Stage Managing Chaos: A Diary of the Old Vic Production of Fernando Arrabal's The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria

Jackie Harvey with Tim Kelleher

Stage Managing Chaos

They say don't judge a book by it's cover—this paperback has the appearance of a dull academic tome but it takes its reader on a rollercoaster ride of horror and disbelief, especially for anyone who has ever worked in theatre, that led it to first prize in this year's Theatre Book Awards.

The bulk of the book is taken up by a detailed diary from Jackie Harvey who worked as stage manager for a particular production at Laurence Olivier's National Theatre when it was still housed at the Old Vic Theatre. The play was Fernando Arrabal's surreal two-hander The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria performed by Jim Dale and Anthony Hopkins. Literary manager Kenneth Tynan had persuaded Olivier to produce the play, but the great actor had his doubts and requested a detailed record of rehearsals from his stage manager.

The play was in the hands of Argentinian 'enfant terrible' and award-winning director Victor Garcia, perhaps not so much of an 'enfant' by 1970 but certainly 'terrible' in that he preferred to play the misunderstood artist than to give the other theatre departments useful information to enable them to actually do something that would result in a production on stage. The National Theatre was already a well-oiled machine that could create pretty much anything on its stage, but telling technicians and prop and costume makers who were waiting for concrete instructions to "be more poetic" didn't get anyone very far.

The one member of the resident team who did run with this freedom was lighting designer David Hersey, who brought into the production equipment that had never seen a theatre before to create something unique. The rest were waiting for any titbits of information to come out of the rehearsals from which they were excluded, as Garcia kept promising meetings and explanations of his whole concept that never arose. They would get last-minute requests for parachutes, a fork-lift truck (which necessitated the complete replacement of the Old Vic stage) and other things with no explanation of how they would be used.

In the middle of this were actors Jim Dale, who was performing in other National Theatre productions while he was rehearsing for this one, and Anthony Hopkins, who was already looking at jumping from stage to film—this production may have been the final push. They were given games to play and techniques to practice, all the time desperately trying to please a director who would never tell them what he wanted, only whether what they had done was acceptable to him or not.

Harvey's account begins as an efficient and objective account of each day's events, but gradually is stripped of its objectivity, building thriller-like to a conclusion at which we can only guess. Does the production ever see an audience? It's rare that I feel I have to avoid spoilers for a factual book, but Harvey keeps you gripped and guessing till the last moment.

As well as the diary, there are some short accounts from Dale, Hopkins and several of the production team based on their memories of the experience and a report from the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique. The latter is a little dry and academic and the most defensive of the director, although it focuses largely on his rehearsals for a Paris production of Jean Genet's The Maids which, unknown the his National Theatre cast and crew, he was conducting at the same time—which may explain why he would only rehearse with them in afternoons.

This would be a great little horror story to keep the stage manager in your life gripped over Christmas; and if he or she is ever complaining about a show, you can always say, "it may be bad, but at least it isn't...".

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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