Heathcote Williams’ poem on nubs – rewritten for The School of Night



Sometimes an actor will find himself on stage
Having forgotten what he’s meant to say.
He’s dried completely; his prompter’s in the pub;
And it’s the middle of a Shakespeare play.

But as it’s Shakespeare (and Shakespeare’s often obscure),
Actors have a nonsensical trick to cover this.
It’s a thespian ploy called ‘nubbing’, but few people notice
When an actor’s ‘nubbing’ (or taking the piss):

“List, I sense a nubbing in far glens,
Where minnows swoop the pikey deep
Which is unpiked less pikey be,
Cross-bolted in their crispy muffs

And choose the trammelled way …
Oh freeze my soul in fitful sleep
Lest wind-filled sprites bequim the air
And take us singly or in threes

In mad agog or lumpsome nub,
Aghast to Milford Haven….”

These Shakespeare-like cod phrases are used to fill the chasm,
And they tumble over each other in nervous succession.

There’s only one rule governing what the ‘nubber’ invents:
That the last phrase to ring in an audience’s ears
Must always be ‘Milford Haven’, and be shouted out loudly
So those back-stage can be alerted, and they’ll gather

That a forgetful actor has had to fall back on ‘nubbing’,
And he yearns to be rescued without hesitation –
‘Aghast to Milford Haven!’ ‘…to Milford Haven!!’ ‘…Milford Haven!!!’
The actor who’s dried cries in grim desperation.

But if he happens to be unpopular he may be left there to hang,
In that spotlight that normally fills him with such elation,
So frantically he’ll try to make up more and more nonsense,
But always making sure to finish with ‘Milford Haven’.

For these two words are the secret signals that indicate
That someone’s lost on stage, frozen without a clue,
And may be in imminent danger of dying a thousand deaths,
Until a kindly cast member can come to their rescue.

To an audience a clever nub may pass for Shakespeare himself
So someone seeing Hamlet, the Danish prince,
May be transported by the tormented egghead’s sorry predicament –
Unwittingly unaware they’ve been manipulated by gibberish:

“And now, methinks, I must away to horse,
My nub is sorely pressed and, hark, the eagle,
Soaring high and cawing like the creature of the night,
The shard-born raven, proclaims we are bemused
And struck so far from finding our next line
That happy is the man at home in Milford Haven.”

Then, upon catching the ‘Milford Haven’ cue, a fellow actor steps out
From the wings to save the day, and take part in the conspiracy.
Suppressing a giggle, he picks up from where the real play left off,
But the forged Shakespeare nub has entered green-room history.

Heathcote Williams

With acknowledgments to Michael Coveney, chronicler of the nub in ‘Aye, there’s the nub: Amnesia – Michael Coveney on the persistence of a noble theatrical tradition’; London: New Statesman, 28 March 2005, and to Donald Wolfit and to Ken Campbell (authors of the two nubs quoted here) and to Alan Cox of The School of Night (and a quondam nubber).

A report of the Oxford show from Heathcote Williams

The poet Heathcote Williams was in the audience in Oxford and wrote this report in his usual sparkling idiom…

“At the request of the Oxford audience, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ was suggested as the theme for the School of Night improvisers, or ‘Seekers’ as they prefer to be known. It was deftly performed in the style of (thanks to more suggestions from the audience) Neil Oram and David Hare and Alan Ayckbourn, sometimes all three at once.

“A member of the audience was then invited to tell a tale of personal heartbreak and so one brave individual stepped onto the stage to recount a sorry saga of his abandonment in Latvia by a Viking damsel he’d discovered on Facebook . This prompted a stunning trilogy of songs about heartbreak in Latvia – expert, and hilarious, pastiches of Thom Yorke, then Tom Waites and then Tom Petty.

“The magical tea cosies were then donned, giving each member of the cast the air of, alternately, High Court judges, Alice in Wonderland footmen and bag-ladies, and just with these tea cosies as props, mirabile dictu, a new Shakespeare play was channelled (from somewhere near where Ken Campbell’s shade was located up above, in the vaulted crimson ceiling of the Playhouse casting a watchful eye on the proceedings) .

” ‘The Local Harlot’ was the title of this– until this evening — undiscovered play — the subject (again chosen by the audience) being the hapless Chris Huhne and Vicky Price, his vengeful wife, fallen from their great social heights.

“Through peculiar contortions of the miming art, the doomed pair appeared as just one character – a kind of risible Shakespearian Chris’n’Vicky ladyboy – both enacted by Frater Senton , I think – or maybe it was Frater Emery – either way poor Chris’n’Vicky’s fate was memorialised (breaking the speed limit for topicality) in ways that the couple were mercifully spared from witnessing – Chris’n’Vicky being in jail of course.

“The audience were quick in picking up all the Shakespeare references – much hilarity over scenes where ‘bacon’ makes ubiquitous appearances (thus proving Francis Bacon’s authorship).

“The School of Night’s production is all improvised, from scratch, with never an anaesthetising ‘um’ or an intrusively hiccupping ‘er’ – it all just flows seamlessly: trains of whimsical thought are ignited like trails of gunpowder; verbal darts and potentising explosions of linguistic tongue-tripping scintillate and flash and then are gone.

“The Bardic tap is unscrewed. The brain is stretched by a cast of four doing relentlessly exhilarating pre-frontal press-ups. Thanks to the School of Night’s ‘Master of Darkness’ who controls these mysterious, inexplicable proceedings, — possibly in spirit form — the owl of Minerva flits regularly across the auditorium gracing each cast member with invaluable insights and fiery, high-flown inspirations. How great it is. HW”

Humble thanks from the fraters.