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Voltemand and Cornelius: An Exceptional Day

A few months ago, as part of The King’s Head Theatre’s Without Décor programme, our favoured actors were gathered together once more, for a rehearsed reading of my play Voltemand And Cornelius Are Joyfully Returned in front of a packed audience at The Hope Theatre in Islington, London.

This is how it came about: a play almost thirty years in the making.

‘Voltemand and Cornelius. They are joyfully returned’ is a line from Hamlet. Years ago – many years ago! – during the course of my ‘A’ Level Theatre Studies, we looked at Hamlet, Waiting For Godot and Rosencrantz And Guildernstern Are Dead. Ever since those days full of Shakespeare, Beckett and Stoppard, these two men, Voltemand (the stupid one) and Cornelius (the other stupid one) have toyed with my mind. Bound together as they travelled to Norway on Claudius’ demand. But the ‘joyfully returned’ quote. I know it should be read as ‘thank goodness they’re back’, but my mind romantically loved the idea of these two men bringing joy, being joyful.

Over the decades I have tried to write their story a few times, failing in each attempt because, although clear on the who I was always unsure about the when and the where.

[Paul Vates with actor Tom Knight]

Yet last summer, chatting to a friend (Professor Peter Doyle) and expert of WW1, my two Shakespearean colleagues were loosened from their shackles by the Merlot I was consuming. Their world became incredibly clear the more my vision blurred. Lost in a wilderness, searching for home, I never knew where they actually were. It was Peter who placed the final piece of their jigsaw into my subconscious mind. Within hours I knew their world was The Somme, the trenches, no-man’s land. Then the parallels with Hamlet began to tumble out: madness, killing, love, being lost in place and purpose. The similarities kept flowing until the first draft was completed with surprising speed.

Meeting Sharon Burrell of To The Moon was the next stroke of luck. I presented the opening ten minutes of the play to her as a Short for a season of new writing – she had produced a short play of mine a few months earlier. I flippantly mentioned it wasn’t a complete entity, more of an opening scene. She demanded to see the whole thing and optioned it soon after.

Since then, Voltemand And Cornelius Are Joyfully Returned has been read and discussed by The Script Readers at Theatre Royal, Stratford East; workshopped by The Old Vic’s New Voices LAB; and had the first twenty-minutes performed as part of The Young Vic’s Freshworks initiative.

[The cast: Paul Foulds as The Narrator, Toby Manley as Voltemand and Andrew Mudie as Cornelius]

Leading, in just a few months, to The Hope Theatre rehearsed-reading. These are standard affairs in the world of playwriting. A way of gaining information about the piece that would otherwise remain hidden: the actors ask important questions, the producer and director give their vision, the audience supplying the final honest truth about the piece. All these differing opinions are then carefully considered.

As the play changes with each initiative and programme, I feel the whole project is gaining strength and an identity of its own. Soon, I hope, Voltemand and Cornelius will be set free from my mind and be allowed to wallow elsewhere.

Joyfully, of course.

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