Saturday, March 28, 2015

Aussie tour & being a complete Eejit

When a jobbing actor is offered a part in a touring company’s production his initial response is usually one of joy. He may even be over-joyed as it is the first offer of work he has received for many a long dry month. However once the terms of his engagement have been thrashed out by his agent, Ms Boo-King Clarke and the reality of his life for the next four months on the road sinks in, he usually dives deeply into the well of depression.

I have been on many tours in my illustrious career. Some like the tour of Australia in the early seventies hold many exciting and wonderful memories; others have left much to be desired. However they all deserve a mention. Some with hindsight are seared with regrets, others with feelings of guilt and others with self-acceptance of realising that I was a total eejit.

At the naïve and tender age of twenty-one and being a hard working and industrious young thespian full of desire to show off my skills to the world, I greatly enjoyed working an almost twelve hour stint. My day in the metropolis of Sydney started at ten in the morning with an ice cold shower, a hearty breakfast of lambs fries, eggs and bacon and then it was of to the theatre to give an exhilarating performance in Peter Hanke’s “Offending the Audience”.  This was in the days when “Lunch-time theatre” was the in-thing and audiences flocked to the theatre to be insulted by a bunch of energetic Poms.
The price of their ticket included a small bag of over ripe tomatoes and stale bread rolls.

Handke's play is an hour-long polemical improvisational lecture about the theatre, taking place in a theatre, which tries to be as unlike theatre as it possibly can be. Four strapping, fit and dynamic young actors bombarded the audience with insults, ranging from the cynically benign to the outright atrociously disgusting.

Reactions were varied. Some audiences were mesmerised and wouldn’t utter a word. Others, displaying true Aussie grit and an inbred hatred of Pommies, pelted us with their rolls and tomatoes. After such a performance it was another quick shower and into the nearest hostelry to see if we could meet up with any of the audience and continue to insult them. As you can imagine this did result in some hair-raising alcoholically induced mayhem, which required the intervention of the local constabulary to restore the peace.

Recuperating from such events either in a police cell or back in comfort of your B&B’s bedroom was a regular occurrence. Then there was the preparation for the evening performance of King Lear. This was either a short session at Bondi beach chatting up the local girls who seemed to be completely ignored by their local male counterparts. Or an afternoon’s nap before we all had to join the main company for a warm up session at the theatre.

The performance was, to put it mildly, long. Four and a half hours including two intervals. In those days the attention span of an audience was longer and they were educated to the fact that Shakespeare is 15th century soap opera. So the Aussies thought nothing about nipping out to the local bar to have a quick schooner and a pie floater and returning ten minutes later to pick up were the story left off.

We junior thespians all played small supporting roles and also had long spells off-stage. It was during these times that we used to either watch the performances we were understudying from the wings or play games of chess, dice, cards or scrabble. These games often tended to distract you from the job at hand, - that of performing in a play - and many times screams were heard through the tannoy system calling the third servant-on-the-left to get his arse on-stage! However I learnt to play many games. Little did I know that in later life I would be a complete eejit and regret the learning of these skills.

I was the servant that gets killed by the Duke of Cornwall while he pulls out Gloucester’s eyes. Never once did I miss my entrance even though my Queen was being threatened by two pawns and a bishop.

But later in my career whilst I was playing the evil Claudius in another Shakespearean masterpiece Hamlet I nearly did fail to get on stage in time for my cue.

The game of chess was to blame.

 I am by all accounts a mediocre player but during this later production at the Alexander theatre in Johannesburg the actors playing Horatio and Guildenstern were keen and fervent players.

 As you may well know Claudius does have an almost thirty minute break and I was drawn into the chess tournament. The game in question had been in progress for five days and for the first time it looked as if I had our chess guru, Guildenstern, a move or two away from a check-mate.

The Alexander Theatre had a strange, actor-unfriendly design. The architect who designed the building decided that the actors should be housed in dressing rooms that were as far away from the stage as possible. Four flights of stairs, a walk through a cavernous underbelly of the stage and the ascent of another flight of stairs was the only way that any performer could make an entrance on stage-left. A stage-right entrance required only the descent of the four initial flights.

My first grand entrance with all the court following was on stage-left.

My cue rang out through the tannoy.

Expletives flowed, heart pounded and pumped muscles tore. I knew there was no way I would be able to make the stage-right entrance in time. The production was fortunately directed as a modern dress version and my long and slow kingly entrance was accompanied by a mighty fanfare of trumpets.

As the last note of the stately regal trumpet died echoing in the auditorium an unnerving eerie silence descended. Standing on stage-right was the full court, lords, ladies, courtiers, lonely Gertrude and the juvenile delinquent Hamlet.

Suddenly I appeared down stage-left and uttered what I consider to be my best line of improvised Shakespeare.

“What doest thou there?!!!”

I immediately snapped my fingers and ordered the whole court to circle the stage, fall in behind me and then proceeded to march them all back to where they had all just come from. Using the device known as a pregnant pause I awaited the arrival of my fellow chess playing thespian, - an out of breath Guildenstern who had traversed the theatre’s underbelly, and greeted him with the opening lines of the scene:-

“Welcome, dear Rosencrantz”, and after beautifully handled Pregnant pause, I continued, “Guildenstern!
Moreover that we much did long to see you,
The need we have to use you did provoke
Our hasty sending.”

I never again played a game of chess during a performance and I never again almost missed an entrance.

 But I’m happy to consider myself a self-confessed eejit!

1 comment:

Maggie Storey said...

The art of improvisation is a necessary skill in theatre!
How many of us missed our entrance and had to cover?