October 12, 2011
It’s Berwick-upon-Tweed tonight, a small coastal town.
We head south at noon and the road is flat and unremarkable for about an hour until the North Sea appears on our left and we zoom along its looping shore.
Berwick-upon-Tweed changed hands thirteen or fourteen times between Scotland and England, all years ago and in a relatively short span. The English, of course, wrested it back last and we cross the border and drive into the medieval town.
We pile out of the van, Nancy and Catherine stiff from the cramped back seat and we’re at The Maltings Art Center, a pretty little complex perched up on top of this fortified hill of a town. We’re playing in the Henry Travers Studio and while you don’t know his name, we all know his face. Along with dozens of roles in Hollywood films, he was Clarence the angel, sent down to save Jimmy Stewart from jumping off the bridge in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. He was born around the corner from here in 1874, the son of an Irish doctor from Cork and he died in California 91 years later. Local boy made very good.
After lunch and coffee in the café we unload the van, set up the stage and leave Camilla and the house technicians to figure out the lights. A line-through in the green room and then Catherine and Nancy find quiet places to rest and I hit the town.
It’s easy to see why this little place was fought over so fiercely and I imagine it’s been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, long before Edward I and Wallace drew swords. It’s set up on a steep hill right between the shore of the North Sea and the broad, deep River Tweed. Fishermen’s paradise and easy to defend. I wander around High Street, in and out of the charity shops and then see an old graveyard on the seaside side of town. I step through the iron gates, feeling like a trespasser and am immediately confirmed in this apprehension when a loud English voice behind me shouts “Hello! Can I help you?”
“Just looking around”, I say and the white-haired, business-suited owner of the voice bellows,
“If you want to see the church, come now before Stephen locks it!”
And then to the unseen Stephen,
“Stephen! Someone to see the church! Don’t lock it up yet!”
So I’m in the church, turning to thank the Englishman, now gone.
It’s small, stone, beautiful and very old with extraordinary stained glass illuminated by the thin late afternoon sun. I breathe out an involuntary “Wow.” And next to me there’s a chuckle and it must be Stephen, a tiny, old man, his face split by a constant grin. I ask him how old the church is and he tells me the history of The Church of the Holy Trinity and Saint Mary, consecrated in 1652 and finished ten years later, the only parish church built under Cromwell’s reign and the northernmost Anglican church in England. He points up to the roof and says the timbers and the stone walls were all taken from the ruins of the castle that used to stand in the center of town. “They call it recycling now.”
Back to the theater and Nancy and Catherine are warming up, I help to set up some tables and then the terrible wait begins. For a performer the hour before the show is hard, but at least there’s a focus to it, you can gather your strength, run the lines in your head, occupy yourself usefully. For the director or the writer, it’s empty time. Nothing for you to do, nothing more to be done, just wait and hope for the best.
Our audience arrives, thirty or so strong. I see a vigorous, elderly woman come in alone, march right up to one of the front tables and sit and lean forward expectantly, elbows on the tabletop, looking like she’s come to a town meeting and prepared for a lively debate. My heart sinks a bit, again remembering the harshness and profanity of the piece, but again, nothing to be done now.
Lights down, curtain up and the show roars to a start, easy and constant laughter in the dark. It’s sloppier than it’s been, both Nancy and Catherine jumping lines, but both in control and steering the dialogue back, covering for each other, the audience never aware that anything is off. A good sign, the relaxed focus of a confident team working together. And the loudest laughs are coming from the old woman in front, reminding me again of the folly of prejudice. Easy to forget that the old were once young and not that long ago and they lived through times arguably more interesting than ours.
Big applause at the end and we break down the show, load up the van, a quick drink in the theater bar downstairs and then the drive back to Edinburgh where we start a three-day stand at the Traverse tomorrow night.