have to sort of attempt to tame before you can attempt to get through to the areas of acting and adding to that.”
Robert is full of admiration for his director, David Grindley, whom he describes as “an expert at this sort of thing” and “very patient”. In spite of the complexities of the piece, he has been enjoying himself enormously. “You catch us now entering the fourth week of rehearsal and next week we are on the stage. We are having our first run today, actually, so we’re half in dread, half in eager anticipation, as we wait to see how today maps out.”
He goes on to talk about how previous productions of Blackbird around the world have struck a chord with a cosmopolitan theatre-going public. “It’s been done in New York; Cate Blanchett has done it in Australia; it’s been done in Ireland and Germany.” But the producers, Michael Edwards and Carole Winter, have wanted to tour the play for some time in order to give regional audiences the opportunity to see it. “It’s not a commercial tour going off to make money; I think they feel there is something else going on here, and their faith and belief in what the play says is something they want to communicate to as many people as possible.”
The reaction of audiences on tour should prove fascinating and the producers are taking their responsibilities very seriously. “It’s not necessarily an easy night in the theatre,” says Robert, “although it is one that might be stimulating. Michael and Carole have been meticulous in making sure there are after-show discussions, that there are masterclasses with David Grindley, and an education pack, which is very impressive, going out to schools and universities.”
I am mightily encouraged to hear that there are producers out there willing to provide something a little more dangerous and interesting on tour; I believe that audiences around the country have long been shortchanged in this respect, and Robert agrees. “There is a bit of a crusade going on, and not only that, I think they are using this play to some degree to hopefully open some doors out there, and say to audiences, God bless ’em, look, it doesn’t always have to be a musical. There is a place within the theatre, there is scope for plays like this.” As he so rightly says, we need to stop patronizing audiences and “serving up the same fare, thinking that people won’t appreciate something that would go on at the Royal Court or Soho Theatre or the Donmar Warehouse”. Being a part of Winter’s and Edwards’ first attempt to change the parameters of what touring theatre can be is something he finds very exciting.
RADA-trained, Robert was one of the youngest of his year’s intake in the early 1980s. “I was suddenly in a group of twenty-one, half of which had been to university or were three or four years older than me and I would attempt to keep up, not having gone to university but gone straight to RADA after ‘A’ levels. I was going to have to try really hard.”
There are actors who seem to take a perverse pleasure in decrying the training they received, others who believe their training was far from adequate but don’t feel the need to dismiss it out of hand. Then there are those who have the intelligence to realise that while most learning takes place once the student graduates and is working with professionals, certain techniques and nuggets of wisdom can be and have been acquired during training. Robert is one of the latter and is quick to point out that he enjoyed his time in Gower Street immensely.
“I was there at a time when we were blessed at having Hugh Cruttwell as the principal. All the students certainly revered him. He was an exceptional and extraordinary man, a great teacher, and his philosophy was ‘acting is doing’: read all your books and you will learn from various directors and other things, but – even in those days when an awful lot of drama schools trained you for two years and wouldn’t let you loose in front of an audience ’till you were in your third year – he said no, we are not having any of that, you going to have six weeks and when you’re back for your second term you are going to be in front of a live audience, that’s where you are going to learn.’ I had a fantastic time, a practical and exciting place to be, and you are right, there was something about being at RADA. But at the time I knew those at Webber Douglas, Central, wherever – all the top drama schools were pretty much of a standard, you know; there was a hell of a lot of talent.”
Although he puts all the top schools at the time on a par, he does concede that there was still a certain cachet attached to having trained at RADA which earned the automatic respect of certain employers. “That is true and maybe true in the early stages, but I don’t know if it exists now so much – so much has changed – but maybe to some degree. I always say good actors come through no matter where they have trained or indeed if they have trained at all.”
We both agree that most of it is down to talent, luck – “that dreaded word” – and application. “I know a lot of people who have healthy careers who did not have much talent at that particular time of their lives but had ways of dealing with the business, and some people with more talent at that time who have fallen by the wayside. It’s all a strange lottery and each person’s journey is different. It’s impossible to say whether you are going to survive in the business. My own mantra, which I have developed in the last few years, is just to keep going.”
And keep going, he will, in spite of a few aches and pains. “It’s a cliché but you really do use different muscles. I have a pretty good short-term memory which serves me well when I am filming but is as good as useless when you are doing theatre. I am developing patience. I am looking forward to it and it is a play that deserves to be done. We will keep our fingers crossed.”
Sarah Vernon © 2008
Originally published 29-03-08
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