The Jet-Lagged Prince

 

By Catrin Achrya a.k.a. JGS

 

 

Are you superstitious?
In that case you ought to believe that good deeds pay off, with interest.

Me, I just think that I got blasted lucky this summer.

 

Since I became a fan of Alan Rickman’s, there have been few opportunities to see him in person, at least on my continent. Unless you count seeing him flash by on a red carpet, which I don’t. I’ve never been one for public squee-ing and mass hysteria. Well, yes, I was at the stage door of the Donmar Theatre once after “Creditors”. Bad idea. Good thing the play, not the encounter, was what I’d come to London for; no further comment.

 

Suddenly, over the last six months, the bag burst, as my Czech compatriots are fond of saying. I was missing one of AR’s appearances after the other, unable to re-schedule my trip to England, find the money or take time off from work. I was so unlucky it was funny – how about missing one event by two days, and being a kilometre from another one without a clue?!

 

In that position, there are two options: either to curl up and spend one’s free time in tears, or to have a good laugh and try to turn the mess into something positive. So I decided to make a charity donation for every missed opportunity, of the money I’d have used on the ticket if I had gone.

 

Fast-forward to 15 June. I was having a bit of credit-card hassle renewing my RADA Stars membership, so there was nothing strange in getting a letter from RADA. I opened it – and had to sit down. It was an invitation to a special preview screening of “The Half-Blood Prince”. 13 July, a fundraiser for RADA, 125 quid a head, to be “attended by some of the many RADA graduates who star in the film”.

I couldn’t walk out on my front-desk job with everyone else on holiday and the summer schedule set in granite since a couple of months; I didn’t really have the money; my family wouldn’t want me to go traipsing off to England again – and I wanted to go the way a four-year-old wants a big red toy fire-engine.

 

I spent two days chewing on sour grapes. The letter had taken an absurd ten days to get from London to Lund, so the event would be sold out. The invitation was so carefully worded, none of the RADA graduates they mentioned were sure to come. And I don’t do premieres and social mingling anyway; I’d just be a cat among the ermines.

 

When in doubt, find out the facts. Using the telephone in a foreign language is more painful than I’m comfortable discussing, but I actually phoned the person in charge of the event at RADA to find out about tickets. No, they were not sold out yet.
I had 48 hours to make up my mind.

 

Next, travel and accommodation. With the week-end to get there and Tuesday to return, there was no way on Earth I could make it by train or ferry. But, breaking my ecologically correct rule never to fly within Europe, it could be done. If I spent all the travel money I had planned for this year; no more theatre trips in the autumn or winter.

 

The few people at my job who were not on holiday were enthusiastic when I told them about the event. One of the librarians promised to cover for me if my colleague couldn’t take over my hours at the information desk.

 

One question remained. Was this just an opportunity to spend an evening in the same room as Alan Rickman: what if he didn’t show up? Or what if a last-minute screw-up prevented me from going? Would it just be a stupid waste of time and money?

– No, I realised. Considering how much of my tax money in this country goes to pseudo-cultural crap, and where I’d like it to go if I had the power to change things, a RADA fundraiser is always a good thing. I’d get to see the film early, in a small cinema, with a committed audience. And, hey, it was a trip to London! – So I bought a ticket and wrote that, if I was unable to come, my payment was a donation.

 

The theatre nutter in me wasn’t going to waste a perfectly good London evening on rest. Well, on a Sunday all the good shows are in the afternoon, and the morning flights are not cheap, so I did some creative cursing over the fact that there was no way I could be in London for the 3 o’clock performance of “Godot”. When...

“Plonk”, went my e-mail inbox. With a note from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to remind me that “Troilus and Cressida” would open on 12 July. At 6.30. My flight was scheduled to land at Heathrow at 5.30. I bought a ticket – The Globe has natural light and the audience moves about a lot, so they’re likely to let you in even if you arrive late.

 

Packing was easy. All I needed was a decent jacket for The Big Event, a change of underwear, a book and an MP3 player. The book was not “The Half-Blood Prince” – I’d just finished re-reading it and I’m not a crazy enough fan to lug 600 hard-bound pages in my carry-on. I grabbed a popular account of electricity in the 18th century, with some interesting background on Mesmer. The MP3 player held the bare necessities: “The Return of the Native”, the “Sweeney Todd” sound track, Bach’s Mass in B-minor and Beethoven’s Diabelli variations, with some Modern Jazz Quartet filling up the gigabytes.

 

(I never did get to open the book. Both the trips were possibly the smoothest ones I’ve ever had, no delays, no snags, no security hassle. The wait at Copenhagen Airport and the flight to London had me busily swatting “Troilus and Cressida” from a Project Gutenberg printout, and on my way home I was happy just people-watching and listening to ROTN.)

 

Throughout all this I somehow couldn’t believe that it was happening. I was on my way to London, to a RADA fundraiser preview of HBP. And Alan Rickman, not just another RADA graduate, but the Vice-Chairman of the Board, was likely to be there. No, all sorts of snags could come up. The train to the airport would get stuck on the Oresund Bridge. Or my ticket wouldn’t be valid. Or I’d get stuck in a Security screw-up. Or the flight would be cancelled. Or... or...

 

The Heathrow Express made it to Paddington in the stipulated fifteen minutes. Then somehow I was in a taxi negotiating a minor traffic jam on Westbourne Terrace.

And it was for real.

 

“Troilus and Cressida” gave ample value for the ticket money and the rush. Whoever arranged it for The Globe did an admirable job and getting to ogle those semi-nude Greek and Trojan warriors didn’t hurt either – tell you more some other time if you like.

Making my way across the Millennium Bridge and by tube to my hotel reminded me how like arriving in Prague it is to arrive in London. A big, loud, mixed, living, potentially messy but familiar enough place that makes no effort to seduce you with bogus romantic charm, but makes itself easy to navigate, not expecting everyone to be a native. Buses are scenic, taxis are classy, but to really get from A to B, give me the Underground any day. (In fact, grabbing that taxi at Paddington had been a country bumpkin's mistake that lost me valuable minutes. Live and learn...)
I always keep some money on my Oyster card. Where it sits in a desk drawer at home it’s a tangible promise of future London trips.

 

Off at South Kensington, a hike through an absurdly long, slightly spooky, completely deserted subway underneath two of London’s biggest museums, a moment of confusion around a construction site – and I was “home”. Southside Halls, student accommodation for the Imperial College, doubles as a hotel in the summer. You get no luxury or Olde London quaintness, but give me a clean, well-built shower, tea-making stuff and a good bed, and I’ll pass on the mini-bar, the 26-inch flat-screen, yes, even the odd angles and creaky stairs. The bed was, in fact, the best I’d ever had in a hotel, anytime, anyplace, from New York to New Delhi. I fell into it directly after hanging up the good jacket, and snored like a pig in the mud until 7.30.

 

On HBP day I woke up with a stiff neck from the memory of a dream where a tough-as-nails female security guard refused to let me in to the RADA event. A good hot shower cured me, not to mention the breakfast in the Imperial College cafeteria. There was everything you could hope for in an English breakfast, including one of my favourite secret vices, black pudding. (If you don’t know what that is, you probably don’t want to. It involves pig blood. Enough said.) Suddenly the place was full of children and teens in dance clothes with the Royal Academy of Dance logo, obviously a ballet summer school, bringing on a fun-filled, nostalgic at-home feeling. Because of the crowd I had a couple, about my age, sharing my table. They were choir singers on a summer course and very British.

 

Overall, I thought I’d gone to Heaven. I wonder if Alan Rickman’s liking of America as compared to England (“I love America because whenever I go home -- there's something about England and coming from England-- but as soon as you walk down the steps of the plane you shrink. And you have to start saying "sorry" and being polite and curtsying and things like that... America just lets me be the klutz I really am.”) has less to do with it being America and more with the place where you were born, raised and taught how (not) to behave. Since I don’t come from England, I enjoy going there, taking part in the explicit, genuine, un-stiff verbal courtesy, people saying “sorry” instead of “oops” when they step on your toes and wishing you “good morning” as if they mean it.
I like having a couple of total strangers start a breakfast conversation with me about ballet, theatre acting and a 2000-head chorale concert, everyone learning a few things about each other and knowing we’ll never meet again, a small group of eager dilettantes in our respective niches sharing the joy. England just lets me be the quirky dabbling loner I really am – while offering me easy ad-hoc companionship and all the top-level professional role models I could wish for.

(In contrast, many places in the US make me shrink; as if I had to apologise for not being young, pretty, assertive, successful, rich – and able to drive a car. But that’s another story.)

 

With a ticket to pick up at RADA before lunch, there was no way I’d be able to visit the Natural History Museum that day, I realised when I saw the queue outside the gates. It would be a better idea to make my way to the Curzon Mayfair and Dartmouth House, to find my bearings before the evening’s event. Control mania? Possibly. I was spending half my monthly disposable income on this thing. I wasn’t about to arrive late because I took the wrong turn somewhere.

 

Mayfair may be uncharted territory, but the vicinity of Russell Square, Malet Street and Gower Street I could probably navigate blindfolded. At seeing the Gower Street granite Tragedy and Comedy figures, my jitters returned. There would be something wrong with my ticket, it would have been sent to Sweden by mistake or some other fatal screw-up.
– But, no, there was nothing wrong. Ms. Murray of RADA, ever friendly, patient and infinitely helpful, came rushing down the stairs with it in the middle of what must have been a nightmarishly stressful day. Only, she was lucky not to break a leg as she slipped on the stairs in what I assume was the regulation heels and little black dress. Feminine dress code... There are moments when I very genuinely love my own job.

 

 

For lunch I was meeting another fan, NN, at The Ivy. (NN may tell her part of the story if, when and where it suits her best.) Both of us were already spending more money than we could sensibly afford, so we’d decided to go the whole hog.

I sincerely hope Mr. Rickman gets a percentage, seeing how many of his fans have reported going to The Ivy over the past months. Going there in the hope of seeing him would obviously be rather silly. But it’s a wonderful place if you want food and drink that’s almost worth the prices a fancy restaurant will charge. In addition the staff doesn’t look down their noses at you, the service is both efficient and friendly, and the dress code informal. I’ll be back!

– Well, I’d just drunk some excellent dry sherry and was pigging out on the best oysters I’d ever eaten, when it hit me... I’d forgotten my medication. With the great time I’d had over breakfast, my morning meds were quietly resting in the safety of my wallet. I gulped them down, better late than never, and proceeded to demolish a slice of grilled tuna that brought back memories from 1974 St.-Jean-de-Luz, where the fishing harbour tavern only served freshly caught grilled tuna, bread and red wine. At The Ivy the tuna came with chips and an amazing rosé that I still regret not having asked the name of. Life was good.

 

Less so when I returned to my hotel and understood that it was payback time for the forgotten meds. Between them, the alcohol, a double espresso and the pre-event jitters, I had the worst anxiety attack in years. Too much adrenalin can do nasty things to you. It’s physical, it’s unpleasant and all you can do is drink lots of water and wait it out. When it was time to prepare for the evening, I was a bit weak-kneed but ready to face the world again.

 

Of course I arrived too early at the cinema. I was so afraid of the bus getting stuck in a traffic jam, I was on site about 45 minutes before the auditorium would open. The RADA people were setting things up; I had to forcibly remind myself that I was one of the punters and that it wouldn’t do to volunteer to help. Gradually the lobby was filling up; NN arrived. I was just propping up the wall, drinking more water, when I heard an extremely familiar voice from behind a potted plant at the far end of the bar.
Alan Rickman was there. For real.

 

When I was very young, I was used to being around actors. Watching them on stage and having them play practical jokes on me in the theatre canteen were just two different sides of the familiar fun. But that was in another time and country, almost in another world.
Being a fan is a different matter. You’re one of thousands of people being impacted by someone, in a way that to you is deeply personal but to him it’s a job, one that he does with immense commitment and almost beyond the best of his ability, but still a job directed at a generic audience. The personal projections and interpretations are strictly our own.

Is it exciting, entertaining, flattering or just plain creepy, knowing that one’s work can change the individual lives of total strangers in ways that you didn’t expect or intend? We’ll never know.

 

I was trying hard not to stare, thinking about the voice I’d know anywhere, not knowing or caring what it said but discerning it from all the way across a room that by this time was full of people chatting, party-style. Small wonder – I’m conditioned to it like a duckling to its mother by having used “The Return of the Native” for months to replace music during a very emotional period. And something at the back of my mind sneered:
“ ’Tis the voice of the Lobster, I heard him declare...”

I told NN what I was giggling at, and she said pointedly: “I don’t know this woman!” I didn’t blame her...

 

We found our places in the auditorium, some people chewing pop-corn, me clinging to my trusty water bottle, and it was time for the introductions. The Chairman of the RADA Council, Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, said a few mercifully, almost Dumbledorishly brief words and left the floor to his second-in-command, the Vice-Chairman so many of us had been waiting for. AR stepped up onto the stage, just out of the spotlight, peered at us, moved into the light and said something like: “This is what they teach you at RADA: to stand here and not there.” Obviously I can't speak for the seasoned pros in the audience; as for us regular punters, he had most of us eating out of his hand within seconds.

He held up the card with notes for his speech and explained that he needed it because he had returned from New York that morning… well, if this was the kind of speech he gave while jet-lagged, I could barely imagine how brilliant he’d be when fully conscious. Seeing and hearing the master in action was both an honour and a great pleasure.

Not so much what was said – introducing his fellow RADA graduates who were there, Imelda Staunton and Fiona Shaw; speaking about the importance of actors’ training; the good things about the Potter saga that we fans know AR usually mentions – as how it was said. This degree of directness and spontaneity, what the Swedes with great respect and admiration call “sharing oneself with the audience”, comes from deep knowledge, training, a terrific dose of know-how.

Finally he asked us one important question: “Have you all been to the toilet? Because the film is two and a half hours long. It doesn’t feel that way, but it is.” And his closing words were: “I’ll see you later. – MUCH – later.” With this AR left the stage and the cinema: he’d just suffered through the film at least twice during the premiere week. It would have been inhuman to expect him to sit through it once more, particularly with jet-lag.

 

No, the film certainly doesn’t feel two and a half hours long. In my opinion the script has one major fault affecting Snape’s character development; still, it’s easily my favourite among the HP movies. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere, so I’ll only say that, in HBP more than ever, our Severus is the stuff fan fiction is made of.

 

The film kept my mind busy enough to forget the after-show party. When the screening ended, we were guided to Dartmouth House by groups of RADA students standing along the way performing music related to the Harry Potter films – another wonderfully entertaining respite. But as we came closer to the party venue, my jitters returned.

I’m not a gregarious beast at the best of times and being in a room full of strangers with no other goal than to socialise is as close to torture as I get without having actual physical or mental abuse inflicted on me.

Besides, there was a present for Alan Rickman in my pocket. It had seemed like a good idea at one time, composing a rather elaborate poem as a tribute to Severus, writing it out by hand and putting it in a hand-crafted silk envelope, but as we came to Dartmouth House it was burning a hole in my pocket and screaming “STUPID! STUPID!! STUPID!!!” at me like the worst howler any SFX department could devise.
Still, as fan presents go, it was innocuous, pocket-sized and not too valuable for him to discreetly bin straight away if he felt so inclined.

 

The party was, luckily, not at all what I’d expected. No shrill, face-lifted, diamond-dripping mecenates, no starlet wannabes with throaty laughs and overly revealing cleavages, no oppressive spirit of Chanel no.5 hovering over the premises. The two rooms and the landing were filled with people, most of them obviously in “the business” and acquainted with each other, chatting, having fun. The clothing a mixed bag, dark suits and long dresses mingling with the RADA students’ red t-shirts. There were children all over the place, some solemn and mature, some boisterous without being obnoxious. If I ever have to go to a film release party, please, let it be a children’s movie: they improve the atmosphere a whole lot. It was nostalgic, though. 45 years ago I was one of those kids, semi-seriously tolerated by my parents’ theatre colleagues.
In a galaxy far away…

 

Cold sober thanks to the meds incident, I made a couple of tours of the rooms in search of Imelda Staunton – feeling quite ignorant because I hadn’t seen “Vera Drake”, but wanting to thank her for making Dolores Umbridge far more than just the somewhat annoying adult she is in “The Order of the Phoenix” novel. Staunton’s Umbridge is, to me, a truly frightening portrait of the type of insidious, power-hungry Stalinist female I used to know as a child – some of them even taught in my school. In any case, I didn’t get the chance to tell her; either I was too jumpy to see her, or she’d decided to give the party a miss.

 

Suddenly Alan Rickman was there. On the upstairs landing, next to the grand piano where a lady was belting out “Summertime” in a schooled, dominant voice.

Was he on his way in, or out? I had no idea. He was surrounded by children – and at that moment his reluctance to talk about the HP project in interviews made wonderful sense. There were young fans of all ages, from the very, very young to almost-teens, and AR was there for them. Correct and sparse in his manner, but ever friendly, ever patient, never supercilious, never disdainfully amused, not for a moment focusing over their heads. Some of them were simply thrilled, some rather confused at expecting to see the Dread Potions Master and meeting this kind elderly gentleman, perfectly willing to autograph their ticket or their copy of “The Half Blood Prince” and to go down on his knee for a picture with them.

 

Fans sometimes speculate if AR ever regrets having taken on Snape. Who knows.

But I’d gladly bet a month’s pay that there are moments when he doesn’t regret it, and this was one of those moments. He and the children belonged to each other, every single one of the young fans at least as important as any of the grown-up RADA contributors in the room.

 

I was reluctant to intrude, but there was the silk-wrapped howler in my pocket, nagging me. “CHICKEN,” it sneered. “HE’S JET-LAGGED, HE’LL LEAVE ANY MOMENT NOW AND YOU’LL BE LUGGING ME ALL THE WAY BACK HOME.” I thought I should wait, wait for a better moment, wait for it to get too late for most children, wait to give AR at least a chance to reach the bar and have a drink – but what if he was on his way out, what if he’d turn on his heel and be off down the stairs in the next ten seconds? I dug out the poem from my pocket and moved in.

 

No, I don’t have a sweet romantic tale to tell, about recognition for the New Year’s book or something of that ilk. Those animals don’t happen outside of delusional fans’ LiveJournals.

I handed over the present and mumbled something complimentary about Strindberg. AR said that the play would be moving to New York next year. We shook hands.

And, in all honesty, I could have flown home without an airplane.

 

There’s something about personal contact with an accomplished professional actor: for a few seconds the rest of the world goes away and you’re in a private bubble, just the two of you.

Call it focus, mindfulness, attention; it’s the root and the base of what an actor does, whether he swears by Brecht or Stanislavski or any of the umpteen other methods and styles.

We, ordinary buggers, do all we can to shatter our focus: we have lunch at our desk at the office, in front of the computer, with a mobile phone by the ear and a radio thumping out four-minute pop tunes in the background. MP3 players, wireless Internet, the urban world wallpapered with blaring, glaring advertisements, the “I twitter therefore I am” hype, the whole machinery of modern life constantly does its worst to prevent us from being here and now. Being genuinely at the centre of someone’s focus is a basic human need, something we crave, but it’s a rare sensation. And with a favourite actor we have a personal history of strong emotional experiences, no matter how one-sided.
Small wonder that some of us react with all the wit and brilliance of a clobbered seal!
I honestly commiserate with the innocent victims of Hollywood rom-coms who get their feelings confuzzled by that heady sensation and believe that they’re “in love” with their favourite star.

 

My own brain freeze had nothing to do with illusions of infatuation, and only partly with being star-struck. Socially I was a crow in a duck pond, totally out of my depth. When the RADA Chairman asked me a simple sociable question – I was after all one of the contributors – I thought he was confusing me with someone and reacted by giving an embarrassing deer-in-the-headlights impersonation.

 

Yes, I did end up kicking myself for not waiting to approach AR. Things calmed down later in the evening. The Jet-Lagged Prince of Thespians stayed until the apparently none-too-bitter end. With the party almost over I saw him speak to a group of RADA students who were, understandably, hanging onto his every word as if following the Pied Piper. I was tempted to sneak up behind them and listen, but, even if no-one had noticed, it would have been rude and unfair. They had been working hard to make the event a success, and this was their moment.

 

Do I regret anything? Well, perhaps not having said this, not having done that – “this” and “that” being a matter between me and the little demon behind my ear. The event was certainly worth the trip and the money. I had a short but sweet London visit, I saw a fine play and an excellent film, I met the Jet-Lagged Prince himself and, thanks to the party, I got my prejudices against cultural fundraisers sorted out. Not a bad bottom line for a three-day trip.

 

A hard-core fan might say that the trip was a complete waste of time: I don't have an autographed ticket to show for it, or a photo of AR and me in my mobile phone. Well, I didn't ask. His autograph on my working copy of "Creditors" is worth more than gold to me, and has the additional advantage of being worthless on eBay. And a photo? I don't do Facebook, and for my own memory I don't need pictures: I was there.

Instead, I treasure what I thought was a great privilege: I got to see Alan Rickman interact with children in a “Harry Potter” setting. If it wasn’t so rude to stare, I could have stood in my corner and watched for any amount of time. Never mind that I’ll never get to see the HP bonus feature of my dreams, “Making of Professor Snape”.
Today I have a new respect and understanding of why it won’t and can’t happen.

 

Now I’m only hoping that the fundraiser raised plenty of funds. Not just for the sake of RADA, but, if it did pan out, they may want to repeat it with the remaining two HP films.

And I may get a chance to do it again!

 

 

 

 

(Lund, Sweden, July 2009)