Exeunt, In Pursuit of Rylance

"Is this for Shakespeare in the Abbey?" someone asks, indicating the queue.

The person positioned at the end of it, a woman wearing a red tabard that makes her look like she's a hospital cleaner who just popped outside for a cheeky cigarette but actually is one of the Shakespeare's Globe crew, nods. "This is for Shakespeare, yes."

"Is it for tickets?"

Tabard-lady's brow creases. "That," she says, with a dramatic pause. "I can't tell you."

The question asker joins the queue anyway. I do too.

"I'm just making sure that people know what they're waiting for so they don't think they're getting into the abbey," continues to Tabard-lady.

I very much hope we are, in fact, getting into the abbey. That's why I'm here. Shakespeare in the Abbey. I'm rather banking on the title being an indication of what I'm getting. Because if not, I won't have a venue to check off this marathon.

And as venues goes, this one is bloody impressive. The pavements are blocked solid all the way around as tourists try to capture the perfect selfie with the rising towers of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Usually, in order to get those images of a venue's exterior that go up on my Official Theatre List after I've visited them, I'll cross a road so I can fit the entire building within the frame. But there was no chance of that here. I'd have had to catch the ferry to France to get any hope of fitting all of that Gothic goodness in one picture.

I did my best. And I certainly captured a certain something. The essence of the abbey. With a hint of the moody sky above and the swam of tiny little people below.

The queue shifts forward, taking me through a pair of doors so massive a double-decker bus wouldn't even need to fold in its side mirrors to get through.

There's someone only the other side with one of those plastic boxes that are made to keep recipe cards in, but literally no one keeps recipe cards in. The type of person who actually writes recipe cards is the type of person who will also decoupage their own damn box for them. So, instead these boxes are used by theatres to sort the night's tickets ready for pick up.

I give my name, and get my ticket, and a nice recipe for choux buns.

I keep on going. Through the shadowy gate-way and out into the brightness of a large courtyard.

There's another tabard-wearer stationed out here, pointing people in the right direction and handing out free programmes. Which in this case, is left.

I'm already feeling lost.

Westminster Abbey, which looked like such an imposing monolith from the outside, now appears to be a jumble of buildings nestled together for warmth when seen from the back. Like turning over a beautiful piece of embroidery and seeing all the messy stitch-work.

But I don't get lost. There are tabard-wearers at every corner. And then, at the metal gate that will whisk us inside, a very fancy security guard. He has a gold badge on his hat. It matches nicely with the gilding on the gate.

I don't know whether you've ever been before, but Westminster Abbey is fucking old. Like seriously. I mean, I knew it was old. Intellectually. But I don't think you really understand how fucking ancient it fucking it until you are there, standing on the same flagstones that people literally almost a thousand years ago also shuffled their way across.

Frickin kings have walked over these stones. And not just any kings. All the damn kings. And the queens. Especially the queens, I imagine. Stilettos can pox-mark a wooden floor within seconds. Just think want they can do with centuries of heel action.

There are grave stones set into the floor that have been walked over so much that their lettering has been smudged into oblivion.

The corridor starts to fill with Shakespeare-seekers, adding to the smudging of the stones beneath our feet.

Especially my feet. I'm not feeling particular light on them today. Top tip from an experienced theatregoer: if you are planning on attending a promenade performance in the evening, don't order a Chinese takeaway for lunch. And definitely don't consume six slices of sesame prawn toast on top of the curry you were convinced was a good idea when your coworker told you she had a free delivery voucher on Uber Eats.

Oh man. That sesame prawn toast is weighing heavy on me.

I really want to sit down, but I'm pretty sure that if I allow myself to do that I might as well snuggle up with one of the skeletons under the stones as I won't be getting up again any time soon.

I start reading the programme in an attempt to distract myself.

There's a welcome note from Mark Rylance. "You are about to meet many much-loved characters from Shakespeare," it reads. Blah blah blah. Whatever Mark. I skip down a few paragraphs. "As if by chance, you will find actors sometimes even when you aren't looking for them." Blimey. Am I finding the actors? Or are they finding me? Is that a threat, Mark Rylance?

"They will be speaking Shakespeare with you in a random, intimate, and improvised manner. In return, you don't have to do anything other than listen, respond if you wish, and move where your heart takes you."

Respond how I wish?

I don't know, man. I'm not big on improvised responses. I think I'll be skipping that one. As for moving where my heart takes me, Mark Rylance - you think my stomach is an idiot? Wait til you meet my heart.

Oh well. There's no backing out now. It's not like I haven't prostrated myself at the altar of immersive Shakespeare before. Might as well do it in an abbey.

Eventually, the doors open, and we slowly begin to filter in. At first I can't work out what the hold up is. I thought this lot would be bursting to get their Shakespeare on. But as it's my turn to walk up the stone steps and pass through the ancient wooden door, I finally understand. It's hard to move with your neck craned up as far as it will go, gazing at all the wonders of that spectacular vaulted ceiling, hundreds of feet above you. And then, just as the crick is about to become permanent, my eyes lower, following the lines of the fluted stone, down the walls, past the windows, circling around all the impossibly delicate looking twiddly carvings and then finally back to earth, and those uneven flagstones.

I keep my eyes on the flagstones. I can handle the flagstones. Focusing on them feels right. They're about level with us mortals. I feel comfortable with the flagstones. I understand the flagstones. Worn by the years and carrying the load of too many people.

I wonder how Mark Rylance would feel about me standing here, communing with the flagstones. Somehow, I don't think this is what he meant by "move where your heart takes you." For a start, I'm not moving.

Everyone is else. Now that the initial shock of this grand old building has worn off, people are scattering in every direction, in search of Shakespeare.

I turn left. Attracted by the pretty blue colour of the backing behind the rows of seats in what is, according to the programme, called the Quire.

I pass under a golden arch and then the abbey opens out before me into an impossible high and improbably wide space.

Scientist's Corner is on the right, and there's a small group over there inspecting all the carved memorials on the walls. But there's an even bigger group up ahead. A huge circle gathered around two actors. A man and a woman. I get closer, drawn by their voices.

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand," says Romeo. "This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

He kisses her.

Goodness. Is that allowed? In a church?

A little girl dressed head to foot in pink covers her eyes and presses her face into her mother's leg.

Her mother laughs and strokes the girl's hair.

They go through the rest of the scene. The girl slaps her hands over her scandalised eyes as lovers kiss again.

"You kiss by the book," says Juliet, before rushing out of the circle and off towards the Quire. A grinning Romeo follows close behind.

Just as the circle begins to disband, another pair emerge, as if from the crowd.

I don't recognise this scene. I can't tell what's going on. I decide to follow Mark Rylance's advice and move on.

There's a smaller gathering further back. Only ten or so people have made it all the way down here. There's one actor, dressed as an RAF officer and speaking so quietly he's almost drowned out by the pair near Scientists' Corner.

He's holding a toy plane.

He looks up and I see his face.

It's only Mark bloody Rylance.

He's doing Richard III. I've seen him do Richard III. But not like this. Not so softly. So gently. So damn close.

He walks towards us, reaches out, and strokes a woman's cheek.

She looks like she's about to faint. Or possibly implode.

Before she manages either, he moves away, walking around a grave. I look down. It's the unknown soldier, surrounded by a garland of paper poppies.

Rylance knees down next to it, flying his toy plan over the inscription.

He pauses. Silence.

And then he walks away.

I decide it's time for me to move on as well.

I've seen something in the programme maps and I want to check it out.

Back through the Quire, across the Lantern, through the North Transept, pausing for a moment to peer into the shrine to Edward the Confessor (very tricky, the barriers are super tall, I had to stand on my tippy-toes to catch a glimpse), up a short flight of stone steps, and then through a small and utterly unremarkable looking door. So unremarkable, I thought I might have taken a wrong turn, and was heading into some side office, or possibly an ancient cleaning cupboard. But no, the award stone corridor ends and I emerge into a palace of white marble. Every inch of the walls is carved into thousands of fluted channels and intricate flowers. And in the centre, a massive black tomb, surrounded by black railings, decorated with gold roses and initials.

I recognise the initials. Its the same ER I see on post boxes every day. But these are older. Much older. The OG ER. Elizabeth the fricking First.

There's an actor in here too. She's dressed in khakis. I don't know what she's reciting. It's not terribly interesting. I wait for her to finish and go away, and then plunge forward to inspect the tomb.

There's a stone effigy laid out on the tomb. A white marble head, wearing a white marble ruff, resting on a white marble pillow. She's wearing a crown. It doesn't look very comfortable.

I look around. I'm alone. "Ignore the haters," I whisper. "Donizetti was a moron."

That's a lie. I don't do that. But I think it. Very hard.

I check the programme. My next stop was on the other side of Lady Chapel.

I squeeze myself through the crowds.

I can't even get into this room.

I wait, as an endless procession of slow-moving people files out.

I must have just missed a performance.

Eventually, the clown-car joke comes to an end and I'm able to enter the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. Another marble effigy. Wearing another marble ruff. Resting on another marble pillow. The only difference between the two is the lack of a crown.

Even in death, they are the subject of comparison.

I look around for a sign as to why Mary Stuart is buried in London, but there's nothing.

That done, it was time for more Shakespeare. It didn't take me long to find it. In the next tomb is a young woman, dressed in a long blue gown. She's crying, gazing at a man with beseeching eyes. He looks really uncomfortable. His wife is finding it hilarious.

I see the same actor a few minutes later. She's not wearing the blue gown anymore. She's stripped down to a white shift. She's carrying what looks like a bunch of meadow grass and wandering around as if half in a dream. She stops a woman, and hands her a stem.

That must be Ophelia I think, hanging back to watch her with a professional interest.

She walks past me and catches my eye. She does not give me one of her meadow grasses.

I walk around again, catching sections of The Dream and Taming of the Shrew as I go. Young people wearing red or white roses circle the abbey, muttering about those blasted Montagues or Capulets as they go. Occasionally I see them sitting down with an audience member resting their feet on one of the chairs around the edges. Further in Ib spot two of them flirting with a woman via the medium of a sonnet - bouncing the rhyming couplets between the two of them as they take it in turns trying to win her hand and mock each other's attempts.

I'm retracing my steps back to the tombs. I fancy another look at Good Queen Bess. As I make my way, Martha Plimpton tries to rush past me with a basket, and asks me very sweetly to move aside.

I circle back round to the Quire. There's a huge crowd. As I get closer I can see why. There's Mark Rylance. He's doing a scene with Martha Plimpton and the basket.

It's Winter's Tale.

As they finish and hurry off and man sighs. "He's gone again," he says, before starting off after Rylance. He's not the only one. It looks like Rylance is now the head of a convoy of adoring fans.

I decide not to go off in pursuit.

But a minute later I'm bumping into them again. Rylance, Plimpton and the basket, at the unknown soldier's grave.

A trumpet sounds in the distance.

"Something is happening," says Plimpton, looking at us all. "Come," she says urging us forward a few steps, before turning around to stop us.

The Montagues and Capulet's come storming in, followed by the rest of the audience.

Plimpton guides us into a circle. "Can you see," she asks someone, before channelling a space and pushing them through to the front.

Rylance is doing the same.

He reaches deep into the crowd and pulls out an old lady. Her friend follows behind, taping her on the shoulder, her face scrunched up in glee. This is their moment. The rock star yanking them up on stage. The pair of them will be talking about that-time-Mark-Rylance-pulled-her-out-of-the-crowd for years to come.

Plimpton is now gesturing that the audience members in the front should sit in the ground. No one dares question her. They ease themselves down onto the cold flagstones.

The Montagues and Capulet's are batteling with words. Not Shakespeare's though. These are original words. They urge us all to shake hands and make friends. The actors walk around our circle, clasping the audience's hands as they do so, before leading a procession, out through the huge doors.

A song strikes up. And Pharrell Williams' Happy chases us out into the last of the day's sunshine.

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Over My Dead Body

A couple of my friends have a running joke that on the 31st December they are going to put on a one-woman play in one of their living rooms, sell tickets... and then not tell me about. Thereby bringing down my marathon at the final hurdle. Now, they would never really do this. Firstly because they are not that mean. And secondly, I'm fairly confident that marathons don't have hurdling involved (I could be wrong though, I don't follow sport).

Anyway, as I arrive at my next theatre on the list, I begin to wonder whether perhaps I had stumbled on their plan a little ahead of schedule as Drapers Hall didn't look anything like the image the name had conjured in my head and instead looked like a pleasant suburban bungalow. Albeit owned by someone with severe privacy issues, as the garden is almost hidden behind some very heavy duty black gates.

If it hadn't been for the poster board outside, I would have presumed it part of the estate that it lives in.

Which I suppose is the point.

The homely atmosphere extends in off the street, as the hallway is full of people shrugging off their coats to hang up on the rail, wandering around clutching steaming mugs of tea, and flopping down on the sofas.

I grew suspicious. Perhaps it really was a home, and this entire trip had been a meticulously planned prank from my friends. It was a little late for an April Fools', but it was all too perfect. If I were going to send me off to a fake show in a fake venue, then an immersive Hamlet would be exactly the sort of thing that I would plan in order to torture me.

Confession time! I've never seen Hamlet. Well, I've never seen it all the way through. I've seen bits of it. A touch of Tennant's while it was on TV. A dab of to be or not to be, acquired through cultural osmosis. I’ve watched that Tom Stoppard Play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And The Lion King. Seen that one. The film. Still have to make it to the musical. Although the countdown is on to get to that one…

As for immersive... well, you should already know my feelings about that by now.

I do my best to shake off the feeling. My friends wouldn't do that to me. They couldn't possibly be so cruel. Not least because one if them was supposed to go with me, but had to back out because she needed to go to some academic thing I didn't really understand that was happening at Yale... Oh.

I'm a cynical old bag by nature, but this conspiracy theory was a touch too extreme even for me. Still, I am so struck by the feeling that I have literally just wandered into someone's living room that it takes me a moment to realise that I should be checking in.

This is done, via mobile phone, and my name is instantly recognised.

Now, that isn't unusual. My name is very memorable. But sadly, this isn't the Smiles-effect at work here.

"You were supposed to be here..."

"Last Friday, yes."

That was true. I had booked to go last week, but the lovely people at BAC offered me the chance to crack through three of their spaces in one night, and when it comes to marathons, three theatres beats one every time. It's just basic maths.

Thankfully the people at Drapers Hall are even lovelier, and allowed me to switch my ticket to a different night.

"There's tea and food in the kitchen just round the corner, in exchange for a donation."

Well, this needed thorough investigation.

There really was a kitchen around the corner. A proper kitchen. Not some little pokey corner-room with just enough counter space to fit a kettle balanced on top of a microwave. There was an oven, with five hob rings. A chopping board lay ready to use next to it. I could have knocked out a Sunday roast in that kitchen if needs be. But there was no shortage of food. Beside the still steaming kettle, there was a plate of custard creams and an array of milks and fruit teas. And on the other side, there were crackers and houmous and hot cross buns and crisps and apple juice. No one was going hungry tonight.

“Follow me!” comes the call when the doors are opened. “You can take your drinks in, if you like.”

Many people do like, and they go through, clutching their cuppas for comfort and leading to the bizarre sight of ten or so people trying to work out what do with their mugs as they take their seats. The rest of us join the circle without the benefit of a soothing hot drink, and try not to look anxious.

The space is a small one. Not round exactly, but hexagonal - or one of those other geometric shapes that I can’t remember the name of - with high vaulted ceilings that stretch up into a sharp point above our heads.

It’s dark. There are wood panels. Kinda like a sauna. I’m certainly sweating out my nerves.

In the centre, sat on the floor, is Emily Carding - a name you will be familiar with if you’ve been following this blog from the beginning, as this is the third time her name has popped up in my posts (now beating Shakespeare by a single entry).

The doors close, sealing us in. That’s it. It’s happening. There’s no escape.

Emily Carding leaps up, ready to shake hands and greet us. Are my hands sweaty? They’re probably really sweaty. I hope they’re not sweaty.

No time to think of that. Carding is explaining what’s happening. We’re actors. We’re going to be given roles. Scripts are handed out.

First up: Horatio. That goes to a man sitting across the circle from me. Carding explains that it’s an important role. A speaking role, no less. He nods. He’s up to the challenge.

Next up… Carding comes over to me. “Will you be my Ophelia?”

Err. “Sure?”

Now, I may not have seen Hamlet, but I’m pretty sure that Ophelia is a significant role. Hamlet’s love interest, no less. Carding warns me that it’s going to be tough going. I’m going to get spoken to with some not very nice words. I smile nervously, trying not to show my fear. That was apparently the right thing to do. We were on. The role is mine.

As the other roles are handed out, I look at my script. I’m to take a letter and hand it back. Stand up. Sit down. Listen as people talk to me. That all sounds okay. I can deal with that. I stand up, sit down, and listen to people every day.

I keep reading.

I have a line. No, two.

Well, alright. Speaking is fine. Been doing that for years.

I keep reading.

Oh. Oh! I had forgotten the thing about Ophelia. The very important thing about Ophelia. The one thing that ends up defining Ophelia.

I was going to have to die.

I read the instructions. Then read them again just to make sure I understood them.

I say instructions, but this was no IKEA step-by-step breakdown of a theatrical suicide, but rather a guideline. Firstly, I was to tear up my script. Fine. Nice. I like it. But then I had to crumple the pages into flowers. Poetic. Nice. I like it. Except… how?

Carding gives our Laertes a stage combat less with invisible swords. She’s amazing. She’s got the stance down. She reveals she’s done this before.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear ohdear ohdearohdear.

We have a trained pro in our midst.

Don’t fuck up, Max, I order myself. And don’t you dare show fear.

A thought occurs. Perhaps showing fear was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Is that why Carding picked me? She could see the raging anxiety behind the eyes? I didn’t know enough about the role to tell. This Ophelia-chick is clearly not having a good time of it. Perhaps I should be all shaking-nerves. In which case, I’m nailing this.

As the play kicked off and my fellow audience members began performing their assigned parts, I tried to figure out the problem of the flowers.

I could tear my pages in half. That would be very dramatic, I thought. And then perhaps roll each half into a tulip, twisting the length into a stem. No. That would take far too long. And besides, the script said to crumple.

Polonius and Laertes come over to sit with me. “He’s mad,” says Laertes. “Completely bonkers. Wouldn’t you agree, Polonis?” She ad-libbing, and she’s great at it.

I nod. My script says I’m supposed to listen to them, but I chance a weak “right…” of agreement.

Hamlet’s writing a letter. Carding looks up and locks eyes with me.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.”

I mean… oof. That Shakespeare could write a mean love letter. No wonder Ophelia went barmy over this bloke.

I take the letter. My hands aren’t just sweating now. They’re shaking. I blame the contents. That is a damn inferno of words being held in them.

I hear my name. Ophelia’s name, even. That’s my cue. I get up. I’ve been told to return the letter to Hamlet. Carding won’t take it. I try again.

This is it. The scene I’ve been warned about. The letter is crumpled and tossed away. It looks so sad and pathetic on the ground. Like a child’s discarded homework.

“Get thee to a nunnery,” Carding orders.

I clutch my script. It creases under my grasp. That feels right. I try to leave, but Carding shifts to block me.

I’d always fancied that I’d make a rather good nun. I look great in black. But Carding says it with such venomous. My heart is thumping. Eventually, Hamlet is spent. The tirade is over. I’m allowed to return to my seat. I collapse into it.

Things aren’t going well for Hamlet either. He asks to sit in my lap while we watch a play, but Ophelia isn’t having it. A sentiment I can only sympathise with.

Hamlet kills Polonius and shouts at his mother, which is one hell of a day to be having.

“Tell Ophelia that Hamlet has killed you,” Carding orders the audience-member-formerly-known-as-Polonius.

This he does.

Oh god.

It was time for me to die.

I tear off a page of my script, crumpling it up and twisting the end to form a flower.

I offer it to the woman sitting next to me. She hesitates, then takes it.

The next flower goes to Laertes, sitting on my right.

I get up, crumpling the third page as I walk across the circle and hand over another flower. The fourth goes to Gertrude. The fifth and final page, the front cover which bears only the word OPHELIA, is given to Claudius.

I have no more pages left.

I go lie in the middle of the floor, crossing my arms over my chest, and close my eyes.

I try to channel Millais’ Ophelia. All wafting hair and serene expression. But I fear I’m more Elizabeth Siddal, freezing to death in the bath because she’s too frightened to tell the artist that the oil lamps keeping the water warm have gone out.

I can hear my fellow actors moving about. Eventually, Carding touches my arms, and I am released into the world of the dead, free to enjoy the rest of the play as an observer.

The invisible swords are back. Hamlet and Laertes are fighting. All rather exciting now that I’m a ghost.

 

Death after death follows. Laertes falls to the floor. Gertrude too. Claudius slumps back in his seat.

As Hamlet proclaims his final words, Laertes twists round to watch. Different rules apply when you’re a ghost.

Exeunt Hamlet.

We applaud, but Horatio steps forward to stop us. There is one speech left. He thanks us for our cooperation and bids us to applaud one another. This we do.

“You had a really tough role,” says Laertes as we pull on our coats.

Not quite as tough as hers. Making flowers is a lot less scary than sword-fighting.

“And your dress was so perfect!”

I look down. Oh. Yeah. I’m wearing my Forsythe dress. So called because it was once admired by the choreographer William Forsythe, and I like giving my favourite dresses names. Although it should more accurately be called the “Over my dead body” dress, because that’s what it says - right across the chest and down the arms. The arms I’d crossed over my chest while everyone had stood… over my dead body.

“That’s probably why you got picked as Ophelia.”

Probably. It must have been quite the sight when I was down on the ground being dead.

Hamlet may have escaped, but Carding doesn’t get away that easily. As we emerge back into the bright and welcoming light of Draper Hall’s foyer, we all queue up to thank her.

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My Pally Ally

I made it a whole 85 days without seeing any Shakespeare. Quite the achievement when I’ve seen 86 shows in that time, all in what has to be the most Shakespeare-centric city in the world. I used to joke that watching Shakespeare in London was unavoidable. Even if you don’t go to theatre. It’s everywhere. If you wanted, I’m fairly certain you could watch a live Shakespeare performance play every single day of the year (except, possibly, Christmas Day) and never have to cross the M25.

Actually, if anyone wants to give it a go, that sounds like a great blog, and I will fully support your endeavour…

Anyway, yes. Shakespeare. 85 days free. That’s one hell of a run in this environment.

I once managed a year of not seeing any Shakespeare (I’m not a newcomer to the year-long theatre-challenge), but when you are intent on visiting every theatre in London, and at least one of those theatres is dedicated to the work of that most over-produced of playwrights, well… I was going to have to go to one eventually.

Step forward the Alexandra Palace, which, for a very short time, contained the newest theatre in London. They are currently playing host to Headlong’s Richard III, which everyone and their dog has been raving about.

Once that decision was made, it was only a matter of selecting the right person to go with.

“I’ve already thought of a blog title,” I told Allison as we waited to get our bags checked and enter the theatre-foyer. We’d already had a good wander around the main foyer of the East Court. A vast space with curved glass ceilings and massive stone pillars that makes you truly understand why this palace is called a palace.

“Oh yeah?” she replies, demonstrating the kind of polite interest that only a true friend can pull out in the face of being told about a blog post title.

“Pal Al at the Al Pal,” I say, feeling very pleased with myself. “Or perhaps My Pal Al…?”

“My Pally Ally!” she crows back.

“Shit, that’s better than mine.” I mean, it is, isn’t it? And she got there in five seconds flat. I’d been crafting mine the whole way over. And while I’m not saying that I invited her just because her name is Allison, the fact that her name is Allison and she lives within stumbling distance of the Ally Pally was a thought that had crossed my mind.

At this point she pulls a tissue from her pocket and blows her nose delicately.

Ah yes. I’d forgotten to mention that. Allison is sick. With a proper nasty bug. And I’d dragged her out of her bed, on a freezing, dark night, to watch Shakespeare with me, because her name has great punning potential.

Never let it be said that I’m not a truly terrifying friend.

“Order you drinks for the interval at the bar, ladies,” advises someone as we step through the doors. “They’ll be a massive queue, I guarantee it.”

“Do we want drinks?” I ask Allison. But she’s ill and I’m not fussed so we head inside.

“It’s nice that they have a proper foyer. Theatres in London never have proper foyers,” says Allison. “There’s no where for everyone to go in an interval.”

This is so true. Outside of places like the Barbican, there really aren’t many foyers in London theatres. No ones that can fit more than four people and their respective umbrellas at the same time.

Through the next set of doors and we are plunged into proper theatre lighting. That is to say: it’s dark.

“You’re over there on the left,” says the ticket checker, and we head off to the left.

A few more steps and the modern sleekness, the shiny newness of it all, suddenly stops.

Here the walls are bare not because they have never been painted, but because they have been painted so long ago the colour has long since sloughed off.

“Please keep this area clear,” reads a sign. We do as it says and move on down the corridor. But we don’t get very far.

If Wilton’s is the mother of decayed theatrical elegance, then the theatre at Alexandra Palace is the grande dame. Wooden slats peak through the holes in the ornate ceiling, while bare brick walls compete for attention with the carved mouldings.

Strategically placed lights highlight what remains of the plasterwork and send the gargoyle features of the twin cat faces gazing out from either side of the old doors.

“Hmm,” says the ticket checker. Our third ticket checker of the evening. “Well, you’re in row N, which is right here,” he says, indicating the row. “But you’re way down the other side.”

We all look at the row N. It’s a very long row. And there’s some sort of sound desk in the middle.

 “Shall we go back round?” I suggest?

 “Yeah… that’s probably easiest.”

We go back out into the foyer and start again, this time going in the right direction, which is the right direction to take.

“For such a big venue, there’s not a lot of signage,” I tentatively suggest. Where other theatres might post a sign with some sort of indication of the seat numbers that can be accessed through each door, the Ally Pally posts people.

“Row N, just over here,” says our fourth ticket checker as we make our second attempt at entering the auditorium.

The seats are wide and covered with a peach coloured velvet which feels like moleskin. We all know my feelings about velvet. With seating this new, I almost manage to convince myself that giving them a quick pet isn't all that creepy and disgusting. There probably isn't even chewing gum stuck to the bottom yet.

"Are those mirrors," I ask, eventually managing to stop stroking the chair I was sitting in and start paying attention to the set.

"I think so," Allison croaks. She really doesn't sound good.

This play better be good or she's never going to forgive me.

Turns out they were mirrors. Six of them. Pointed into gothic arches and used as doors and windows through the performance. There's an article in the programme about Shakespeare and his use of mirrors in the programme (£4) which is well worth a read.

There's also lots of stuff about the history of the Ally Pally and its restoration, which is all rather fascinating, but doesn't answer the one question that I had about this place.

"What sort of work did they have here?" I asked during the interval, twisting around in my seat as I attempted to take a photo that would capture the sheer enormousness of the space. "Like music hall? Or plays? Surely not plays. It's way too big. Maybe opera?"

"Operetta probably," says Allison, demonstrating once again that even in the grips of the most nasty of colds she can still outthink me. Operetta does seem the most logical thing for the Ally Pally of old. Those fun-loving Victorians must have gone mad for a bit of Gilby and Sully in this room.

Thankfully with the benefits of modern technology, we could enjoy a proper play without the actors having to scream their lines at inappropriate moments.

"You know, I've never been much of a fan of Richard III, but I really fucking loved that," I said as the applause faded. We sat back in our seats as the audience began to file out. "I don't think I've ever seen it played that that. Actors usually amp up the evil, but he was pure cheeky chappy. I liked it."

I did like it. The Richard III ravers have all been going on about the physicality of Tom Mothersdale's performance, and yes... that's great. He moves those long legs of his like a dancer, propping his elbow against his knee and pushing down his full bodyweight as he leans in to whisper his plans to us. But its the whispering, not the leaning that does it for me. With a side-eye lifted straight from Fleabag we are let into the secrets of a very naughty schoolboy. This is Just William grown up and gone to the bad.

"If I go to Ally Pally station, can I get a train to Highbury and Islington?" I ask as we eventually heave our way out of the plush seats and head for the exit. I'd walked from Highgate to get there. It was a nice walk. Google Maps had sent me through some woodland which I always enjoy. I grew up with a wood on my doorstep, and I've always felt at home in them. The woods is a great place to go when you feel down. No one can hear you cry in the woods. But as the sky got darker, and the shadowers denser, I did question Google's thought-process in sending a woman walking through the woods... After all, no one can hear you cry in the woods.

Allison stuffs her tissue away. "I'll take you to the bus," she says, walking me out to the correct stop and rattling out instructions on how I need to get home.

Honestly, I really don't deserve my pally ally.

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