Sunday, December 31, 2017

Fortune and The Company's Eyes

So, what now?
You’ve been informed about the acting electricians in the early days of The Market Theatre, I thought it was about time that I told a tale about some actors acting.
This is because of the reaction to my tale about the early days of the Company and the Market Theatre, so I’ve decided that I should take you into one of its old broom cupboards which was upstairs, where today you’d find the wardrobe department.
Back in 1976 it was an empty space that we rehearsed in for the production of “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” with the late Barney Simon, which was to be performed at the Nunnery, a small venue on the campus of Wits University.
The play was written by John Herbert in 1967 and explores a young man's experience in prison, delving into the themes of homosexuality and sexual slavery.

It was based in part by Herbert's own experience; he spent four months imprisoned in a youth reformatory after having been convicted of wearing drag in 1967. The character of Queenie in the play is an authorial self-insertion.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, which begins with the line "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes".

The characters are “Rocky”, a juvenile delinquent who has been in prison before and knows the ropes, played by the late Bill Flynn. “Smitty”, a new inmate played by Paul Slabolepszy, “Mona”, a fragile possibly gay inmate who has been in for some time, played by Danny Keogh and the transvestite “Queenie”, played by myself. And a fifth character our warder played by Nigel Vermaas.

All were intricate deep characters and each of us knew we were about to embark on some seriously deep challenging work.

Barney was one of my favourite directors and he often said, “You’ve got to find it in yourself!”

His first mission was trying to get us four inmates of the prison to understand what confinement, in a small enclosed space, was really like; and how the feeling would affect our various characters.

To do this, he locked the four of us in the afore-mentioned small old broom cupboard sometimes for a whole day with a short break for a walk, a drink and a urination.

The cupboard had no window, the only visibility out was from the top of the cupboard door which had a slatted ventilation, if this was forced upward we could see the legs of the fifth character in the play, our warden, played by Nigel Vermass, and he was forced to sit outside, also for the whole day, so he could search his inner-self to discover why he was such a vindictive bastard.

One of the longer walls was bare, the other had four sturdy shelves, approximately one metre fifty in length and about forty centimetres in depth or width.

We were all young and fit so in no time at all Dannny Keogh, playing the frail inmate Mona, was soon lying precariously on his back on the topmost shelf, feeling he would get away from the torments that Rocky threw about.

Not to be outdone Bill, as Rocky, climbed onto the third shelf and helped the new inmate Smitty up onto the second.

I have always had an aversion to the smell of breaking wind and in the afternoon, seeing as we’d all eaten baked beans at our fifteen-minute lunch break, bought at the handy Spar market across the road at that time, I knew what was in store.

So, I took the concrete floor and used one of the four blankets Barney had given us. On the floor I could lie either on my back or propped up by an elbow on my side.

My A-level physics had taught me that hot air rises, and it sure did, everything I emitted, and that Paul and Bill released rose up to give poor Danny a torrid time. He complained bitterly and leapt down to breathe the clean air rolling in under the door. He even asked Nigel to get us some fresh air spray.

Of course, Nigel the warder, refused.

Our first stint in the cupboard was from nine thirty in the morning till four thirty in the afternoon, with two five-minute breaks for a drink, a pee, a walk, and a fifteen-minute break for lunch. After that first Monday of rehearsals we all kept our diets free from methane producing products.

Tuesday, we were placed in the cupboard again, same again Wednesday but we were released at five-thirty, Thursday, with an added half an hour and Friday, with another full hour added, but on Saturday morning we read the play! What a relief and all of us agreed that our confinement certainly helped and opened many new avenues for us to explore. Even Nigel, who has only ten or so lines in the piece, was twice as vicious and doubly mean.

On Sunday Barney asked me to pop round to his house. I knew what was coming. How on earth was I going to manage Queenie’s song “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, which he sings at the opening of the second act in full drag.

He gave me a recording of Bessie Smith doing the song. I had already told Barney that I was tone deaf, and I’d caused three singing teachers at RADA to seek Psychiatric help.

Barney immediately gave me a telephone number and said, “Call her, she’s expecting you to call, she definitely can help.”

I called the lady, Irene Frangs, as soon as I got back to my flat in Yeoville.

In the phone call it was arranged that I should pop by her house on Jan Smuts Avenue at three o’clock that Sunday afternoon. I immediately gave her the full run down about my aversion to singing and my inability to hold a tune; I even told how three teachers at RADA had not managed to be successful.

Irene seemed to not hear what I said and asked, “You’re British ja?” This coming from a very large red-haired lady with Greek ancestry was odd.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Recognise this?” as her fingers rippled across the grand piano with the opening chords of the “God save the Queen”.

“Call it an anthem to your character, So, come on belt it out!”

And I did. She helped me along and after we’d done it four times she asked, “Know any other songs?”

“Yep, I had to sing it in a play, The Cuban Missile Crisis, last year back in the UK, I did for Prospect Theatre Company; I played Lee Marvin and had to sing “I was born under a Wandering Star” same way as Lee did.”

The chords played out and off I went and even amazed myself. At the end Irene stood and applauded. “Right Cess, I won’t hear another word about being tone deaf and not being able to sing we’ll have you doing opera next week!” For the next four weeks I visited Irene twice weekly, on Sundays and in the afternoon on Wednesdays.

She adapted the song into Sprechgesang, so that I wouldn’t have to sing but rather speak, as I progressed I found myself naturally hitting the right notes and the dance routine I devised gave the whole drag act a very humourous sexual slant.

For those of you that don’t know the song I’ve downloaded a video of Bessie Lee singing and have given you the lyrics.

The venue, The Nunnery was very small, but Barney designed a set with the help of Sarah Roberts who also designed the costumes, and selected my very own slinky Drag dress and high heels.

There was raked seating at each end of the oblong hall, in the central area they constructed a cell out of scaffolding; there was one metal door with a spy window through which Nigel could peer through and make sure his prisoners were behaving themselves.

This gave the sense of a very uncomfortable enclosed space. Four bunk beds were attached to the structure at different heights; they were also made of scaffolding with wooden boards and straw mattresses.

Seats for the audience were also available just under the lighting rig, here they sat on boards laid on the scaffolding with their legs dangling into the upper reaches of the cell.

It worked fantastically well, and one hundred and twenty-five patrons made a full-house; some members of the public made a second visit to see the play solely because they wanted to sit in the scaffolding.

We had five weeks of rehearsal working eight to ten hours each day including Saturdays. The get-in weekend was a frantic and hectic time. Mannie Manim designed the lighting, it was very difficult for him as he had to light from all sides of the venue and from above as well. This caused problems for us actors, as we had to constantly aware of casting shadows on each other.

The show received rave reviews from all the newspaper critics and my dragged rendition of “A good man is hard to find” received its own round of cheers and applause.

We played to full houses for six weeks, and if I remember correctly we had a two-week extension. There was talk, when it was discovered that The Nunnery had another production booked in, to find another venue.

Unfortunately, there was not another small venue available, and both Barney and Mannie knew that we would lose that special undefinable effect that The Nunnery had.

So, the production closed.

It hit the headlines again later in the year in all the Johannesburg newspapers, when Paul Slabolepszy won the best actor of the year, the production the best production award and Barney was nominated for the best director; he may even have won it, but my ageing grey matter’s hard drive can not retrieve the information.

Paul went on to even greater things and during the eighties till the present day he has become one of South Africa's playwrights winning numerous awards.

I can however give you the lyrics to Bessie Smith’s song and the text of Shakespeare’s sonnet 29.
A good man is hard to find,
You always get the other kind
A good man is hard to find,
You always get the other kind
Just when you think that he's your pal,
You look for him and find
Him fooling around some other gal
Then you rave,
You even pray,
To see him laying in his grave
So if your man is nice,
You better take my advice
Hug him in the morning,
Kiss him every night,
Give him plenty loving,
Treat him right
Cause a good man now day's is hard to find

So if your man is nice,

You better take my advice
And hug him in the morning,
Kiss him every night,
Give him plenty loving,
And treat him right
For a good man now day's is hard to find

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

PS: Now you've read this post, I would like you to comment on it. Say what you really think please. If you read any of the previous tales the same applies. It will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

1 comment:

Adrian Galley said...

Yet another brilliant contribution to the Cess Poole canon.