Tim Key: "Daniel Kitson knows what he wants. And he’ll physically smash my hands to pieces to get it."


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The Independent Online

I am currently performing in a play in the North, and have been knocking my column together in the wings in between takes.

The play I’m doing takes place in a theatre in Manchester, Lancastershire. I’ve read it a few times now – I have to get to grips with entrances, exits and lines – and it’s dynamite. It’s about trees and was written, in August, by a writer/director in his thirties/forties, called Daniel Kitson.

Working with Daniel Kitson is a real treat. Hugely talented and odd-looking, he is, primarily, a disciplinarian. Like an old-school piano teacher, he carries an eating fork and if I ever get a line wrong or inflect my voice imprecisely, he strikes me hard on the back of the hand with the fork and pushes his face right up against mine. It’s high pressure. But it gets results. Constantly in my grill, like Hitchcock, he’ll yell “Volume” if I’m undercooking it and if I’m doing a speech badly he’ll yell “Wanker” and I’ll feel his eating fork or a ladle fly past my nose. Tough in rehearsals, it’s been a nightmare in the performances.

He’s carrot as much as he is stick, however. If I produce a particularly sensible piece of blocking or I bring a prop in that we can use in the show, he will immediately high-five me or give me a whole loaf of Jamaican Ginger Cake. He’s that kind of boss. He knows what he wants, sure. And he’ll physically smash my hands to pieces to get it. But at the same time, he isn’t an arsehole. And during the rehearsal process he was relaxed and good fun to be around. In the afternoons he would take his top off and I had to, too. And we’d line-run in his garden, in the cold, often until it was dark.

I haven’t really worked on too many plays over the years. I focus on other arts; radio documentaries, the movies, ads, so I don’t know how other writer/directors work. I imagine there are some that just let you get on with it, renting the cast a dormitory, fuzzing in shitloads of alcohol and copies of the script, locking the door and coming back five weeks later, slapping them in costumes and putting them on the stage. I have a friend who studied at Rada and he said he worked once with a man who believed that all of the actors should learn all of the parts and should say them all at the same time, no matter how brutal the audience reaction became.

Our process has been very involved. We like to know the script inside out and we went on various field trips in order to get under its skin. In this play, for example, one of the characters mentions a rat and so we went to a zoo to observe a rat. “The audience knows,” was Daniel Kitson’s point. “They know if you’re just saying the word rat.” By the same token, I gained work experience as a Civil Rights lawyer and Daniel Kitson put me through a wood-chipping machine. Now, when I utter these words, I feel they are laced with my experiences, and the audience gasps.

We’ve been working ‘in the round’ these past two weeks at Manchester’s beautiful Royal Exchange. If you don’t know what that means, it’s where the audience sits in a big circle. They can watch what’s going on or, if they prefer, they can observe the audience members opposite, depending on whether they are more into art or real-life. It’s a challenge for an actor. When you’re working in the round, you have to give everyone a fair chance to see all of your body and I find myself constantly spinning round in the middle to give all of the blurred faces a fair crack at seeing my facial expressions and thighs. It’s dizzying, yes, but we’re almost done now.

Our run is all but over, and it’s been a blast. I’ve got on great with the cast and have enjoyed riding Manchester’s trams and canals. Mostly, I’ve enjoyed working with the writer/director. A charismatic, exacting and often combustible man, he’s kept me on my toes and kept me honest. And he’s given me a thirst for this kind of shit, which I look forward to slaking when the right script next comes along.