The Real Thing: A Blog Post About the 3 Best Plays I've Ever Seen. by Ben Mars

Theatre has a special place in my heart. I love it. It can be visceral, emotive, hypnotic and as deep as the most beautiful piece of music. There's something about people gathering together to watch it. It's old.  

And often not very good.  

But occasionally there's a gem. A deep diamond experience. A play that stays with you long after the curtain has fallen. It's a tough choice, but here's the 3 best plays I've ever seen – and why.  

1) Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson (2009) 

I'd got cautious about plays being built up too much – and every show in the West End tends to be billed as a life changing event. That's ok – that's just how advertising works, but it makes you a bit cynical. So one day a friend called me and said he was in the queue for tickets to Jerusalem – in fact, he'd been queuing all night. Did I want a ticket? Yes I did.  

There was a bit of awkwardness as I turned up fresh as a daisy at about 6pm to meet him – the people behind were furious as it looked like I was jumping the queue. But, anyway, I got in. Walking beneath the billboard announcing that this was the best play I'd ever see in my life I started to feel a sense of being let down. This was healthy as my expectations were lower – it left me more open.  

What followed was around 3 hours of the most perfect thing I've ever seen. Mark Rylance was practically shamanic in how he moved and talked, twisting from funny to pathetic to still to powerful to threatening. I still remember the set – the trees, the chickens, some kid making her entrance through a sofa. Moments still alive in my mind – the old professor talking about his wife, Rooster Byron emerging bloodied and defiant towards the end, the story about the giants, the moment he looks into his ex wife's eyes and there's this magical static in the air as you perceive him for a moment to be much older and earthier than he appeared. The trees shaking at the end

2) Faust by Punchdrunk. Directed by Felix Barrett & Maxine Doyle (2007) 

There's no Punchdrunk experience like your first Punchdrunk experience. Knowing nothing about the company, the play – anything – I found myself in what seemed to be an old power station maybe somewhere in the East End. Walking in, there was a western style saloon and I assumed the play would take place there  - a sort of cabaret.  
 
Wrong. Instead I was given one of those Eyes Wide Shut masks and told that it would make me 'invisible'. Then I was directed to a lift occupied by this sleazy lift attendant. He would practically throw people out on different floors – all of us feeling highly visible in our masks. I had absolutely no idea what was happening.  
 
My floor. I'm in another bar – this one shows a pine forest out of the window. There's a couple of cowboys slugging it out. I sit down, assuming I just sit there. Wrong again. Slowly it dawns that you can move – and go anywhere you like. I can leave the bar, walk into the pine forest. It's like realising the fur coats in the cupboard keep going back until you're in Narnia. There's churches, hotels, a town, diners, secret lonely places. The characters travel through the show, sometimes separating making us choose who to follow. Mephistopheles is a good bet as he's loud and interesting, but as it turns out, the quieter characters leading their quiet lives around the tragic story of Faust are often more interesting – and you witness them alone. You're often alone in Punchdrunk shows. The goose bumps go up on my arms thinking about it. It's dream logic. What you lose in coherence you gain in visceral experience. The best dreams aren't often the ones that are easily analysed. 

3) Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley. Directed by David Mercatali (2014) 

This was a one woman show with no set and if I remember rightly just a couple of lighting changes. It's a 70 minute monologue. Not an easy sell.  

Gemma Whelan playing Andrea was this powerhouse of stamina and vulnerability. It's pitch black, real, harrowing – god, so harrowing – that I felt shell shocked after watching it. People often talk about actors 'going there' - and I'm with David Mamet on this. He says sometimes audiences aren't moved, they're moved by their capacity to be moved. 'That's very powerful acting' you might say, wiping a tear and being impressed. There's nothing wrong with that – if I can get to that I'd be pretty chuffed, but with this show Gemma Whelan really did go there. It was like we saw her heart get cracked open like an egg through what happens to her in the play. At times, she could hardly get the words out fast enough. As she took her bow I wondered if she was alright. It was courageous and alive. I don't mean to, but it's subliminally become the barometer that I judge one person shows with. It turns out that the real thing – real drama – isn't about posturing and being impressive, it's about being vulnerable and open. It was magnificent.  

Too many other shows to list here which could easily take up one of these places. Journey's End, Every Brilliant Thing, Red, Cargo, Ghost Stories, All My Sons, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Road, The Ferryman, Hamlet (Simon Russell Beale), A Christmas Carol, Bound, Wet House... but for today anyway, this would be my favourite three. 

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Pavements by Ben Mars

They say pavements are the memories of mountains, 

Flattened and forgotten. 
Walking on the cracks, will still bring you bad luck. 

Trampled by old feet, young feet and dog feet. 

But beyond the sodium lights,
Above the orange spirals, 
of the city, somewhere, 
they still reflect the stars. 

And the ragged fox, 
Looking for food, 
On Ossian Road, 
Remembers.

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A Blog Post About The Best Audition Ever. by Ben Mars

Once upon a time I had an audition for The Basil Brush Show.  

For those who don't know, it was a popular kid’s show in the 70s (repeated through the 80s) and then came back between 2002 and 2007

The note from my agent said 'You'll be meeting the Producer, the Director and Basil'. I had to go to a hotel suite in Hammersmith and on asking the receptionist awkwardly for the Basil Brush audition, I was breezily told Basil was upstairs - as if this was the most normal thing in the world. The image of him tottering into the lobby to book a room flitted through my mind.  
 
Even then, I assumed that seeing as how he was a puppet fox, I'd be meeting his puppeteer. He'd say 'Look at the puppet, not me mate.' And it would all be all bit joyless.  

 I was wrong.  

I was called in, clocked the director and producer as described – and there 'standing'  behind a table was he. Basil Brush.  

'Hello hello Mr Ben! Come on in!' He chortled. 

Now I don't know if you've ever been seriously addressed by a puppet, but my head did two things:  

  1. It assured me that this was all part of the audition and they simply wanted to see how I interacted with the puppet.  

  2. It went 'THERE'S BASIL BRUSH! SAY HELLO AND SHAKE HIS PAW. THEY CAN'T STOP YOU.' 

I did the latter and was overjoyed to feel his tiny fox paw in my hand. He even gave me a 'BOOM BOOM!' after the first read of the scene.  

Afterwards he asked me a bit about myself, and I asked him about himself. 'What have you been up to since the 70's?' (answer: I've been clubbing mainly! Know what I mean Mr Ben!? BOOM BOOM!) by which I imagined him in Stringfellows or at Ministry of Sound. Both good places to picture him.  

At the very end, Basil said goodbye, sank below the table and a slightly exhausted man called Michael rose in his place wearing a headset and knee pads. It was a bit discombobulating. He was interested in whether I watched the current series – I said I didn't but my nieces did. He pulled out 3 signed photographs of Basil and gave them to me to give to them.  

On top of that, I got the part.  
 
Best. Audition. Ever. 

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A Blog Post About The Time I Got a Letter From Peter Jackson. by Ben Mars

In 1993 I vividly remember my mate suggesting we watch a horror film he’d found called Bad Taste. It was grimy, gross and hilarious - god, and SO weird.

It was directed by a young New Zealander called Peter Jackson and his films formed a dark little cornerstone of my teenager years. Meet the Feebles, Braindead and The Frighteners. 

Then in 2001 he directed and adapted the first part of the Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring. I remember watching it and being pulled into this sprawling, epic fantasy with the heart of an wily independent film and felt compelled to write the only fan letter I’ve ever written.

I forgot about it and then a couple of months later I recieved this letter from New Zealand. Sometimes you’ve just got to geek, you know?

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A Blog Post about England v Columbia: Sometimes the gods are smiling. by Ben Mars

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As I write this it’s the day after England’s victory over Columbia. England are now in the quarter finals of the World Cup. I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest football fan, but that match had my heart thudding as if I’d run a marathon. There was two things which made it a special game. The blatant and persistent ‘dark arts’ of Columbia and then the payoff as England went against all perceived wisdom and won a penalty shootout. 

Columbia must have sat before the match and decided to try and win by being so down and dirty it would knock England off balance. Scuffing the penalty spot, head butting, a coach even in on the fun elbowing Raheem Stirling as he walked past and then pointing at him as if it was his fault. The nerve! Boo! BOOOOO! The histrionics of falling in slow motion, the constant hassling of the referee while they stalled for time and a psychological advantage. They were basically Slytherin for the first two thirds of the match. I honestly wondered if the camera would pan over to Severus Snape in the crowd smirking knowingly. 

And then after all of that, after my whole life of England losing on penalty shootouts as their confidence saps, we were there again. Extra time not time enough. We’re in the script. That old tired scratchy record which ends in failure has started up. Here it comes. Here it comes. 

And it didn’t happen. 

As England won, I heard the street outside burst into screams of jubilation. Years of hurt lifted. Jules Rimet still gleaming. Cheating didn’t win the day, good football did. Justice did. You can’t put a price on a surge of feeling like that. For a moment our politically divided part of the British Isles was united - and all because a millionaire kicked a ball into a net with nerves of steel and a bit of self belief. It was beautiful. 

It’s beautiful because nothing is written. That’s freedom. Whatever happens from here on in the tournament I’ll always remember that match, not just because it was a victory - but because it was the release of a monkey dropping off your back, of some stalking Babadook actually leaving for good. It reminded me that the future isn’t set, or inevitable. Hard work overcomes. Belief overcomes and sometimes the gods are smiling. 

 

New website by Ben Mars

BenMars.net has had a bit of an update. You an access my showreel, voice reel, a biography and link to my Spotlight page. I've set myself a bit of challenge to keep this blog updated with news and thoughts and of course you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram