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How Byron Became a Concert

“And again”, boomed Simon Russell Beale, as he deftly propelled the pianist and Lord Byron downstage to take another bow. This was October 2018, at Cadogan Hall; Byron Angel & Outcast was my fifth dramatised concert. The proceeds were directed to Dr Vincent Khoo’s research at the Royal Marsden into advanced prostate cancer. The full story began two years before.

Sept. 2016: For over a decade, I have written and produced classical concerts which revolve around a famous life. Once again, like Byron at the start of Don Juan, I want a hero… I find him in Martin Garrett’s masterfully concise and intuitive biography of Byron. The images haunt me: the island of Janina, Manfred poised over the chasm, the folorn house in Messolonghi. Fired up by curiosity, I begin to consume countless tomes and articles. Over the weeks, Byron becomes my Doppelgänger. My insatiability for the subject wears out my family.

Oct. 2016: The soloist will be our friend, the sparkling British-Kazakh pianist, Dina Duisen. Richard Speir, who works full time in the theatre, has agreed to direct the production despite the unpalatable fact that the author is his mother.

Jan. 2017: I begin a narration of Byron’s life, chronologically. Byron loved the theatre. His rhetoric and verse seem destined for the stage. When the moon is on the wave, And the glow-worm in the grass, And the meteor on the grave, And the wisp on the morass… The mesmeric rhythm could have been spoken by Puck…

Feb. 2017: Music is a strange thing, said Byron, yet his poetry and the music of his contemporaries are natural siblings. Listening to hours of Beethoven or Schumann to choose a piece to shadow She walks in Beauty is an exquisite labour. Plucking a single movement from a sonata is delicate: the passage should sound like one entity and not like a chipped sculpture hacked from a frieze.

Both the piano works and the text need to be timed. Neither form should be too long or upstage the other.

June 2017: I drag my husband from London to Newstead Abbey, only to find out that the house is closed. After a genuine melodrama at the reception, the kindly staff open the house for half an hour and give us an unforgettable, private tour. Encased in glass are his first editions, his letters, his pistol, his steel pen. In the garden, with our dog, we pay homage to Boatswain’s tomb and gaze at distant swans on the lake. I am transported by the place.

Oct. 2017: Richard and I meet Adam, the general manager of Cadogan Hall. From the gallery, the auditorium seems vast, yet its graceful proportions give an illusion of intimacy. A model D, 9 ft Steinway grand lies concealed under a trap door beneath the stage, and high above, hangs the lighting rig. I can already imagine the place under the spell of Childe Harold.

13th Jan. 2018: I have signed the contract with Cadogan Hall. The die is cast: the day of reckoning will be the 11th October. There are 915 seats to fill. The production will cost £20,000 including the hall hire, insurance, etc. Our friend, Neil, a patient of Dr Khoo, has offered to help us search for sponsors.

Richard has found a young theatre producer, Maya Ellis, to help us. She calmly manages all our publicity and creates flyers and blurbs for the website. We decide to spread the word among a host of organisations, including Hellenic societies and scatter our flyers all over West London. I meet two new friends who volunteer to help boost ‘bums on seats,’ one by hosting a drinks party; the other by rallying members of her club. Over the months, I wearily build up a Save the Date list of 450 people and write countless personal emails.

Later, in January, my script is sent to a successful playwright, Mike Poulton and Paul Whitworth, a seasoned theatre director. They both say: SHRINK the narration and MORE Byron. But how? I only possess one volume of selected letters. I order Marchand’s ten-volume edition of Byron’s correspondence. I rewrite the entire script over six weeks. The hardest is to encapsulate such an adventurous life. How can I reduce Byron’s byzantine entanglement with Augusta and Annabella or his Greek campaign to two pages? Why did I choose to tackle such a multi-tentacled monster of contradiction as George Gordon Byron? And then to stage him in an international concert hall?

February: Robert, my sainted husband, is cooking every evening. Richard, our son and I meet late at night, twice a week, to discuss the rewrites. We don’t always agree: at 11 o’clock at night, sparks fly. The narration must zip along, but Richard is merciless: anecdotes, historic details are culled. We feud over the use of one word but Byron’s dazzling letters often restore our sense of humour.

March: The rewrites are complete. I now embark on writing a chronology and biographical notes for the A4 programme. Dr Martin Garrett has sweetly agreed to look at it. I lovingly design the layout with numerous pictures and quotes. The process is soothing, like a scrapbook hobby.

3 April: Richard organises a run-through at our house, with a tiny audience. The artists’ fee is a good lunch. Dave Perry reads Byron with panache. The two actors sit close to the Bechstein, stunned by the sound, staring at Dina’s flying fingers in disbelief. When Dina plays the sombre Chopin Prelude no 20 in the wake of Shelley’s death, Jamie Seymour is loathe to resume the narration. The next day, I begin to rework the last pages of the script. The prelude will now lead straight into the rousing Isles of Greece.

8 April 2018: A family friend underwrites our heaviest cost: the £5,000 hire of the hall. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. We need to find a further £15,000 within six months.

Again and again, everyone’s leitmotiv: Have you found an actor? You need a big name: How about Redmayne? Cumberbatch?

May 2018: The hunt for a star narrator has intensified. Richard and Maya Ellis, our producer, write to a few theatre grandees. All are unavailable. Stephen Fry suggests we contact him again in September…

18th June 2018: Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan has agreed to meet me over a coffee. I am slow to realise that the young and attractive blonde, waving at me from a table, is the Director of the Byron Society. I warm to her instantly and show her my script. June 2018:Major boost: the Byron Society have agreed to sponsor me. Emily sends me a handsome sample of artwork for the concert programme.

Richard and Maya have fixed the ticket price in the stalls at £90.00. I am convinced the stalls will be deserted…26 June: Meet the Marketing Director of Cadogan Hall for advice to promote our concert. Sadly, she is leaving her job. 30 Aug. Byron Angel & Outcast woefully appears in the Cadogan Hall autumn brochure without a big acting name…Richard and Maya multiply the availability checks with agents. We only have six weeks left…

1 September: Ticket selling begins. The first row of 21 seats in the stalls fills easily. 894 seats to go…Richard, Maya and I now receive daily sales reports at circa 2am. I cannot help consulting my iPhone in the small hours. At 4 am, my husband hears: “One hundred and forty-three!” “One hundred and forty-three what?” he murmurs drowsily. “SEATS!” is the reply… Or: “ONLY TWO sold yesterday!”

3rd Sept. BIG NEWS: Simon Russell Beale’s agent says he would love to be our narrator. Richard and I meet SRB, actor, academic and music scholar over a coffee at the Royal National Theatre. His blue eyes twinkle at Richard, who, when clean shaven, looks about twelve: “So, you are the director? “Our narrator then tells us he has not read the script. Our spirits sink: What, if he changes his mind? Simon quietly leafs through the first pages and departs: “I am looking forward to it.” The next time we will see him, will be at the dress run.

The searchlights next, are on finding a Byron. An actor with the features of Antinous who can juggle a kaleidoscopic personality, move with patrician grace and, above all, excell at verse and classical text.

Richard offers the job to Rob Heaps, a leading actor in stage and television. We have a cast, at last.

17th Sept: Dr Paterson-Morgan produces a stylish article about Byron as a Londoner for The London Review of Books as an advertisement for our concert. 18th Sept. Richard conducts the first rehearsals at home, in our dining room, with Rob/Byron and Dina. Work today, will focus on the verse. Rob’s warm baritone in “When we Two Parted” floats into the kitchen, to the chef’s contentment, and enhances the stew.

3rd Oct. I am standing on a tall ladder, lost in a forest of rails and garments at the National Theatre Costume department, hunting for Byron’s celebrated wide collar cream shirt. Below, Rob is sinking his thighs into dashing cavalier bucket boots. At one point, he swings a sumptuous black velvet cloak over his shoulders as if he had stepped out of a Thomas Phillips portrait. We return in a taxi with our hoard: a velvet tail coat, a cream frock coat (for sizzling Greece and Albania) two damask-embroidered waistcoats; buff trousers; the shirt, boots and cloak, patent leather slippers, cream stockings and a broach. I am excited, like a child with a new doll to dress.

8th- 9thOctober: Rehearsals have moved to the vast, damp, neo-gothic St Barnabas church in Hackney. Fodhla, the feisty stage manager insists on moving the Bechstein grand, single-handedly into the middle of the room. We keep our coats on and play a game of curling with the gas heater. We unload a Regency sofa, a desk, a Persian rug, chairs and a trunk. Fodhla unwraps our props: an alabaster clock, a birdcage, a plumed Hellenic helmet, and for the Ali Pasha encounter: a posse of exotic cushions and a bonbonniere of sweets. The furniture is placed so that the pianist can be seen at all times. Rob, in costume, is emitting peculiar noises, warming up his vocal chords. Richard begins to block the moves.

10th Oct: This will be our last full day’s rehearsal. Richard and I race through Ridley Road market to buy a lavish swathe of scarlet velvet for the Palazzo Mocenigo sofa, in Act II. Rob’s impersonation of Byron seems effortless. His intense and restrained I have not loved the world, nor the world me is deeply moving. Schumann’s flurry of notes, fill the roof of the church like starlings, reaching across the yard to the street. The dual power of music and poetry, the talent and camaraderie, have created a beatific atmosphere.

11th October: D-DAY: 10 am: Tech; 2.00 pm: Dress run; 7.30 pm: Performance. I proudly pose outside Cadogan Hall for Richard in front of a poster of Byron in Albanian dress. The resident technical staff welcomes us warmly. The Steinway is tuned. The photographer and recording technicians are here, but the programmes are nowhere to be seen. Dina and Rob are taut and restless. Simon RB, pencil in hand, quietly looks at the script and suggests inserting a clever preposition to distinguish Annabella from Augusta. He takes his place upstage, behind the lectern.

The dress rehearsal runs smoothly but deliberately, on a low flame. Geoff Hense, our lighting designer is wrestling with a lighting desk suitable for concerts but not for theatre. He compares it to writing an essay with chalk. Nevertheless, he skilfully envelops Venice in warmth and the Villa Diodati and Alpine section with a pall of ghostly blue. Meanwhile, Maya is racing in a taxi across London, to an unknown warehouse to retrieve the stranded programmes in time for the interval. The poor girl will miss the whole first Act. At 6.30pm, the distant hum of the audience can be heard in the foyer. Dr Khoo, Neil and I are called onstage for sound checks.

7.29pm: The three of us are on stand-by, behind a curtain, waiting for Foldha’s cue to go on. After the speeches, we return to our seats. Blackout. Then, a glimmer: a thin shaft of light on the Steinway. Richard and I hold our breath. Dina launches into an electrifying Chopin study. The lights come up surreptitiously, revealing the Narrator upstage and, to his left, Byron in a velvet tail coat, writing at a desk. He turns to the audience: “Nothing so difficult as a beginning in poesy, except perhaps the end…” Shortly before 10 pm, Byron’s seering epilogue is swept up into Dina’s blazing Beethoven finale. The 800-strong audience erupts before the bowing, beaming trio

I once read that Byron bought Teresa Guiccioli a piano; I wonder what she played for him…

Postscript: The performance raised a net £40,600 for Dr Vincent Khoo’s research into prostate cancer at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital.

Photographs by Alex Brenner

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