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Acting: Oscillating Between Euphoria and Despondence

With only 3 days left of hit play This Will End Badly at Southwark Playhouse, actor Ben Whybrow writes for CALM about the acting process and what it’s like to play three characters in one show, exploring the darker side of masculinity and misogyny…

The acting process for this play was and is like a marathon: Highs and lows but immensely satisfying.

During the lonely process of learning the script for This Will End Badly before rehearsals, I felt like I was losing my mind a little, which was actually quite a helpful place to be with regard to the themes of the play and characters.  Particularly the character ‘This Pain’, who is persevering trying to perfect a jingle while suffering from the stresses of OCD.

As a theatre actor I think there’s something intriguing in the process of reliving and retelling a play multiple times.  You have a story to tell and then there is a sort of pursuit of the perfect performance, which can never happen because of human fallibility, the live nature of the show and the shared experience with an audience all in their own headspace at any moment, but there’s a beauty in the application of trying.  I kind of liken it to when artists get obsessed with a particular scene, like Monet’s Haystacks; he returned again and again to this same motif and setting, different weather and light, but fundamentally he was trying to craft and perfect this scene.  Each version is beautiful in its own right, but he was never fully happy.  I think that’s how actors work, but we have the benefit of directors shaping the overall picture that we’re creating, and when you’re in a good collaboration you trust that shared vision.

Rehearsals were great; trying to create and solve a puzzle with these brilliant colleagues. Clive is an incredibly thorough and patient director so the process was relaxed but interrogative.  We combed over the play again and again and he’d ask lots of questions. Then we worked with an exercise called Points of Concentration, which helps the performer to play with different focal points and targets. We built this rich, textured bank of detail for each character, which I could then play about with in performance.  He makes you feel incredibly safe to play and take risks.

He’d just directed this brilliant revival of Little Malcolm by David Halliwell at Southwark Playhouse and it was on while we were rehearsing, so all of the work he’d been exploring involving ego-obsessed masculinity in Little Malcolm was inflecting and helping our work too. I think that’s interesting about theatre artists, like visual artists, you can see continuity in periods of their work.

Anyhow, one of the most difficult parts of the process was engaging with the play’s examination of deeply rooted, structural misogyny – from outright hatred, to shame, to semantics. It’s particularly overt in the character of ‘Meat Cute’, but there are also examples in the other two characters of ingrained casual misogyny, sometimes simply down to a choice of word or the language we use when talking about sex or familial relationships. This is so widespread, often even for men who would consider themselves liberal, egalitarian and feminist. Identifying flaws in the characters made me quite reflective about myself and my own behaviour.

The process was also different to any other work I’ve made because I didn’t have the camaraderie of other performers or social life that often comes from being in a company. It could be quite lonely, but I also think that helped to inform the three characters who are all isolated in their own ways.

I have a thread of work in my career where I’ve been part of devising teams, and I like to feel that everyone working on the project is part of the creative team.  Sometimes as an actor there is a delineation between the “creative team” and the “cast” but for the most part you are part of an ensemble of people who are sharing and making the experience.  The best thing about the TWEB process was that every single person involved is exceptional at their job, and I felt I was part of a company with the design team Giles Thomas, Kit Nairne and Jemima Robinson.  I remember Giles being in rehearsals on day one and his approach to his work on Sound design was so tied up in genuine collaboration, he was feeding in thoughts that I could use in building my performance.  I think what they’ve done is really astonishing; detailed, subtle and elevating the work.

After the community of the rehearsal room, during the final two weeks of Edinburgh, a long way from home and loved ones, I felt my first pangs of dislocation. The team had gone back to London and the loneliness of the solo performance started to kick in… Fortunately, I became conscious of this overwhelming community in Edinburgh, thousands of other performers all feeling tired and emotional, oscillating between euphoria and despondence!

Then I thought about the line in the play, Rob’s central motif of the field and how important perspective is: “…that Field will outlast us all.  It’ll be just a field for fucking centuries.  Without feelings or opinions or anything really.  For a long long time after we’ve gone.  And it’s good, thinking about the field.  It’s good for what it’s called…Perspective.”  It’s a real privilege to get opportunities like this, and, while it’s essential to take the work seriously, you also have to put theatre in context – I’m lucky to play for a living, which really isn’t all that hard.

I had a routine during the morning and early afternoon to prepare for the show.  I joined a beautiful swimming pool in Glenogles, would run to the seafront in Leith, or visit the botanical gardens and do a line run.  Then in my free time after the show, I went to galleries and saw as much work at the Fringe and International Festival as possible/affordable.  Amongst performers in Edinburgh there’s a really collegiate atmosphere, quite different to London, and even though there is competition for audiences, a genuine sense of good will, integrity and community.  It’s one of my favourite places so if I ever felt like my focus was drifting inwards, I’d try and look outward.

The whole experience was enlightening for me. The title of the show is This Will End Badly… yes, we all worry about things and feel the weight of pressures.  That’s why it’s so important to share your worries, be empathetic, kind and generous.

Buy tickets to This Will End Badly and get a £2 CALM supporter discount – enter the code ‘Miseryguts’ at the checkout.

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