‘I must be honest. I spent much of Leo Butler’s new play, specially commissioned by the RSC and set in 18th century Ireland, confused as to what was going on: not entirely the fault of the dramatist, or even my own density, but of a production by Ramin Gray so busy swathing the action in thunder and lightning, bagpipe and fiddle music that it smothers the actual language.’ – Michael Billington, reviewing I’ll Be The Devil, Tricycle Theatre, 28 February 2008
That’s the only time I’ve ever been mentioned in a theatre review – not in person and not favourably either. But what can a humble musician expect? As with film and television, if the music’s doing its job you don’t notice it, and if you do notice it, it’s probably not doing its job, as in the case above!
I was originally booked for I’ll Be The Devil
to play Irish wire-strung harp. Well, yes. My
eyebrows were raised too, when the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s music office called to ask
me. It was just that the script called for a male Irish harpist, they couldn’t find one, and they knew from past experience that I could turn my hand to more or less anything. I had played ney, bansuri, zurna, duduk, clarinet, gaida, filimbi, argul, zither, percussion, even didjeridu (though I don’t usually admit to it) for the RSC on previous occasions.
So I said fine, as long as you don’t expect me to play anything fast or complicated. What happened then was that the composer Peter Cowdrey found out I had a working collection of ten different species of bagpipe, and because one of the central metaphors in the play was the killing of a pig, he thought bagpipes would in some way represent aurally the squealing of a pig. So
every single bagpipe in my collection had to be played somewhere in the show.
It was at that point I started thinking of the money. Not only as an antidote to Peter’s crass attitude to bagpipes, though that worked quite well, but because of the RSC doubling rate. The RSC has a rather complicated system whereby you get paid a basic fee for playing one instrument in a show – your ‘A’ rate. If you play another instrument requiring a different skill – say harp and flute – you get what’s called an ‘A’ double, which is £16 extra per show. If you play another instrument requiring a different skill again, you can’t get another ‘A’ double, you get a ‘B’ double, for which you get £10.75 extra. You’re only allowed two ‘B’ doubles though. After that, if you have further instruments requiring different skills, they’re classified as ‘C’ doubles, for which you get an extra £5.85 each. But you’re only allowed 3 ‘C’ doubles, after that you don’t get paid any extra. So with the maximum doubling you can get an extra £52.95 per show, which on top of your £95 freelancer’s basic comes to a respectable £147.95 per three-hour session. Nice if you’re doing a run of 20 shows, plus music rehearsals, plus a week of technical rehearsals – it all adds up. As a freelancer you get a higher basic rate than a full-time employed RSC musician; the only problem is the rate goes down the more sessions you do; eight or more per week and your pay reverts to the standard full -time rate. Well, I said it was complicated.
Anyway, thinking of the money, I persuaded the RSC music office that different bagpipes require utterly different playing techniques. Bellows pipes, for example, very different from mouth-blown pipes, and double-chanter pipes such as zampogna, totally different from a single chanter. And tulum (parallel-holed double-pipe chanter) completely different again. All
in all I earned a respectable amount for a short-run piece in a small experimental theatre. God bless the RSC. Or, more correctly, God bless the Arts Council for funding the RSC. (That’s not going to last much longer I fear. Whatever pulls the tourists in from now on, and it won’t be plays like I’ll Be the Devil.)
However, the show was not without its challenges. Apart from learning to play the Irish wire-strung harp the right way round and doing a certain amount of onstage business, the main problem with bagpipes is tuning, as all pipers know. Even with instruments designed to play ensemble and in tune, such as Highland pipes, you get alarming discrepancies in pitch, and that’s even when you tune up immediately beforehand. In theatre, of course, you can’t – at least, not during the show. Even in a room offstage, the audience can hear you. Use plastic reeds! I hear you cry. OK, but even a plastic reeded set still needs a degree of tuning up before playing, and adjusting during the performance. Cane reeds even more so. Especially when the temperature in the dressing room is different from the temperature in the theatre. So extensive preparation and predictive skills are required.
Most live music in traditional theatre consists of short ‘entry and exit’ cues, plus a song or two if it’s a comedy, with long periods of waiting in between. And it has to be right – you only get one bite of the cherry. For the theatrical musician, work is too often a combination of stress and boredom. The RSC show I’m in currently – Morte d’Arthur – is a different kettle of fish. For one thing, the music’s gorgeous and there’s a lot of it. Although I am playing a wide range of instruments, the cues are relatively easy and fun for me, and in the four-hour show (one-and-a-third sessions) there is never more than 10 minutes between cues, mostly less. Add to that the fact that the production itself is beautifully directed by Greg Doran, meaningful, and, for me at least, very involving, and the experience could hardly be better. There are eight musicians: two on stage with percussion rigs and the other six up in the gallery overlooking the stage. My piping moment comes half-way through the show. It’s short, fast and furious and accompanies a joust involving two knights on full-size theatrical horses. The piece is a 15th-century Italian saltarello played at breakneck speed. I perform it on a G set made by Breteché which I found going cheap on a French website. The chanter is well-tuned and loud but the original drone was half-size and piffling, so I had it extended to full length by my local instrument-maker Matt Ash, the bore widened and a tuneable A hole added. I put a good strong reed in the drone to match the chanter volume. The original bag, which was of plastic inside a leather cover, developed a leak in the seam soon after delivery, so I made a new one. As the shape of the chanter bell and the blow-pipe were all wrong I had them modified. So although the set can no longer be described as cheap, it is now very satisfying and I look forward to that cue particularly.
Morte d’Arthur ends in August this year but I’m hoping that it comes back for next year’s season. The reviews have been effusive, though no-one’s mentioned the bagpipes. Working in theatre as a musician is not a career move the way it is for actors – you don’t get noticed. If you’re lucky you enjoy the work. If not, well, it’s like any other job - you just think of the money.