Friday, July 16, 2010

Hazards Pleasures & Angels

Hazards Pleasures & Angels


Touring with a production and performing at Art Festivals can be hazardous, but it can also provide the jobbing thespian with a great deal of pleasure.

Most of the hazards are usually directly related to the production in-hand, like working on an absolutely diabolical play, dealing with an obnoxious director, and discovering you have a fly-by-night producer who can’t pay you. The pleasures often arise from the wide variety of the “civilian” population one meets on ones travels. Or from residents of the town you are performing in.

I have performed at well over twenty Arts Festivals and been engaged to tour with at least fifty theatrical productions. Festivals in Edinburgh, Adelaide, Munich, Recklinghausen on the Rhine valley in Germany, Colchester in the UK, the K.K.K. Afrikaans Festival in Oudsthorn, and the annual South African National Arts Festival in Grahamstown have all been graced by my presence.

The latter town of Grahamstown was part of my staple diet in my younger years.
However in the late seventies, after I had delivered five gruelling performances of the leading role in Heiner Müller’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play in two days, I made the decision never to visit the place ever again.
The reasons were many.

Firstly I swore never again to appear on a stage covered by slippery plastic sheeting while a garden hose with an attached high pressure hose sprayed me with a vile smelling and icy-cold theatrical blood. Theatrical ironic imagery is one thing, accidents and the safety of the artiste are another.

The second reason was directly related to the town itself.

Grahamstown is situated in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa approximately half way between Port Elizabeth and East London. The festival is always held at the end of June, which coincides with the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. So to say that I have suffered several sub-zero winters of discontent in this beautiful town which was founded by the 1820 settlers from the UK, would be no exaggeration.

In the year in question I had hired and towed a small caravan from Cape Town. My salary and my per diem were insufficient to cover the cost of a private hotel room, and a caravan seemed to me, at the time, to offer privacy to my unattached, youthful and sexually active self. I now with hindsight admit that my choice of this style of habitat was inappropriate and unsuitable. My sexual partners and I suffered from frozen backsides and my “secreting appendages” seemed to be constantly in their “brass-monkey” state. It was an exceptionally cold winter with the temperature well below freezing, and the sight of seeing a thin layer of ice on the top of an unfinished espresso when I woke in the morning, were the primary cause for my dislike of Grahamstown.

The final reason and the deciding factor was a simple factor of remuneration and the financial gain.

We were performing in what was, and is still known as the Monument Theatre. A high tech theatrical complex perched atop a windy hillock just outside the town. After my third and last evening performance of the final day, I visited Lappies.

Lappies Labuschagne was an enterprising young boer who had set up a soup and hot-boerwors-roll stand outside the front entrance to the theatre. He was wisely clad in long johns, sheep skin boots, an S.A.D.F (South African African Defence Force) combat jacket, and his small modified Kombi oozed with the warmth of two blazing gas burners and a hot griddle. His soup was homemade and the wors in his rolls was made following his grandpa’s recipe. An excellent culinary feast for a jobbing actor who had ploughed his way through three performances of Germanic Shakespearean gibberish.

Lappies was also fond of a “dop”. His poison was the Afrikaaner’s national drink, Klipdrift and Coke. Mine at the time was Irish whisky. So with similar hobbies, alcohol and the fairer sex, Lappies and I struck up an immediate friendship.

It was around five in the morning, after we had exhausted all chances of picking up a “cherry”, the local vernacular for a young pretty damson, we returned to the icy sanctuary of my caravan. Lappies and I chewed the fat and discussed the financial pros and cons of being a jobbing actor and selling boerwors rolls.

I have never presumed to be a fundi of mathematics, but my ability to tot up scores in a 501 or 301 game of darts, told me that enterprising Lappies had made a profit from his two week venture, which was ten times the amount I had been paid for 4 weeks of gruelling rehearsal and two days of performances.

A sledge hammer struck in my grey matter. I was a wors-roll and a bowl of soup away from ever treading the boards again!

As the sun rose and the icicles melted Lappies and I bade our fond farewells. I hitched up my caravan and hit the road to Cape Town. With a fourteen hour drive ahead of me there was plenty of time for me to ponder on the fact that a seller of boerwors and soup could make more money than an actor performing at an Arts Festival. I decided that this was a monumental injustice, and I would only return to the Grahamstown Festival if I were to sell my favourite childhood dishes of tripe and onions, or roasted pig’s head.

Needless to say, I never did.

I did however bump into Lappies many years later in the quaint town of Dullstroom about 400 ks east of Johannesburg. His entrepreneurial skills had been drowned in brandy and coke and in his middle age he was serving behind the bar at the local hotel. He was servicing his addiction by taking the tourists to this trout fishing haven on wild mushroom hunts. The youthful magic of his wors was now in his mushrooms and his ability to “maak n’plan” was still with him.

“Making a plan” is an intrinsic attribute of all South Africans.

Three decades later in my latter years a plan devised by another equally enterprising, talented and entrepreneurial young South African named Nilus de Koppen, twisted my arm.

So, in the year the soccer World Cup vuvuzella-ed into Africa, I returned to Grahamstown and performed in a new play entitled “Tree-Boy”.

For those of you in-the-know, I am no boy. So I set your minds at rest.

I played the part of the Tree.

A lonely, lost and grumpy old tree who set his roots in an eco-forest on the outskirts of a Transvaal mining town after returning from the second world war. To appease my inner apprehension regards my return to Grahamstown, I seized on the idea that hermit Archibald Drupe, my character, could quite easily roast a pig’s head and boil his tripe over his camp fire, and should any member of the audience fancy a quick snack I could make a buck or two on the side.

In the final production however the camp fire never materialised as the fire regulations didn’t even allow a cigarette to be smoked on stage, so as my director explained, “No, Cess! No fire! No food! but you can have some mud, scattered leaves, a suitcase, a wheelbarrow, an upturned bucket, an old army coat, and some saplings.”

The three-handed, multi-media production was a financial and critical success. Its seven performances played to full houses and the three actors, the director, the writer, the producer and the technical fundis all received highly favourable compliments.

For my dear self the pièce de résistance was that I managed to cook my own tripe in my digs, and Toddy was never empty. Italian Grappa was the order of the day.

Enough of the pleasures. Time for the hazards.

Head of the list must be transportation.

It can be luxurious, safe, reliable, comfortable, expensive, by automobile, by coach, by ocean liner across the sea, on land, in the air, late, on time, or it be can be uncomfortable, unreliable, cheap, hazardous and at times non-existent.

It for these reasons I have always chosen to travel whenever possible under my own steam. Steam in this case means making use of a nineteen seventies Nissan Champ 1400 bakkie which I have had the pleasure of owning since 1981.

“Champie” has been round the clock three times, had its heads re-bored twice, been stolen, returned with a police clearance number, and has been my close companion if and when it has been able to start.

When I was invited by Nilus de Koppen to feature in his newly written play Tree Boy; salary, per diems, transport and accommodation were all discussed. As rehearsals were to held in Durban and be over three weeks I decided to haul dear old Champie out of semi retirement. A complete service later, with new brake pads and a cleaned carburettor, Champie stood ready for her six hundred kilometre trip to the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.

Jurgen-the-German, my friendly back street mechanic in Joburg assured me that she would definitely make the trip to Durban. The return journey he said, “May be a bit tricky, but vith da vinger crossed, she vud do it!”

How right he was.

The downwards journey from the icy winter of the highveld to the warmer sub-tropical climes of Durban was uneventful. A couple of stops for petrol, toll-gates and coffee and in six hours Champie cruised sedately past the newly erected and magnificently beautiful Moses Madhiba soccer stadium.

The return trip however made me wish the allies had never destroyed the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Jurgen-the-German was about to become the first new-age visitor to the chambers his ancestors had created. And I vowed by the time I eventually arrived back in Joburg that S.A.A. (South African Airways), and the entire board of F.I.F.A.’s committee could join him.

Because the World cup was in full swing when the production closed in Grahamstown we had to drive to Port Elizabeth, return the hired company Kombi, and board a scheduled flight to Joburg, although we wished to get to Durban.

It was at the Port Elizabeth airport that I faced the first of three hazards and six angels, on my forty-eight hour return trek to Joburg.

Being a highly inconsiderate and addicted chain smoker I was confronted by the fact that there is no smoking lounge in the departure lounge. Unless?

Unless you divest oneself of one hundred and fifty Rand and make use of the cash offer in the executive business suites. Having always been a bargain hunting thespian in search of either a freebie or a good offer, I quickly ascertained that for this reasonable sum, I could consume, a slice of quiche, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, a beer, a double whiskey, three glasses of excellent wine, an espresso coffee, a shot of Grappa, and smoke in solitude.

I also met a wonderful Xhosa waiter, who was intrigued why a scruffily dressed heavily bearded man, who was obviously not a businessman, was in his salubrious lounge.

“E - hello.”

“Good day my good man.”

“E - what is you?"

“I beg your pardon?”

“Where you from? What is you? You here for the soccer?”

“I is a human being and not I’m not here for the soccer, I’m here to smoke.”

A huge laugh erupted from his semi-toothless mouth and the ice was broken.

“You Liverpool supporter?” he asked as I was sporting my Liverpool beanie.

“ I was, but I’m now looking for some tangerine or orange underpants.”
Another hysterical gurgled laugh emerged from his lips.

“E-underpant?”
“Yes, tangerine or orange, I’m switching my allegiance to my hometown team Blackpool. You got any?”

Giggling uncontrollably he answered, “No, but we got the orange liqueur. The Curaçao. She Portuguese. You English eh?”

“Affirmative my good Sir, born, bred and educated there. And you?”

“Eeekeeythamlamanazi,” was the phonetic utterance from his grinning face.

“And where’s that?”

“E-English, is the Bathhurst?”

“Ah the Bathhurst. Good goats cheese there,” I said, having sampled the produce while I was in Grahamstown.

“You know it?”

“The cheese yes, the town no.”

“I want to live in London.”

“My God why?”

I was astounded that this reasonably educated, friendly, amusing and talkative young man would want to leave the lush hills of the Hogsback Mountains for the smoggy, expensive, overcrowded, and very un-English city of London.

A swift conversation about the economic woes of Sterling, the Dollar and the Euro followed, which I punctuated with Rand conversions for the price of a cigarette, a sandwich, and a roof over his head. Ending with, “And a Black Label beer would be about forty Rand!”

“Eeish, ma dada! I stay here.”

My boarding call tinkled through the public address system, and I said goodbye to Amos, a cherub with angelic possibilities.

Having made use of the incredibly good offer of the executive suites, I left with my shoulder bag and jacket pockets stuffed with biscuits, alcoholic miniatures, crisps and sweets that I could share with my less enterprising fellow thespian travellers on the flight to Johannesburg.

The hop to Joeys was uneventful, but then we had to wait three hours to board a delayed connecting flight to Durban. Spain versus Germany at the Madihba stadium that evening was the apparent reason for the delay and our circuitous route.

The flight to Durban usually takes 50 minutes to an hour.

I had a joyous and imbibing time on the flight, meeting two youngsters from Preston which is only a half hour drive from my hometown of Blackpool. We occupied the back row of seats, so we were in constant and close contact with the air hostess, who kept us supplied with our liquid sustenance. Greg and Stuart had tickets for the game which kicked off at eight-thirty. So did ninety percent of the other Spanish and German passengers, so as we circled over the King Shaka airport for the fiftieth time tensions were rising. We had been in the air for over two and a half hours and we were stacked with twenty four other flights waiting for permission to land. Luckily we were fourth from the bottom of the stack and at seven forty five we touched down. I heard later that evening we were the second to last plane to land. The remaining flights all had to be diverted to other airports. So, approximately five thousand travellers learnt that night that my observations penned in paragraph thirty-one of this tome are correct.

The baggage and arrival hall was full to the brim with irate and screaming soccer fans, and I caught a glance of my friends from Preston, who screamed, “We’ll make it!! We’ll crash on the beach! Is that OK?” Before I had a chance to advise in the negative they disappeared as fast as Aladin does from his lamp.

I was collected by Nilus de Koppus’s mother and was a guest at her and husband Trevor’s house in Cowies Hill for the night. The following morn, I arose early and loaded up Champie.

As Champie had lain idle for two weeks during my sojourn in Grahamstown , I was expecting to find a flat battery. She was parked, luckily, on the sloped driveway of Nilus de Koppen’s driveway. I light push and she turned over into a gurgled and jerky motion. I shouted, “Thanks!” to Nilus as he waved from his driveway and Champie and I stuttered down the road.

It was about a kilometre later that my fingers were not so much crossed, as riveted into a contorted spasm.

“Jurgen, Jurgen, you have given me a burden. Belsen’s ovens lie in wait.”

Champie started to miss-fire and the exhaust began emit the sound of blanks from a sniper’s rifle.

At the first set of traffic lights as Champie splutterd along, I suddenly caught sight of a large Zulu street trader dressed as Father Christmas selling flags and vuvzellas. The gas ovens disappeared and Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”, leapt into my grey matter. So, I crooned gently into Champie’s wounded innards via the broken dashboard and I headed her semi-crippled being in the direction of Durban North in hope of acquiring the help of Siob, a sister-in-law.

I made use of a nineteen-fifties map aptly entitled, “Port Natal - The City of Durban”. I safely and slowly negotiated the downward run from Cowies Hill via King Cetshwayo's Drive while I was looking for Jan Smut's highway. I swung a left into Problem Mhkize's armpit or Cowie Road as it was known, travelled up Lillian Gumede's leg, via Tutu's corset, turned a sharp left and found myself on Kenneth Kaunda Road. Then I suddenly found a road that had the same name as was on my map, Umhlanga Rocks Drive.

Yes! Miracles do happen!

While pulling into the parking lot outside Siob’s office, I made a mental note to send an e-mail to all South Africa’s present politicians. I would tell them to read Percy Byshe Shelley’s poem Ozimandias, and bear in mind what happens to statues and the names of the high and mighty.

As this thought flashed through my mind the second of my angels, Siob descended.
Being one of three sisters, the eldest being the present Lady-in-Wedlock, I’d affectionately named the siblings and mother as “The Witches of Donabate”.

Siob was true to character and was totally disinterested in my dilemma. She wanted to introduce me to one of her co-workers, who had held an interest in my dear self during the high-flying soapie-star era of my younger years.

I was escorted to the office and introduced to Ricky. Having no desire or no Viagra to hand I quickly asked after the formal handshake, “Do you know a friendly mechanic?”

“As a matter of fact, I do” replied smiling angel Ricky.

“You do? Where can I find him?”

“Just round the corner.”

“A cell number?”

A quick telephone call, a three minute juddering drive, and I was in the back yard of my fourth angel, Derrick. And an angel of Gabriel class, who had named his residential backyard repair shop “The Haven”. A mighty angel with a fully stocked garage and the hands of a mechanic trained by the almighty himself.

“Head gasket’s blown!” his diagnosis of my problem took thirty seconds.

“How much? and How long?

“Two and a half G and you can have it tonight.”

A man of his word was Gabriel Derrick and at 9 pm that evening after being amply fed and watered by Siob, he phoned and told me, “She’s ready, but I need to flush the shite out of the engine.”

“The shite?”

“The oil and the water, the head was corroded, it’s been welded and re-planed, you’ll need to get it re-torqued and the timing re-set again once you’re back in Joeys……….the electrics are funny too, but she’s firing and the compression is good……….You should maybe go the Luminet route and get rid of the distributor………. brilliant bakkie this, goes forever, my father’s brother had three of them………You’ve got to watch the prop shaft tho’……….I had one once, I put three five nines on………Oh and I’ve put in a new coil………. the one you had was Chinese shite!………. My uncle’s………………. ”

Derrick was on a biblical roll from the gospel of sixty-five year old mechanics and as with all dedicated and committed bible punchers, he suffered from verbal diarrhoea.

So it was decided that I would crash the night on Siob’s sofa and pick up “Champie” after I had visited the auto-teller in the morning.

By 10 am I was cruising up the N3. Champie purred gently as we by-passed Pietermaritzberg and began the climb of Howick Hill towards Hilton. I was amazed to note that I was still in 5th gear and the rev counter hovered on the 3500 mark, never before had Champie behaved so magnificently.

Then suddenly Beelzebub himself descended!

The tappets stopped tapping, the cylinders ceased cylindering but thankfully with the momentum I had attained, I free-wheeled and guided Champie in to a well positioned lay-by.

In an instant I downgraded Derrick the Archangel Gabriel to the fallen angel of Milton’s Paradise Lost and I prayed to every deity I could image that he would join Jurgen-the-German in Belsen.

I called Derrick from my second-hand cell.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Not good enough.

“Is anyone around?”

“I’m stuck on the fucking N3, not a house in sight, just cars and lorries hurtling past a foot or two away!”

“Have you got a spark?”

“A what? The only fucking spark I’ve got is on my cigarette lighter!”

“Is she firing? Unplug your distributor and hold it close to an earth. Turn it over and see if there’s a spark.”

“How the fuck can I do that! I’m on my own!”

“Is there nobody about? Flag down a car!”

And at that moment a heavenly ghost pulled in. The celestial body took the form of a jackal of the highways, a tow truck. Out stepped Mohammed himself in the form of an Indian man, whose surname name was Sulliman.

“You got a problem?”

“No, I just thought I’d pull over, open my bonnet, scream into my cell phone and have a picnic.”

“You’re joking eh?”

“You want a Mozie’s pork pie? I’ve got twenty in the cooler box in the back.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I think it’s electrical. Do you mind holding the distributor cable against the engine?”

“Sure.”

I jumped in the cab and turned the ignition, “Any spark?”

“Nix.”

Back onto the cell.

“Sorry to have kept you Derrick, no spark”

“It’s your points, I told you. Should change to “Luminet” ”.

“Yeah, yeah, thanks. Look I’ve got a tow truck here. I’ll call you when I get to another mechanic. Ta.”

Back to Islam’s angel.

“How much to the nearest mechanic?”

“That would be Howick, Mr. Smith. Eight fifty.”

“Fuck off!”
“Five fifty is the best I can do.”

“Make it three fifty and you can use my jacket as a prayer mat.”

An angelic Islamic smile crossed his face.

“Done!”

Thirty five minutes later I, Champie, and Sulliman were pulling into the yard of Javelin Trucking Co in Merrivale just outside Howick.

“How’s it Mr Smith?”

“Lekker Sulli, how’s Landi?”

“Up to her usual shite.”

“She still with that toss-pot?”

“Ja, he took to Hallies last night.”

“And?”

“She threw up inside his coupe”

“So what’s the problem?”

A Chekhovian pause hung in the air, as it took me a minute or two to realise he was talking to me.

“Oh, I think it’s the points, well that’s what Derrick says, he’s the guy that repaired the head gasket yesterday.”

“An old toppie eh?”

“Eh?”

“An old mechanic?” he said pointing at the tappet cover, “No litie would use that.” as he indicated a black guey substance between the tappet’s cover and the engine.

“Yes,” I said in his sixties, I think he said.”

“He’s done a good job, cleaned the carburettor, see.” he said admiring Derricks work.

“New coil too.”

“Yeah, Derrick changed that too.”

“I hate fucking cars you know.”

“Oh…….. but you can help me?”

“Let’s take a look,” he said attaching a meter to the battery.

“The battery’s fine.”

“It is.”

“Turn her over,” he said holding the distributor cable to earth. “No spark.”

“We’ve sussed that.”

“Must be the points.” said Mr Smith scratching his pauch.

If you’ve ever been stuck on a verbal roundabout you’ll know what I felt like saying next.

I held my tongue, while Mr Smith gave Sulli a hundred Rand note, “What year is this?”

“Mid seventies, I think.”

Sulli jumped into his jackal van and drove off.

“Where’s he going? I haven’t paid him yet.”

“Get new points and condenser.” replied Mr Smith while he stripped down the distributor.

“Why’d you hate cars?”

“Drink too many Hansas, can’t get the belly over the front.” he said as he lifted his paunch and rested it on Champie’s radiator.

“Must be more difficult working on trucks?”

“Use that,” he said pointing at the scaffolding hanging over a truck’s open innards.

“Ever had an immobiliser on this?”

“No.”

“Weird wiring.”

“That’s what Derrick said.”

Mr Smith swung his paunch off the radiator so that it could enjoy it’s Newtonian equilibrium.

“You like a grappa?” I asked. “Got some in the back.”

“A what?”

“Italian mampoer.”

As I lifted Toddie of the cooler box, Sulli came screeching back into the yard, carrying a case of Hansa beers, with two small packets balancing on top. He tossed the packets to Mr Smith and seemed simultaneously to rip the tops of three cans of Hansa.

In unison the words, “You want one?” sprung from Sulli’s and my mouth.

A quick clink of cans, a shot of grappa from Toddie and the points and condenser were changed.

“What do I owe you?”

“Settle with Sulli, and you can give me fifty for the parts.”

Seldom in my life have I met a real Good Samaritan and being a spasmodic humanist with atheist tendencies, it seemed to me that I could not accept this charity. I pulled out a hundred and fifty Rand and handed it Mr Smith and paid Sulli.

“The case of Hansa is on me.”

Yes, my friends, hazards, pleasures and angels do go hand in hand on the travels of a jobbing actor.

Five and a half hours later I was safely back in the arms of my “Lady-in-Wedlock”.

Bon voyage.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I laughed, I cried, i would pay to have seen it all happen:)

Nqobani said...

Hmm..

Zak said...

Fantastic! You need a new car dad! Jesus. X x

Luc said...

Brings a smile to my face...:) it will be long before I forget Grahamstown 2010. Nice one Ron.

Michael Dougherty said...

great work Ron,new hair would be good in a blockbuster!

angelinaodwyeryahoo.ie said...

Really enjoyed this Ron - would loved to have been on your travels with you- any chance you might bring the play to Ireland?

Michael said...

What a fantastic road trip! I must remember the exec lounge trick next time I'm stuck at some god-forsaken airport...

Neil said...

fantastic stuff Ron, the craziness captured for enternity. Look forward to reading the rest of Cess Pooles adventures.