Life as a Cabaret
I never got into thesp-dom, but perhaps it’s not too late to start! Within the last seven days I’ve experience theatre from both ends – as performer and punter – and I love it.
Over the last few weeks me and my bardic chums in Fire Springs (Anthony Nanson; Kirsty Hartsiotis; David Metcalfe) have been busy preparing for a commission we got for the Bath Lit Fest 2012 – a show called ‘Forgotten Voices, Inspiring Lives’, about historical personages from Bath’s glorious heritage. It was premiered at the Holburne Museum last Sunday – straight after the Bath Half Marathon, which had taken over Great Pulteney Street (not exactly helping access to our venue). You’d have to be a bit of an athlete to get to it – jumping the various hurdles and weaving through the madding hordes. With David as our bardic anchor-man – providing a through line in the voice of Bladed, Bath’s legendary founding father – Anthony, Kirsch and myself portrayed historical characters we had picked from Victorian times to the Dark Ages. I opted for Walter Savage Lander – an eccentric and cantankerous poet renowned for his strong opinions; and John Riggs-Miller, husband of Lady Miller, famed for her vase and poetical contest in Bathetic (a kind of Georgian eisteddfod). It was great fun dressing up and getting paid for it – although it was a lot of work and quite scary. The show was more challenging than our usual comfort zone of traditional storytelling. Unlike our usual extempore low-phi style, this was semi-scripted, and in costume – we ‘channelled’ the personalities, adopting their voices and manner. My gruff voice for Lander was enhanced by a sore throat! The show seemed to go down well with the audience we had – could have had a few more there, as ever, but considering it was a glorious sunny afternoon and everyone and their dog was slogging the streets of Bath, we did well. I hope we get to do the show again – perhaps at a small theatre in the city, or as part of some cultural event…?
Getting us in the mood and showing how far we have to come as actors, was an impressive one-man show Anthony and I went to see on Friday night with a couple of fellow storytellers, La and Mark, at the Rondo Theatre in Lark hall (where we made our professional debt as Fire Springs over a decade ago with our first show, Arthur’s Dream). Phoenix Rising – about the early life of DH Lawrence – was performed with complete authority and commitment by the astoundingly talented Paul Slack. His was a committed and intense tour-de-force – embodying not only the older Lawrence, but also his younger self, his mother and father, his first muse and flings. It was astonishing to see – it was as though Lawrence was in the room with us, and considering we were in the front row – up close and personal at that. It was such an embodied performance – and was not only a feat of memory, but also energy. Yet he kept the small but attentive audience gripped until the end. This wasn’t just our good will – but because he was magnetic, exuding Lawrence charisma, his atavistic lean. Both down-to-earth and visionary – cutting through the crap with his unpretentious Northernness, while at the same time pushing the envelope of the times – Lawrence was a flawed prophet who reached beyond his age. We chatted to Paul afterwards and he was very approachable and generous in his respect for the storytelling craft. He had performed the show about sixty times – right across the world – and was looking forward to a change now. Having spent a lot of time with Lawrence, one can perhaps understand his need to move on. DH might have been one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but he was probably difficult company.
This week I visited London – ostensibly to see another one-man show – although the highlight was actually catching up with a dear old friend from Northampton, Rob Goodman – an actor. He’s been living in London for a number of years now and has been in several films, TV shows and ads, as well as treading the boards as both actor and director. A true thesp, he’s also very down-to-earth (comes with being Northampton born and bred…) and amusing. We had a lot of catching up to do – twenty years worth … but it felt like the ‘old days’, back at 13 East Park Parade – where a weird convergence of artists, occultists, actors and ‘perfumed ponces’ gathered in the early Nineties. It was pure Withnail and I – with myself cast as Marwood. I won’t say who Withnail was!
Watching the play called The Attic – about the Scottish poet Alan Jackson, going out of, or rather into his mind, when he decides to spend a year staying in an attic room in the heart of Edingburgh – reminded me a bit about those intense times back then! It was an uncompromising self-examination and shamanic ‘vision-quest’ into the dark night of the soul. The belly of the whale and back. Very demanding on the audience, and the actor, Andrew Floyd – a fellow Stroudie – who gave the role natural gravitas. The performance took place in the tiny, quirky Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead – home of much legendary bohemian luvviness over the years. You had to get to the auditorium through the box office, like a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole. The stage took up half the space, so it felt like we were in the attic with this ‘poet on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. There was nowhere to hide – and Alan/Andrew explored every nook and cranny, every wart and flaw of his psyche. ‘I am going to go and stand in my own fire’, wrote Jackson, and so he did. The dispatches from the fiery abyss are dense, coded, with flashes of lucid luminescence and righteous ire. At times I wondered if this would work better on the page, than the stage – and it risked becoming a terribly self-important and self-indulgent anthology show of Jackson’s life and works. And yet you have to admire the old goat – standing on his isolated mountain precipice, looking down on the world with scorn and wonder. The fact that he survived, and was able to articulate his experience is an achievement in itself. Poetry redeemeth the man – as art can so often redeem life. It transforms the raw materials we are given into something if not always wonderful, then certainly memorable – we have existed and we have left our mark. Our daubings in grease-paint and ink occasional touch another life – and we pass on the fire.