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Guest Blog: Playwright Ben Brown On the Renewed Joy of Live Theatre

The author of 'A Splinter of Ice' sets up his intrigue-laden spy drama

Guest Blog: Playwright Ben Brown On the Renewed Joy of Live Theatre

I must admit, my first reaction was not wholly positive: some time in January this year, the producer Alastair Whatley rang to say that he proposed to go ahead with rehearsing my new play A Splinter of Ice in March, despite the national lockdown. But since it was now impossible to invite an audience to see it at the Everyman Theatre Cheltenham (where it had been due to open), he'd instead like to film it onstage in the empty auditorium and release it online.

I felt like I'd written a knife that would now be judged as a spoon.

Alastair said he needed to release it online in order to pay for the rehearsals, which he didn't want to postpone having finally got our terrific cast and director together.

And this, he assured me, would be a first - releasing online prior to a live theatre production. Alastair additionally pointed to the great track record the Original Theatre Company had in releasing other plays online, telling me to watch their first recording (filmed onstage just before the theatres closed in March last year), The Habit of Art. But they'd also learnt a lot since then, so, in terms of the production values, this, he assured me, would be "The Habit of Art plus!"

Most importantly, he promised that he would still go ahead with the now twice-postponed tour as soon as theatres re-opened in the summer.

So I reluctantly agreed, and some weeks later we gathered together in a church hall in Kennington for the most bizarre rehearsal process I've ever attended, since everyone but the actors wore masks. But it was even more exciting than usual, knowing that we were one of the very few plays, musicals, operas, or concerts - if not the only one - in rehearsal at that time.

Initially, Alastair had further shaken me by informing me that, because of the global pandemic, I wasn't to be allowed into the rehearsal room. In the end he managed to persuade the Covid officer that my attendance was "vital" to the production. Which of course, in my view at least, it was.

Matters were made even more complicated by the fact that not only was the play to be released online, it was to be largely directed online too. Or to be precise, on Zoom, since, for various reasons, the director Alan Strachan couldn't make it down from Scotland. So Alastair, co-directing, or the DSM, Felix, would often have to pick Alan (or rather his image on the laptop) up and transport him round the room for a better view. Or sometimes take him into a nearby cubbyhole to fix a technical fault.

Finally, though, the play was rehearsed, and towards the end of March we reassembled in Cheltenham, where, with the help of the filmmaker Tristan Shepherd, Alastair shot the play.

Guest Blog: Playwright Ben Brown On the Renewed Joy of Live Theatre
Ben Brown

Initially, I think the actors had assumed they'd give theatre performances but, as Oliver Ford Davies (playing Graham Greene) said, once they had cameras three feet away it was inevitable that they'd adjust their performances to a more filmic mode. Or as I overheard an exhausted Stephen Boxer (playing Kim Philby) saying, "it's like filming a feature in two days".

There's a line in the play when Philby says to Greene, "Yes, well, neither of us made life easy for ourselves, did we?" which suddenly felt extraordinarily apt as these two great theatre actors toiled away for twelve hours a day.

While the rest of us rested, Alastair, Tristan and the sound designer, Max Pappenheim, edited the 90-minute online film and I don't think they could have done a better job. As Alan commented, they managed to capture the essence of the play. And, of course, close-ups have their advantages.

But I can't pretend that I'm anything other than delighted that the play is now finally being produced, as intended, in theatres across the country (with Karen Ascoe replacing Sara Crowe, who is unavailable for the tour, as Philby's wife, Rufa) in front of real-life audiences who can feel like they're in the same room as the actors, as in a sense they are. That, after all, is the magic of live theatre, which I for one have missed enormously.

So I feel hugely privileged to be the writer of Original Theatre Company's first new play going out on tour since the theatres closed more than fourteen months ago, and I am very grateful to Alastair for keeping his promise.

A Splinter of Ice tours through 31 July and can be streamed online

Photo c. James Findlay

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