Bean-bag jugglers head for Canterbury

THE DIARY

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ust back from a weekend relaxing in Malta and trying to recoup my energies without succumbing to an inevitable cold. It's hard to come down after the opening of a play. (I've been directing Four Nights in Knaresborough at the Tricycle Theatre in London.) There has been so much adrenalin pumping through my body over the past few weeks and now it's all over - the director is no longer required.

The play is inspired by the murder of Thomas a Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 and revolves around four knights hiding out in a castle after the body is found - medieval England with a Tarantinoesque twist.

Within minutes the actors are cursing away. We didn't know whether people would accept the mix of a period setting with modern language, but it seems to work. It makes the play more accessible having no yeahs or nays.

The action takes place over a whole year and covers day-to-day problems like queuing for the bath. When they run out of money the knights decide to open the castle to the public as a stately home in an early example of aristocratic entrepreneurial spirit.

n

Despite it's modern elements, the play has plenty of 12th-century influence, too. The first day of rehearsals was spent with a fight arranger talking about weapons and fighting. The four knights (onny Lee Miller, ames Purefoy, Martin Marquez and Chris Fulford - Mali Harries is the only woman in the play) picked out their swords and tried exercises with the weapons. A little bit daunting as one imagines a possible coup against the director could be quite bloody. After lunch a medievalist and Becket scholar, Ann Duggan, talked to us about the period. It's fascinating to listen to an expert who can articulate her subject so clearly. It was difficult for Paul Corcoran, the writer, to sit and listen to an expert picking through his ideas, but fortunately she agreed with most of his research.

n

Rehearsing at the Tricycle is very nice; there is a very good community theatre atmosphere. Our work is very concentrated and all the actors have to be there all the time. To avoid numb bums we get up and throw bean bags to each other, the idea being that we keep three bean bags going without dropping them - team juggling. Chris has brought his weights in, so there is much pumping of iron in the corner. They're a fit lot. onny sometimes runs to rehearsal and back again. ames indulges in more discreet pumping! Going out at night is unusual when one is directing, but I did manage to attend a Glasgow University fund-raising dinner at Lord Irvine's famous apartment at the House Lords - and got to see the infamous wallpaper.

n

The bean-bagging record was broken on the day of the company outing to Canterbury Cathedral. It now stands at five minutes, four seconds - a world record as far as we're concerned.

We had a very good guide at the cathedral who took us on a tour to where the archbishop was martyred. At one stage the cathedral suddenly filled with music as they rehearsed for an evening concert - very spooky and impressive. So we retired to the Thomas a Becket pub for a spot of Dutch courage.

n

The preview stage is always strange. When it comes to sharing the play with the audience one starts to have doubts. The actors feel it, too. Until this point they have only been performing to one person and suddenly they're confronted with a full house. You prepare as much as you can and try to keep the actors calm. After that you feel you are owed a party. We started at the Tricycle and went on to the Groucho and Soho House, but I can't say I remember much about it. You just keep feeling, I've done it, I've done it.

n

As I'm no longer essential at the Tricycle, I've been able to do something different this week. I've been doing the rounds of the universities. First Glasgow, where I'm rector, for a dinner and then Durham to speak to the Union. Not a debate, just me talking to them about being a cult figure, actor and director. I'm not one of those directors who watches his play every night; nor am I the type who never goes. I like to get back every now and then. We've bonded well as a company - the actors even brought their partners and children to see the traditional Tricycle Theatre puppet show - so it's hard to let go. After all, that's what Four Nights is all about: loyalty, love and some good old-fashioned male bonding.

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