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toughest role yet - Actor Robert Powell could be forgiven for having
other things on his mind when he appears on stage in the region
The actor Robert Powell will be introducing an audience in Stockton to a few old mates tonight - Richard III, the Borgias, God, Adam and Eve, and other goodies and baddies too numerous to mention.
For the man who came to international attention playing Jesus of Nazareth in Franco Zeffirelli's controversial six-hour film epic, this sounds like the sort of line-up he needs just to get him out of bed in the morning. But you can be assured that he will give a full-blooded performance.
Robert Powell is the ultimate professional, a man quite happy to talk enthusiastically to journalists about a show - Saints And Sinners - which he has been doing off and on for more than two years.
"It's an entertainment," he says, "an evening of music, poetry and prose. People like themes and the theme of this show is saintliness and sinnerdom. We do it on a completely ad hoc basis." Audiences get "quite raucous" at times, he reveals. "Obviously it's not 90 minutes of hilarity but you can't do a show like this and not have some laughs. The emphasis is very much on people having a good time."
But Robert Powell wouldn't be human if, while he is playing God tonight, a small part of his mind isn't devoted to another matter which seeps into our conversation like drips through a breached dyke and then suddenly rushes in to swamp it. So what else have you got on the go at the moment, Robert?
"Well, I'm learning how to sail." He says it casually enough, as if he is trotting along to his local park every Saturday morning for a zip round the pond in a dinghy. Oh, yes?
"Well, my wife is really into it at the moment. She's currently part of the BT Global Challenge." The what? "It's the toughest yacht race there is because they go the wrong way round, from east to west against the prevailing winds. All the other races go the other way round.
"Every four years, 12 ocean-going yachts with amateur crews and a professional skipper take part in this round-the-world race, and I'm supposed to be joining one of them for the Wellington to Sydney leg."
It's all coming out now. Here's Robert preparing to travel to Stockton for a theatre show and his wife, Babs, has been risking life and limb in mountainous seas. She recently completed the leg from Buenos Aries to Wellington, which a later foray into the Internet reveals to have been 6,020 miles, in 31 days.
Has she done this kind of thing before? "Never before in her life." There is the faintest note of perturbation in Robert's voice. It's the tone a man might use when explaining, with the merest overtone of complaint, that his wife has been 30 minutes longer at the supermarket than has been the norm over a long marriage characterised by comfortable routine. "A whim," he adds, with heavy emphasis on the "whim".
Ah, yes . . . women and their whims. One minute they seem quite happy to keep your slippers warm and make the cocoa, and the next thing you know they're rushing out and pretending to be Chay Blyth, clinging to fast-moving pieces of metal thousands of miles from the nearest coast. "I was dead against it, to be honest," confides Robert.
Quite determined to do it anyway, you just go with the flow." You do, Robert, you do. "So I have been encouraging her for the last year or so because there wasn't really any alternative. But then some bright spark spotted us together at the Boat Show when the teams were being drawn up a year ago and decided to invite me to sail on one of the legs. Because Babs was already doing the whole thing, there wasn't really any way I could say no." In her heyday as a dancer, Babs was a member of Pan's People.
Back in the early 1970s, the long-haired lissom ladies were the most exciting thing about Top of the Pops for an adolescent boy. From the vantage point of middle age, however, you can understand why an ex-member of the group would want to run screaming from anything pastel and soft focus and hurl herself into the eye of a storm on a 72ft yacht.
So it was that Babs left Southampton last September 10 on the yacht Veritas and sailed to Boston and then to Buenos Aries and then on to Wellington, where she should have wound up safe and sound a few days ago. On February 18, Babs will be off again en route for Sydney, with husband Robert clinging manfully to the rigging of another vessel, Logica.
All being well it will take them seven days to cover the 1,230 miles between New Zealand and Wellington. The leg takes them across the Tasman Sea - or the "notorious Tasman Sea," as Robert puts it. While he has never been averse to a bit of sport - golf's a favourite and he has regularly strapped on his pads for the Lord's Taverners cricket team, of which he is president - he stresses that he has never been a great fan of sports liable to endanger life.
"I suppose the time had come to see if I could face up to something a bit more demanding," he says thoughtfully. "I started training three or four months ago and it is quite extraordinary. When you are training on the foredeck of a yacht - there are six of you on board - the boat will submarine when it goes into a wave. It goes right under. You've got a harness and a life jacket but you would still get hurt if you lost your footing. "Some people say, 'How good a swimmer are you?' I tell you, that's the most ludicrous question you'll ever be asked. If you are in the sea, you're dead; although we did practise what to do if someone goes overboard in the Channel about half a dozen times. "If anyone goes overboard in the Tasman Sea, because it is very cold, the last thing you do is swim. What you do is curl up into a sort of ball to conserve energy."
His discussions with Babs as she has circumnavigated the globe back to front have made one thing abundantly clear to him. "I think this is one of those things where the enjoyment is very much in having done it. "I don't think you actually enjoy it on a day-to-day basis because there's not really much to enjoy. It is so uncomfortable. I think, quite certainly, Babs is going to need counselling when she comes home." You've got to admire the pair of them.
Robert is 56 now and Babs a year younger, which makes them a good deal more mature than many of their fellow seafarers. Robert notes proudly that they look upon him as an equal. While they are battling against the elements, their two children, Barney, aged 23, and 21-year-old Kate, will be warm and safe on terra firma. Kate, in fact, is studying archaeology and ancient history at Durham University, and you can't get much more terra firma than that. Perhaps they had better get used to mum and dad putting themselves in danger.
"My wife wants to sail because they do these short trips where you can sail as crew up to the Arctic Circle," explains Robert, a mite wearily. He agrees that the 30,0000-mile BT Global Challenge, invented by yachtsman Chay Blyth, has probably changed all of their lives forever - a bit like some of those characters he will be bringing to life on stage in Stockton tonight. Meanwhile, don't think of talking to this actor any more about the fear factor in baring the soul on stage. "Piece of cake," he says dismissively.
The Journal (Newcastle), January 30, 2001
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