Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Peeping Tom

Can you remember what you were doing at the tender age of fourteen?

Of course you youngsters can. But for those of my generation, who have to deal with the onset of senility, Alzheimer’s and other age-related medical problems, the task is not so easy.

However, in spite of the aforementioned ailments, I can remember certain details with great clarity. The more exciting the memory, the more easily it rises to the surface. The more mundane get zipped and stored in the never-able-to-reach area of my aging hard drive. Good use of the computer analogy, don’t you think? Keeps the youngsters reading. Sex is also an excellent tool to keep the younger generations glued to either a book or a screen.

So where was I? Ah, yes, fourteen and sex.

Well, at this early stage of puberty, as we called it back then, I used to recite poetry to panels of stony-faced adjudicators who sat in on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Poetry Lovers’ Fellowship” examinations, but I was also training as a “Peeping Tom”. I received this never-to-be-lost training whilst I was treading the boards at the Old Vic Theatre near Waterloo station in London.

I was performing the minor role of Third-spear-carrier-downstage-left in a National Youth Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’ll give you the standard three guesses as to what I was peeping at.

Right first time.

Young Cleopatra’s ample glandula mammaria.

Mammary glands or bosoms, for those of you without the Latin.

None other than the now famous Dame Helen Mirren was playing the role of the voluptuous queen of Egypt who had all the local politicians of the time sporting permanent hard-ons. She was a brilliant actress, even at the tender age of seventeen, and the Youth Theatre’s director, Mr Michael Croft, had an extremely good eye for casting when it came to getting bums on seats.

There is a famous scene in the play, Act 3 Scene 2, I think, when Antony confronts the love of his life about her possible involvement with his political rival, the young, and also sexually active, Octavius Caesar. The director, an astute and clever man with an immense knowledge of the Bard, had worked the scene as if it were a good old marital tiff. As you may remember, this was the dawning of the “kitchen-sink” drama in the UK and Mr Croft, in an attempt to upstage the famous John Osborne, gave birth to one of the first productions in London to have a good dose of explicit bedroom drama.

He justified his direction by brandishing his “Stratford Edition” of the play during the early rehearsals. “What does it say, line 138? Look at the stage directions!” We all perused our scripts.

Hands were raised in unison. “He strikes her!” we all yelled. “Good. And line 157?”.

Our eyes glued themselves back to the printed page. “He strikes her again!”

Mr Croft then donned his school-teacher robe and explained.

“Shakespeare may have played this scene the same way we are playing it.” Holding the Stratford Edition aloft, he continued, “This is taken from the 1st folio edition and, in several of his plays, in Othello, for example, the stage directions clearly state that the leading man strikes his leading lady.”

For male kids of the Teddy-Boy era this was good news; among the young girls a few eyes were raised. You have to remember that this was the start of the Women’s Lib uprising. And I do concede that, back in sixteen hundred and two, there were no “Abuse-Against-Women” marches and, as young boys played all the female parts, I’m sure Mr Shakespeare did not have to deal with any picketing by irate females outside the Globe Theatre.

However, the early sixties were another ball game. There were mutterings emerging from the Australian Outback from the then naive diva of feminism, Germaine Greer. Bras were about to be burnt. Twiggy was strutting her stuff on the catwalks not needing one. And Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger were doing things with Mars Bars. Even “Ken the Red”, the recent ex-Mayor of London, Mr. Ken Livingstone, was up in arms, barricading the private garden squares of Notting Hill so that single mums could wheel their prams. These were heady times.

The young Ms Mirren was no slouch either when it came to airing her views and opinions. The rehearsal room was abuzz with heated discussions on women’s rights, the pill, violence in the home, and banning the bomb. Ms Mirren and her gallant on-stage partner, Mr John Nightingale, who played Antony, explored all the avenues that Mr Croft opened for them.

Rehearsals continued apace and by opening night the “Strikes” were in! Mr Nightingale gave Ms Mirren a good old wallop! Thank God!

The national press reviews the following morning gave a unanimous thumbs-up for the production and audiences flooded in. Especially after they had read the Sunday review that mentioned Ms Mirren’s mammary glands, which tended to slip out of the loose toga-like dress she was wearing. Crowds started queuing three hours before the performances so that they could get a chance of being a member of the “Peeping Tom Club”.

But, unfortunately for these eager punters, Ms Mirren’s glands were never seen again by an audience after the opening night. With the use of her brilliant technical acting skills, she had quickly developed a marvellous pirouette movement that ensured that she always fell facing upstage. I take this opportunity to thank Helen.

Two reasons. Firstly, at a later stage in my career, I used the same twirling motion when I had to prevent my own privates being seen by the audience when I had to urinate on stage. And, secondly, because she gave the fifteen-or-so spear-carriers, who were standing in the upstage wings awaiting their next entrance, an occasional chance of catching a glimpse of her glandula mammaria as they tumbled out of her dress.

As those adolescent years passed, the memories of Ms Mirren’s boobs slowly faded as I focused on the more physically present appendages of the female partners with whom I was cohabiting at the time.

My peeping-tom days were over. Are they returning? Now, that’s another story.


Ashleigh said...

Love it! Sorry it's taken me so long to start reading. Been working like crazy - also as a freelance actor. The joys!

Catharina said...

Haha, great story. Loved the latin way of making things decent!

Great way to show of an insight of what your early days was focused on.