Act one, scene one
The curtain opens on the offices of The Spectator magazine, London SW1, where a woman stands, stage left, staring at a telephone. A clock on the wall says 7.15. Something about the woman’s demeanour suggests it to be p.m. How long can she look at a phone? Just as the audience is beginning to wonder, the woman sighs, picks up a sheaf of papers from the desk and starts to read out loud:
Me: Tom Hollander, actor, born 1967. Read English at Cambridge. TV and film credits include: Absolutely Fabulous, Martha, Meet Daniel and Laurence, Gosford Park, The Lost Prince and Pride and Prejudice…Pirates of the Caribbean parts I and II. The Libertine with Johnny Depp, Elizabeth: The Golden Age with Cate Blanchett…In 2006, took part in the 24-hour plays at the Old Vic.
She looks up at the clock: 7.25, then down at a photo of Tom (the foxy one, you see to the right) as the light dims.
Stage right. Tom Hollander is sitting in an armchair in front of a gas fire in Berlin, reading the script of his latest flick — a Tom Cruise vehicle about von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler, with a cast of starry Brits: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard. How do we know it’s Berlin? We just do.
As Tom takes a sip of tea, the clock hands hit 7.30 and his mobile rings.
Both sides of the stage are now lit.
M: Hello, it’s Mary from The Spectator.
Tom (leaning back and stretching): Mary! Hello, hello, hello.
M: Are you all right to speak now?
T: Yes, absolutely. I’ve finished filming, I’ve made a cup of tea, I’ve turned the fire on. (Sips tea)
M: Lovely! So we’re going to talk about the 24-hour plays at the Old Vic, but I’m afraid I don’t know anything about them. What are they?
T (in a sarcastic drawl): Well…there’s a clue’s in the name. You write, rehearse and perform a play in 24 hours.
M (recovering ground): Yes, absolutely, but I mean how does it work? Talk me through what will happen on 11 November.
T: Well, everybody arrives at the Old Vic at 7.30 on the Saturday night —
on 10 November. There are eight or so writers and 30 actors, and Kevin Spacey presiding. And all the actors have to bring a prop.
M: What sort of thing? What did you bring last year?
T: I brought a…
M (struck by inspiration): Pineapple! I bet it was a pineapple!
T: No. It was a round squash called a Little Gem. My mother grows them. You could take anything. Somebody brought a big multicoloured coat, somebody else brought a big African instrument.
M: What are the props for?
T: It’s a way for the writers to get inspired and to have ideas about your character. All the actors sit around in a circle and introduce themselves and their props whilst the writers take notes. I said, ‘I’m Tom and this is a gourd my mother grew.’ It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous for jumble-sale addicts. But
I’ll know better than to bring a gourd this year.
M: Because the writers cast you as a mummy-loving vegetable?
T: Exactly! Yes. I was cast as a mother-dominated homosexual. (Sighs) Again. Tom Hollander’s landline rings, off-stage. Would you excuse me a second?
M leafs through the pile of cuttings again, finds one from the Evening Standard and reads: ‘Tom Hollander and his girlfriend are at number three in our list of London’s most desirable dinner party guest couples.’ Just one place beneath David and Samantha Cameron. Fancy.
T: Hello, again.
M: Hi. So what happens after the props and the introducing?
T: The actors all go away and basically get a good night’s sleep, and then the writers begin an awful, ghastly version of the school playground team-picking. It’s like gypsy horse-trading basically: ‘I’ll give you Rufus Sewell if you’ll give me Greta Scacchi. Please, I don’t want Joe Fiennes, does anyone want Joe Fiennes?’ Then when
all the writers have the characters they want, they stay up all night writing plays.
M: And the actors don’t appear again until next morning?
T: Actually, one person last year didn’t turn up. Right at the last minute. That was very, very bad. Unbelievable, actually.
M: Who was that?
A three-second silence.
T (in a dramatic whisper): I can’t tell you! So, anyway, then you turn up to learn your lines, and hope and pray that the writer hasn’t given you a long speech.
M: What did you think when you saw your part last year?
T: I thought: ‘Oh, no, I’m gay again.’ I’ve played a lot of gay men. But it’s my fault. I should have known better than to bring a gourd and mention my mother. Next time I’m going to bring a…lion, which I’ve just killed and dragged down the road.
M (excited): Yes, or maybe an axe!
T (deadpan): No. A lion is better.
M: Oh. OK. So, as an actor, you’ve only really got six hours to learn and rehearse, not 24.
T: Yes, and it’s quite refreshing, actually. You pass through that anxiety which normally takes a fortnight — thinking, oh, no, my part’s too small! Oh, no, my part’s too big! I can’t believe they see me in that way — and you rush straight on to the ‘can I remember my lines or not?’ bit.
M: When you’re watching the other actors’ plays, do you slightly hope someone fluffs it, so as to take the pressure off you?
T (outraged): No, you f***ing do not! What sort of person are you? You feel co-dependently involved, you feel sick. You think, that could be me! Are you familiar with the term co-dependence, because that term does sum it up?
M: Not really.
T laughs: Oh, dear. Well, lucky you. Look, it’s when people go into relationships with people where if one person’s feeling a bit shy, the other person immediately starts getting involved in the world of shyness. You’re so keen to empathise that you end up getting sucked in. That’s what it feels like at the Old Vic.
M: So it’s a real hothouse atmosphere in the cast, very tight?
T: Yes, and the audience have been cranked up brilliantly by Kevin Spacey and are just waiting for someone to make a mistake, as if they were in the Colosseum. You can feel the adrenaline coming through the back of the stage.
M: Do the audience or the directors judge the plays? Thumbs up or down like the Emperor did in the Colosseum?
T: No, of course not! You sadist! It’s obvious which ones are good and which ones are dreadful, but no one stands up and says, ‘You were CRAP!’ Because they’re all so grateful that anyone’s turned up to do it at all.
M: And do they write anything decent? Are the plays any good?
T: Obviously, most of them are dreadful, but every so often one of them is brilliant!
M: You proved to yourself that you can do it, so why are you doing it again?
T: Why am I doing it again? Um…because it’s an adrenaline rush, it’s fun! It’s like having, I dunno, air blasted through your gaskets!
M: So, is there anything else you’d like to say about the 24-hour plays that you haven’t yet said?
T (decisively): No.
M laughs: OK, then, I’ll let you go now and thank you.
T: I hope it’s not too ghastly having to write it up.
The 24-hour plays are at the Old Vic on Sunday, 11 November 2007; www.oldvictheatre.com/galafundraiser