The following extracts are taken from the late Tim Pigott-Smith’s memoir Do You Know Who I Am?, published 4th May 2017.
My work at the National concluded with Peter [Hall]’s last project. His time as artistic director was drawing to a close, and the late plays of Shakespeare struck a farewell chord. He was always clear about doing The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, and eventually decided on Cymbeline, in which he asked me to play Iachimo. My other parts were Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and Trinculo in The Tempest. This was a huge project with an ensemble at its heart: one company – led by Michael Bryant playing Prospero, and the Old Shepherd in WT – three plays in three months. It was too much. I discovered that rehearsing three parts simultaneously is impossible. In rep I got used to playing one part and rehearsing another, but rehearsing three different parts (and, early on in rehearsals, playing two others) created system overload. On my way into the theatre one day, I thought, ‘Why don’t I just turn the car round and go the other way?’ We were overworked and under-rehearsed, not properly ready when we opened. Touring Moscow, Tbilisi, Tokyo and Epidaurus, although quite thrilling, got to us all.
My big role was Leontes, whose jealousy spirals him into fury and madness. He says, in a fevered early soliloquy, ‘I have tremor cordis on me’ – shaking of the heart. This interested me, so I did some research into heart disease and discovered myocarditis, a condition of the heart that affects the brain for about three months. It goes on and off like a tap – just what happens to Leontes. Peter and I discussed the first scene when Leontes, watching his best friend talking to his pregnant wife, turns to the audience and says, ‘Too hot, too hot!’ – the moment when the tap is turned on . . . One of the fundamentals when using the structure of the verse is that when one line is divided between two – or, as is rarely the case, three – people, you work together to retain the linear structure. This is very pleasurable – tossing the ball about, maintaining shape. Leontes’ explosion looks like this on the page: Hermione is talking to Polixenes about their relationship, and the verse runs . . .
HERMIONE . . . Th’other
for some while a friend.
LEONTES Too hot, too hot!
Two speakers, five stresses, one line: it is what we call a half-line pick-up. Shakespeare is clear that he does not want any air around this, he wants shock, an explosion. The play is set in Sicily, and the effect of this line on the play should be like Mount Etna erupting. This chimed with my discovery of myocarditis, so Peter and I went for it. It was great in theory, but it took me about six weeks’ playing to find out how to take the audience by surprise without alienating them.
The later scenes are among the most magical I have ever acted. The primal power of The Winter’s Tale is so immense that it seemed to rise up through the stage floor, and unless I held it at bay it simply engulfed me, and I could barely speak.
The ‘resurrection’ of Hermione usually places her – the statue – upstage centre, in the Elizabethan inner stage as it were, so the audience cannot see the faces of the speakers. Peter staged it quite brilliantly, bringing Hermione centre stage on a moving plinth, so that we could walk round her. Eileen Atkins was superb as Paulina, leading us through this final ‘holy’ scene with great delicacy. Encouraged by Peter, we felt that a cosy conclusion was unsuitable, but we learnt that if we did not hint strongly enough at a positive future, audiences simply did not like it. Resurrection is in the DNA of drama. It was a question of balance and it took time to achieve.
Peter was keen to illustrate the themes of madness, anger and revenge that the three plays share, and, although Cymbeline was majestic in the Cottesloe, it did not transfer well to the Olivier, and The Tempest was confused. So Peter’s send-off was only good in parts and brought to an end my first, very happy and productive experience of working at the National.
When the RSC and the National were new, there was an energy about the concept of major subsidised companies which drove them. Times were changing. Immense cultural factories had been erected and now the job was not just to relish their existence, but to find sufficient quality material to keep the idea alive.
Our great institutions have to reinvent themselves constantly, not only by redefining the greatness of the past, and nurturing the writers of the future, but in reflecting the ethnic and social diversity of a rapidly changing world. It is harder for the RSC because they have to repeat ad infinitum the same plays. The fuel that should drive any play is passion – the need, the desire, to put it on. Directors queue up to do Hamlet, but fewer of them are burning to do King Henry VI Part One. It is beyond challenging, and the truth is you cannot please all of the people all of the time. That is one reason why subsidy is essential.
At an Equity meeting in 2008, I think (challenging yet another round of arts cuts), Miriam Karlin spoke. Great actress, old as the hills, she recalled a time when the Arts Council had been an ally, working hand in hand with our profession. By using sponsorship, Thatcher drove a wedge between us and our funding body, and, because cash is short, the relationship has never been repaired.
During my time at the National, Dame Peggy Ashcroft reached 80. Celebrations were planned for a Gala at the Old Vic and the Jewel in the Crown company was asked to contribute. Charlie Dance cleverly came up with an old sketch based on the doggerel verse ‘There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu!’. It provided lots of parts, and was aptly suggestive of the subcontinent. The sketch needed a fall guy, and, because Ronald Merrick was unpopular, I was given the role of the ‘reciter’.
It was decided that everyone should wear one detail of costume that was reminiscent of their character in the series. The solution for Merrick was obvious – he lost an arm and wore a prosthetic with a leather glove on it. So I wore a black glove, and did a fair bit of silly, amputated arm acting. The sketch was part of a star-studded Gala, full of affection for Dame Peg.
I was asked recently what the generic term for actors was, and I suggested ‘a babel’ – put a bunch of actors together and they will talk and talk. And if there’s any food around, they will eat it! During the melee backstage, Judi wandered into our dressing room and caught me rehearsing. She became almost immediately hysterical. For some reason my black-glove antics made her laugh. Judi has the most infectious – not even bordering on dirty – filthy laugh. Whenever she saw me in the course of the evening, she pointed at the black glove, put her hand over her mouth and suppressed helpless giggles.
The night after the Gala we were performing Antony and Cleopatra. In the great final scene of the play, Cleopatra waits to meet the young upstart Caesar who has driven Antony to his death. Judi was enthroned plumb centre, facing the main gangway of the Olivier, down which I clanked, in full armour to meet her. One of the joys of my final two entrances in the play was that between them I could stand at the back and watch Judi.
I dreamed there was an Emperor – Antony.
Oh such another sleep that I might see
But such another man.
The night after the Gala, just before I made my entrance down the gangway to Judi, I realised that I was wearing black leather gauntlets. The temptation was too much for me. I shoved one glove behind my breastplate, rattled my way down the gangway, and did as much one-armed, black-glove acting as I dared, without causing the audience to suspect that Octavius had suddenly become an amputee. Judi’s eyesight has never been that great, so I practically stuck the glove under her nose. Nevertheless, she swore blind – as it were – that she had not seen anything. Other people had noticed, and asked me what was going on, but Judi pretended nothing had happened. It was like a challenge.
I plotted. The obvious place to put a glove was in the basket of asps that is delivered to Cleopatra. So I schemed with Greavesy, our props man, to place the black glove on the fig leaves in the basket, positioning the slow worm – the asp – on top of that, thus providing maximum visibility for Judi, but nothing that would be apparent to the house. That night I was watching like a hawk to see if Judi noticed. She took the lid off the basket, leant forward, and then, I swear, she gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. Not a bad reaction really – easily interpreted by the audience as horror at the sight of the venomous asp. I knew better. After the show, Judi said, ‘You just wait, Pigott-Smith.’ And so The Game began.
I framed a black glove and sent it to Judi for the first night of her Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard at the Aldwych. Pam and I wanted to surprise her, and did not tell her when we were going to see it. At the interval, the company manager greeted us in the lobby of that gorgeous theatre – another gem designed by Frank Matcham. He said, ‘Dame Judi sends her regards’, and handed me a black glove. The witch!
From these simple beginnings in 1987, The Game has evolved into getting any black glove to the other person, in any shape or form, at any time. One of its most recent incarnations, sent by Judi for my birthday, was a box of marshmallows with pictures – photographs – on, of a black glove: we have been playing The Game so long, we are obliged to be inventive. My retaliation was to give Judi a mug with a black glove on it, for the first night of her Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. A potter friend of mine made a tile with a black glove on for Judi’s last birthday. My most recent gift from Judi was a cushion with a glove appliquéd on to it – a response to a tapestry ‘black glove’ cushion made for me by Joyce Nettles, our leading theatrical casting director.
As ‘gloving’ plans became more complex – and more competitive – other people became involved. No plot was more intricate than the one involving Kevin Spacey. I played Larry Slade in Howard Davies’s production of The Iceman Cometh in 1998–99, so I was with Kevin on and off for about two years. Knowing him to be a great prankster, I felt comfortable asking him if he would ‘glove’ Judi when they were filming The Shipping News.
‘How do I do that?’ he asked
‘Well, you could tape it to her trailer mirror so that when she takes a look at herself, she sees it there. You’re filming in Alaska, so for the glove to turn up at all will be a major coup for me. The possibilities are endless.’
‘Like?’ Kevin enquired.
‘I once made a frame from a wire coat hanger, and planted it, with the glove on, in her dressing-room window box.’
‘How did that work?’
‘Well, Judi and I were doing different plays at the National. I was playing Leicester in Mary Stuart, and Judi was doing A Little Night Music. I knew there would be something for me on my first night . . . ’ (although even I had not expected a heavy box, delivered by Emma B, one of the National’s stage management treasures). As Emma gave it to me, she said, ‘I hope you like it. It nearly killed me!’ Judi had given her the task of setting a black glove in Perspex. And during one of her experiments, it had literally blown up. The Perspex glove is in my study.
I explained to Kevin that on matinee days gloves went back and forth, each of us trying to outdo the other, enlisting anyone and everyone in our plots: the guy who pulled my boots off, onstage, slipped the glove into my hand. One matinee, when Judi opened her parasol, there was the glove, hanging in front of her nose. She organised someone to give it to me at the curtain call. I managed to get it into her serviette so that when she unfolded it, there was the glove. When Mary Stuart completed its run, A Little Night Music had not. This meant that I was leaving the theatre, but Judi was staying on. I knew she would want the last word.
Do You Know Who I Am? by the late Tim Pigott-Smith is published by Bloomsbury, and is available now at 10% off the R.R.P.