My life in the mob

The chance to star alongside Ralph Fiennes in 'Julius Caesar' was irresistible for Nick Welch . But it hasn't all been standing ovations. He describes the long rehearsals, petty rivalries and bad reviews that marked his debut - as an unpaid extra
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The Independent Culture

It all started with a forwarded e-mail from a friend who was a Friend of the Young Vic. "The Young Vic Needs You", it said. "Fancy acting on stage at the Barbican in a production of Julius Caesar with Ralph Fiennes, John Shrapnel and Simon Russell Beale? Volunteers are required for a cast of 60 unpaid extras to bulk out the crowd."

One evening in February, a few weeks after applying, I report as requested by a cheery girl called Gabby to the Young Vic's rehearsal studios in Kennington for a casting. I have absolutely no idea what to expect.

We start off by introducing ourselves, with little tags to our names. I'm Nifty Nick. We do some co-ordination work: walking, stopping, starting. Towards the end, I become aware of a Polaroid assemblage in front of the director. The photos are laid out to get an idea of the shape of the crowd: some white, some black, some old, some young, some different, some ordinary; it's not personal, it's just the way it goes. They have taken enormous trouble to select us, some having been through three casting sessions.

A few days later, I get a call from Gabby: I am in the cast of Julius Caesar. The next time we get together there are 60 of us, and we are a company, in our way. There's Jackie, Glen who's deaf, his signer Hettie, Jolly Jessica, the irrepressible Freddie, the dapper Justin and the laughing Tholi, and a couple of Alexes (one quiet, one loud).

There are some other mature members too, like Carl and Hazel, and Estelle and Keith, so I don't feel too old, though I am to be known as Uncle Nick. Doug, the assistant director, is very encouraging about our efforts and we're introduced to Joyce, our movement director.

We start to do exercises to help us deliver what is required. Apparently, if left for more than a couple of minutes, groups fall into rhythms. Everybody starts walking in circles or falling into step. The trick is, apparently, to make us work as a group, but without letting us fall into these patterns. It's quite fascinating. I can imagine being a director, dealing with individual actors. But how to direct a crowd, how to make it move naturally and yet effectively? My mind boggles.

We also do simple exercises designed to help us to walk in a straight line and chew gum at the same time: if we can take a simple instruction on board and continue to do something else, we are on the way to being able to take direction.

One big issue on the first reading is the confusion created by the phrases "peace ho" and "stay ho", which crop up in the crowd scenes. To today's youth, these phrases have deeply sexist connotations. "What's all this 'peace ho' and 'stay ho' shit?" I'm asked. It's not "ho" in that sense, I say, its "ho" like in "hey". Confusion is settled, but mirth continues.

Our next rehearsal is in the Barbican itself. It's huge, a real actor's stage. We do a session on our own, and Doug points out that nobody took centre stage. Whether this was due to modesty or fear, I don't know. Then it's on to a rehearsal with the full cast. There are 30 principals, 40 professionals and 60 of us, the community cast.

We are thrown straight into the action. The main principals are to arrive at the feast of Lupercal and we cheer them on. They've been rehearsing with the 40 but have not experienced the full cry of the 60. I can see they're completely stunned. Who needs an audience? There is a huge and voluble crowd onstage.

This is confirmed by Cassius - aka Simon Russell Beale - with whom I share a ray of sunshine outside afterwards. He says it is really quite extraordinarily powerful. It seems that the director Deborah Warner's insistence on there being a 100-strong crowd is justified. I relay my conversation to members of the 60, who are reasonably chuffed.

We have been slightly knocked by the energy and professionalism of the 40. That being said, a certain rivalry has developed, not helped by the fact that the 40 are allowed to have drums and trumpets, while we are not. This does not prevent at least one of our number, Angel by name, from purloining a tambourine at a later run-through.

Wardrobe are now in evidence, and we are dragged off at intervals to be fitted out. I get a perfectly cut Burton suit from the early Eighties. Double-breasted, short jacket, it is very natty. It sort of makes up for my disappointment about the production being in modern dress. I rather fancied myself in a toga.

The costume has a bit of an impact on my performance; I feel rather unnatural shouting and jumping around as Antony calls us to mutiny and vengeance. I feel that my reaction to Antony's entreaties to "let slip the dogs of war" can only be one of mute horror. I try out this new approach, convinced that not all members of the crowd would have reacted in the same way, and quite pleased with the logic of it. I quietly develop this idea - until Joyce notices and tells me stop.

We are now rehearsing exclusively at the Barbican with the rest of the cast. We have two major scenes; the arrival of the bigwigs at the feast of Lupercal at the start of the play, and then listening to the speeches of Brutus and Antony, where we are turned first one way, then the other. We emerge into this scene in riotous mood, and another source of rivalry between us and the 40 emerges.

They seem to have access to bits of piping, and even hammers, to wave about. Some of our number feel left out and decide to help themselves to various spare bits of piping. Thus equipped, we do a very spirited run-through and are rather pleased with ourselves. But a stern voice comes from the semi-gloom of the auditorium; our enthusiastic pipe-waving has come to the notice of Miss Warner. All unauthorised pipes, hammers and bits of shelving are to be returned to the props bin forthwith, for reasons of health and safety.

On the other hand, we do have meal vouchers worth £6 to spend in the Green Room, which is buried deep beneath the stage. The grub is perfectly nice and our vouchers, along with our travel money (£4.30) mean that we're getting about a tenner per performance.

I miss my chance for a starring role. During one of the run-throughs, Warner decides that one of the fertility maidens in the Lupercal scene should have a bit of interaction with her proud parents in the crowd. I'm the right age, and I could have been a contender. But the job goes to Chris, a more mature member.

We successfully negotiate the dress rehearsal without making any horrendous blunders, apart from a mobile going off during Antony's speech, and begin the previews. The first preview is for us, in some way, the first night. There's a full auditorium, but it doesn't feel as nerve-racking as it might. Still, there is an atmosphere of excitement in the wings as we wait to go on, and a lot of whispers of "good luck", which is the wrong thing to say, followed by quick corrections of "break a leg".

We start to make our presence felt in the wings: "Caesar, Caesar," we shout. Suddenly, we are on. The whole thing has racked up a notch or two, and with the shouting, jumping, pushing, waving, flares, drums and trumpets, it feels like complete mayhem: quite rough, in fact. We charge offstage, still shouting, in no time at all.

We are packed in reasonably tight in our dressing room, F6; a dozen or so of us. This is pretty much the norm apart from the principals, and even they have to share. Caesar and Cassius seem to get on perfectly well in their dressing room, despite their onstage difficulties. A loudspeaker system relaying the stage action allows us to keep track of things in our dressing rooms, but twice I listen to Caesar being noisily dispatched while in the gents.

Press night is the big one as far as we are concerned. The tension is palpable, and we get a good pep talk from Doug and Joyce, before we charge roaring on to the stage. The 60 put everything into it. We shout, we roar, we push, we shove. It is all quite exhausting, but we have the prospect of the after-show party to keep us going.

The next day, The Independent, The Times and The Daily Telegraph are all pretty positive, with some particular mentions of the quality of the crowd, which are very gratifying, and are read out repeatedly in the dressing room. The Guardian is bit ambivalent, and the Mail takes a pop at a production with some avant-garde credentials. But the real corker for us is Nick de Jongh in the London Evening Standard. He's just mad about the crowd. He instantly becomes the toast of the 60, a man of impeccable judgement, taste and artistic sensibility. In fact, the only bad press we get is from the trade paper Variety, which takes a sniffy attitude to what it sees as a bunch of jumped-up amateurs showing off and getting overexcited.

We now settle into the run. It could become routine, but each night is different. Sometimes, it feels that we are really cooking, sometimes it feels a bit off the boil. We read our notes and try to act on them.

One of the most enjoyable features is the work we do with Ralph Fiennes. Our reactions to Mark Antony's speech are the most difficult and complex thing we have to do. We run through this scene quite a number of times, sometimes at great speed, sometimes with funny accents, culminating in a delightfully relaxed and camp version in which Fiennes manages to take the scene almost into knock-about comedy territory.

The Green Room, the social centre of the theatre, has but one small disadvantage - the noise in there can often drown out the loudspeaker system. There is a closed-circuit TV, but the picture is not as precise a guide as it could be to the state of things onstage. Indeed, one of our 60 who has been given a minor starring role as a candle-bearer in Caesar's palace misses his audio cue. His eyes light up with horror as he glances at the TV and sees the scene he's meant to be starring in unfolding. He exits at almost superhuman speed, legs and arms a blur, to re-emerge, seconds later and two flights up, walking sedately across the TV screen carrying his candle with great aplomb. This performance generates a standing ovation in the Green Room.

It is a punishing schedule - three-and-a-half hours, six nights a week, with a couple of matinées. Some of us, myself included, cannot make all the performances due to work and family commitments. As the community cast, we are allowed this unprecedented - and unprofessional - licence. They have brought in a dozen extras as cover if we can't make it. As our Estelle points out, we have understudies, which sounds rather grand. Still, on a couple of occasions, we seem a little thin. I understand that Warner is a bit peeved by this. She has apparently had to push quite hard to get the large crowd, and it's a bore to find us sloping off. But, on balance, we seem to be doing pretty well.

As the last night approaches, I find it all a little sad, but a relief too. I have rather got used to being in the play, and I feel that I am doing things better. The community cast have become chummy offstage, too, and I shall miss them.

Overall, it has been a really interesting and very pleasant experience. I'd recommend it to anyone who has ever dreamt of treading the boards.