Thursday, March 07, 2013

Working on Hadrian VII


For some strange unfathomable reason, Pope Benedict's resignation  recently reminded me of the time I worked on a play called "Hadrian VII" when I was  D.S.M. at Ipswich Theatre in the '70's. There is a link. I'm not completely nuts. It's about a man who fantasises about becoming Pope. It was written by Peter Luke, based on a novel by Baron Corvo, writing under the pen name of Frederick Rolfe. It has a somewhat long and convoluted plot which I will not try and unravel here, basically as it really has no bearing on what I am about to relate here, and why. Just to say that as a member of Stage Management at the various theatres where I worked during the 1970's we were expected to assume a variety of roles, from managing 'The Book' (ie, prompting and running the prompt corner and taking rehearsals etc.) to 'propping' (ie. 'plotting' them during rehearsals, setting and strinking during performances as well as sourcing them from various places. That, in itself, is an entirely different story which can take up several more posts when I can stretch my memory back over 40-odd years!) Also, one was expected to move scenery, operate sound and lighting equipment as well as creating off stage 'spot' sound effects, such as gunshots, door-slams etc. On this particular production I was mainly responsible for sound. 
The play opens in the central character, Frederick Rolfe's,  London flat. The middle section of the play then focuses on his fantasy about becoming Pope, and is set in and around the Vatican. The closing scene then returns to the flat from the opening scene. This scene was built on trucks, in two halves, which could be pushed up-stage during the scene-change and an elaborate, fretted wood screen was lowered from the flies to form the backdrop for the Vatican scenes. This piece of flown scenery was extremely heavy. I know. I was one of the Stage Management members who had to haul it in and out during each performance.
Now we had no problems at all with anything during most of the run of the play (I think it ran for two or three weeks, as part of a repertory season of several plays during my time at Ipswich. ) As I have already mentioned I was mainly responsible for sound operating  on this production. This was done from the sound and lighting cubicle at the back of the circle which enabled myself, on sound, to have a really clear view of the stage, although many of my cues were given by the A.S.M. on The Book in the prompt corner.
As part of my job on this show as I mentioned earlier I had to help on the fly floor hauling in this heavy piece of scenery. This was done at the beginning of the play, from the first scene into the mid-section, and then from that section finally into the flat scene at the end. I had done all my sound cues, and on this particular matinee performance I had to as usual set the tape of bells tolling on the tape machine and then run down to the stage and up to the fly floor to haul out the heavy piece of scenery. Rolfe, the central character of the play, is assasinated as part of the plot and the actor playing that character has to do a rapid costume change so he can re-appear in the final scene. To achieve this the actor playing him disappears through a stage trap and off to do his costume change. The cardinals crowd round him after he 'dies' so as to hide from the audience that the actor has gone down through the trap. Then the sound of bells tolling is heard, which is where my sound-operating comes into effect. I have just about enough sound on tape of bells tolling for me to rush down and take out the heavy piece of scenery, but until THAT has been flown out, the two trucked sections with the flat scenery on it cannot be pushed downstage. But on this particular occasion, try as we might, we could not get it to move. One of the rollers over which the ropes which took this piece of scenery in the fly-grid got stuck, so when we hauled on the fly-ropes the piece of scenery went up at a sharp angle, near enough 45 degrees. It simply would not budge, which created real panic on stage as the play could not possibly continue without the correct scenery in place and certainly not with the flown piece at such a precarious angle and then there was the possibility of the tape on the machine which I had started running would run out and then run onto the next sound cue!  Or there was the chance that the flown piece would crash to the stage and put actors and stage managemnt at risk. From what I can remember I think we had to tie off the piece of scenery and then set up the furniture for the final scene in front of the angled screen background. But it was vary hairy, we dashing back to the sound deck to stop the tape! Such are my memories!
I am attempting to rack my brains further. The play was directed by John Southworth and Lionel Thompson played Frederick Rolfe. Pam Ferris, who has since found fame in a  wide range of television productions, most notably Ma in The Darling Buds of May and as Miss Trunchbull in the film version of Matilda, and much more recently in the B.B.C. series Call The Midwife playing the part of Sister Evangelina, had a part in this production and was in many other productions during my time at Ipswich Theatre.

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