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Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Written and performed by James Hayes for JST’s Footprints Festival , composition by Seamus Hayes, Designer Jessie McKenzie, Lighting by Johanna Town. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 5th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.


‘A cow looked in through the car window. No autographs today, I said.’

Harold Pinter’s intimate memoir, Mac is the core of an exploration of Irish theatre around Anew McMaster, the actor-manager Pinter wrote so admiringly of, he flew to Dublin in 1962 to attend his funeral.

For JST’s Footprints Festival, James Hayes in Mac and More takes us on a Voyage round a master, by a master whose book was intended for friends only. It’s the most intimate, selfless thing Pinter ever wrote. Hayes, who recently played Krapp’s Last Tape at JST to huge acclaim, has been in more productions at the National than any living actor. He’s the ideal guide to weave reminiscence round reminiscence round an enigma. And he’s linked to all those he speaks of.

The word privilege is overused but you see why Nicholas Hytner praised Hayes’ first volume. There’s a creative overhearing here which can enchant and pull you in. Be pulled.

Mac’s an expiation for Pinter too. Arriving just too late Pinter could find no-one, not even Mac’s grave. In 1951, Pinter’s anxious Iago encounters McMaster’s superb St Patrick’s Day-quelling midnight Othello with its different registers gone into here minutely: ‘moon… bass. Then soaring tenor, bass… baritone’.

Hayes endorses what Pinter declares: McMaster wasn’t just a great actor and the last of the great actor-managers not involved with film or TV: his voice has the greatest range and expressiveness Pinter – and it seems Hayes – ever heard: from resonant bass through soaring tenor, with unrivalled colour and nuance, as well as a darting quickness. He was also utterly professional if dependant on the rock of his company, Marjorie his wife.  These things are worth repeating even in a review like this.

There’s McMaster’s briefly-mentioned sub-par Hamlet and the rarity of his Macbeth bedevilled with lighting obsessions since he loathed playing it; unlike his Coriolanus, Petruccio, Richard III and ‘different’ Merchant, at its best unique. Supreme in Oedipus (like Othello and Lear) and despite a collapsed extra McMaster proved unequalled in Greek focus. Another feat was to demand in Lear to be overborne by the sound effects. ‘No! they can still hear me!’ he urged them on. McMaster’s character Pinter asserts wasn’t difficult, but he last played at Stratford in 1933, nearing 38, and it’s England’s loss.

Hayes continues and it’s worth picking up a few of these stories. Born 1941 his life interlocks marginally. Praised by McMaster, he’s brushed with the tradition he expounds. One relates how an Englishman Alfred Whitmore reinvents himself as Michael MacLiammoir, marries takes a male lover, Hilton Edwards, and founds the Gate Theatre in 1928. People marvelled at how his sister had lost her Irish accent.  There’s the 16-year old Orson Welles, who later cast MacLiammoir as Iago in his 1951 film.

Both Pinter and Hayes himself play Krapp’s Last Tape, and as he signals it was on this very stage (in February 2020) it’s touching Hayes says ‘just before…’ though won’t use the word ‘lockdown’ but ‘then the darkness descends’ rather in keeping with his forebears, but had to qualify it with ‘pandemic.’ Eighty, he makes no concessions to it. More connective tissue, an interval.

Hayes’s own book is a true volume of the brain. Coming to London with £25 in June 1963 to become an actor, Hayes is taken in by the Guildhall. His paid odd-job work consists of being instructed to flee the paint factory in case of a fire, to wear a cap in another job – as the guard dog attacks anyone without one. There’s JFK’s assassination and being given the last two terms free. Those were the days. And Barrow in Furness rep., as acting ASM. There’s ageing up with Meltonian tennis whitener in Meet Me By Moonlight. In Agatha Christie’s Love From a Stranger, he not only greys but reads up with a tweed cap to save on make-up. Naturally he forgets his cap. Trying to stall whilst his cap’s fetched there’s a tussle at the door.

As full actor there’s not only Arms and the Man but once in 2001 playing Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at the National, he’s handed a note. One Kathleen Partington remembered him with gratitude from Barrow Rep – in Arms and the Man. Moving to Stoke Hayes is involved in docu-drama, celebrating local lives down generations, ‘relevant to the community we served’ – something else we can only dream of in the regions.

Just this once we’re cued blood-red lights and music for a grand guignol anecdote.  Toad of Toad Hall brings a remarkable actor turned vicar turned actor turned Toad, who has a breakdown and rushes out up the street – as virid green Toad, pursued by the cast. An owl judge with feathers– Bob Hoskins – chasing a toad… who comes gently arm-wrestled back and manages a very fine second half.

Newly-married Hayes speeds over auditions for the National, Frank Dunlop of the Young Vic. It’s 1968, someone trying to get him all weekend – he’s about to audition for Olivier, at the Old Vic National.  Cassius and Albee’s Zoo Story. The magically hair-raising audition’s worth hearing. Wondering why he was stopped in the Albee he realises he was doing six minutes and two is your max. So awed he had no idea.

And there’s Gambon – Hayes is negotiating as the next show’s up. Michael Gambon. No-one dares eat with Olivier. Innocent young Gambon does. Mistaking a wallet with an inscription Gambon congratulates Olivier for his Hamlet. Olivier’s baffled.  ‘Elsinore. In. Er. Norway.’ You’ll have to hear the punchline yourself. It’s a necessarily rapid exit, but Hayes knows what he’s about. It’s an evening packed with witty and plangent reminiscence, but shaped, tended and book-ended with three great actors.

The distinctive voice of Executive Director Penny Horner can be heard directing people for the next show before the sound goes off. Anyone who loves Jermyn Street and can’t be there should see this consummate, intimate homage online, and feel more present than any online production I’ve known.