used to Heaven and Hell at Oval House 1979
Oval House is an arts centre in South London. It had been a youth club in the 1960s and gradually transformed into a nurturing ground for many fringe theatre groups of that time - Cunning Stunts, Gay Sweatshop, Incubus, Pip Simmons, Kaboodle, and hosted Montrous Regiment, The People Show, Red Ladder, Split Britches, Forkbeard Fantasy and others. It became a locus of left-wing and feminist activity, particularly at a time when the Albany in Deptford was burned down by right-wing extremists. When I started doing evening classes there in early 1978 (acrobatics, mime and clowning) there were stories of the way marijana smoke used to waft around the building in the late sixties/early seventies.
My friend Breno and I proposed a show for the Oval House car park. We were into apocalyptic scenarios, so it was based on Noah's flood, hence the title: 'And God Said To Noah... no more water, this time fire!'. This was still the time when people had an anxiety about nuclear annihilation. Breno was steeped in Catholic imagery because of his background in Brazil, so we based the show on three worlds of Heaven, Hell and the humans. We gathered about fifteen volunteers and arranged them in the the three groups. For heaven we had a band of musicians - clarinet, cello, accordion etc - and God was portrayed by an enormous Canadian actor who was 6ft 7ins and 18 stone. Then there were the humans for whom we built a wooden set of a domestic setting using wooden pallets, bits of shed, old furniture, lamps, a rug, books, paintings and crockery, all scavenged from skips. The third group of devils had taken part in our stunt weekend workshop that we had run a few weeks previously. In this we had gone through activities like jumping off height (onto catching people or cardboard boxes), breaking real glass bottles for street fighting, being hit by moving cars, escapology and various fire stunts, including setting fire to clothing. The devils were to use some of these techniques as well as coming out of a hole dug into car park and I was to enter on my motorcycle, flying through cardboard boxes from a ramp offstage.
The beginning of the show went fine; God and his musical angels arrived from behind the standing onlookers and made their way, (with some difficulty) up a little ladder up onto a roof of a one-storey extension to the theatre, where they began to play heavenly music. God was fed grapes, in a rather lascivious way, by a nymph in a toga. The humans, dressed in black and white suits, established themselves in the domestic scene using mechanical movements. Then God roared and made his pronouncement and the Hells Angel-style devils emerged, jumping from above or springing up from below or escaping from chains. I steeled myself to accelerate fast, up the rickety ramp and blindly crash through the boxes, trying to aim for the gap between the hole and the performers on the set. I succeeded and the crowd was getting excited and getting bigger because this was on a main street and passers-by were swelling in behind the original spectators. Then the Devils set about blowing fire and tossing extra paraffin onto the pre-soaked set. It began to burn, slowly at first, in little patches, but gradually it took hold. The human characters ran around in terror being taunted by the devils and partially set on fire. The fire behind them was becoming so hot that we had to halt the action. We had not fully considered how hot it might get if all that material, mainly dry wood, was burning at the same time. Heaven's band played on but the other performers, including the daredevil Devils held back, torn between keeping the action going and not getting roasted. I pushed my motorbike away, fearing the tank might explode. Somebody fitted up a garden hose to douse the flames but they couldn't get near enough to get the water onto the fire. The spectators had to retreat onto the pavement; they were enjoying the spectacle, but wondering what going to happen next.
What did happen was a distant sound of a siren coming closer. This added to the sense of disaster and impending doom that we had wanted to create but it was not part of our plan. The fire engine stopped on the road and the men quickly got their hoses out, with the leading officer (in a white helmet) carrying a metal staff as if he was expecting to face a riot, clearing a way through from the back of the crowd, emerging into the performing area. They set about dousing the fire, producing magnificent clouds of steam; it was a great spectacle.The firemen had to negotiate the pressure of the hose and one didn't notice the hole and stumbled into it slightly. The faltering Heaven band switched to the Laurel & Hardy theme and the firemen, noticing God and the other performers became aware they had entered a show and, as the urgency of the fire quickly subsided, they began to act up, bumping into each other, falling back in the hole and spraying the water slightly carelessly. By this time a second wailing fire engine had arrived from a different direction and then a third. The whole area from Brixton to Vauxhall and down the South Circular was getting snarled up with traffic so as soon as the state of the diminishing fire had been checked they all began to pack up and leave. The crowd were amazed , amused and apparently very satisfied; they gave a cheering applause and began to disperse.
I was rather stressed, partly because I was terrified we were going to get in big trouble for causing such an out-of-control situation and partly angry with whoever had called the fire brigade. Somebody said the call came from the houses that backed onto the car park, somebody else said it came from the pub across the road, which had emptied to watch the madness. It is likely they thought the cricket ground was on fire. However the lovely Alfie Pritchard who was in charge of Oval House had a big moustachioed grin - "A Happening! : disaster, catostrophe. It was great!". He told us not to worry about the fire brigade or the neighbours. In those days awareness and practice of Health and Safety was minimal to say the most.
Fortunately the whole event had been videoed. Video was just coming in then and big, bulky cameras could shoot in black and white. Unfortunately the tapes were expensive and were often re-used, so that when, a few days later, they showed us the footage we were persuaded not to buy the recording. What would we use it for, I wondered; performance was about the lived experience not about preserving for posterity. That is my only regret.
Representing Our Country
In the summer of 1982 Theatre Exchange (formerly Kaboodle) was invited to perform at the World Youth Olympiad, the student version of the Olympic Games, at Edmonton in Canada. That summer we had created a series of street theatre pieces collectively called The Book of Odds and Ends. All the pieces used masks that I had been churning out, inspired by a two-week workshop with Jacques Lecoq in Cardiff. There was a family of four who wandered lost, looking for a place to picnic; there was a gang of diverse youth - a skinhead, a punk, a biker and a rockabilly; then there were four babies in prams with masks corresponding to the characters of the gang. Finally there was a group of geriatric Morris dancers, and it may have been this piece that secured our invitation.
Edmonton was an outpost of shiny skyscrapers funded by local oil resources in the midst of hundreds of miles of seemingly endless little lakes that we flew over. When we arrived there we discovered that there was another group from England who did Morris dancing. We stayed in a grand hotel which full of other groups from around the world all representing their traditional culture; amongst others there were Spanish Flamenco dancers, Korean dancers, Taiwanese lion dancers, South African dancers, Polish dancers, American line dancers, Canadian Inuit dancers, Brazilian capoeira and a Mexican mariachi band. The British Council had, it seemed, chosen two groups that 'interpreted' traditional English dances rather than sending a more authentic/conventional team. The other group was from Wolverhampton and were a bunch of young heavy-mteal pagans who had got obsessed with the figure of the Green Man. We saw each other's pieces at one of the performer-to-performer cabaret evenings in the hotel ballroom. Although our piece was an adaption of traditional dances it was essentially slow, gentle slapstick, in traditional costume, self-deprecating of our cultural heritage. The music was supplied by a ghetto-blaster and after a mix-up over cassette tapes a hip-hop tune would start and I would launch into a frenetic acrobatic break dance. The other company took it more seriously - they covered their faces and long hair in green and dressed in a cross between Mediaeval and 'tribal', with a touch of heavy-metal - big belts, bone necklaces, buzzard feathers. They had thick staves and were accompanied by live music from a fiddle and an Irish tambour. They were wild! They rushed at each other, violently clashing sticks, with furious cries and a swirling of long hair (heavy-metal style). The other artists from around the world all performed with delicacy, finesse and respect for their traditional culture so they were amused (bemused) at our offering and in wide-eyed shock at the wild ones from Wolverhampton.
We had a good time at the festival, enjoying meeting and sharing the elevator with the other fully costumed performers. When we had time off we drove to Banff and the Rockies, visiting a glacier and having a hilarious time camping. The Wolverhampton team didn't stay all the time and so they missed out on the finale of the festival which included fireworks and a gala of all the cultural acts. Each were to have three minutes of stage time in the middle of the Commonwealth athletic stadium, the biggest open-air one in Canada. Because the sound quality of our Morris dance cassette was not sufficient for stadium amplification we opted to do the babies in prams. As part of the piece we used to do a version of the jazz classic In the Mood, played on tiny plastic trumpets, rattles and party blowers, with synchronised rotations of instruments big-band style. Because live music would not be reliable in such a vast space and lengthy sound checks were not possible with a rapid turnaround, all the groups were asked to go to record their music at a professional studio. When we arrived there for our scheduled time-slot, roadies were present to help unload and set up our instruments and stands. We told them they could carry our small plastic bag if they wanted to. We were each allotted a separate microphone and given big earphones from which we could hear the figures peering at us from the soundbooth who were trying to maintain a straight face and a professional attitude.
'How long do you need to tune up?'
How do you tune a plastic trumpet? They did various soundchecks to get the levels right and then cued us in. After we had finished they played it back to us and asked whether we wanted to do another take. We didn't think we needed to but since everyone was having a good time and we had only used up a quarter of our one hour slot we thought we might as well.
'Any adjustments you need to make?'
We had a semi-serious discussion about how much flourish to give the final note, trying out a few possibilities, and then launched into it again. The faces in the sound booth collapsed into soundless laughter.
'It's a wrap', someone declared triumphantly.
At the dress rehearsal the next day there was similar incredulity from organisers and other performers. The Spanish group before us ran on, took up their positions and flamencoed away, while their guitarists mimed strumming, and then they all whirled off elegantly. We couldn't run very fast because we each carried our pram structures and the hidden chair bashed against the back of our legs if we took long strides. So we waddled as fast as we could, sat in position and our music came on. And then stopped. Technicians looked at each other. One came over to us and asked the full-face masks politely if that was the right music. The baby masks nodded. 'Off you go then'. We waddled off.
The next day was one of the most surreal performing experiences I ever had. The stadium was packed (55,000 people) with athletes and performers from all over the world, representatives of the Olympic committee, local and national government, the British Council, and international TV crews. The cultural groups lined up in the underbelly of the stadium, waiting to go on and then with each successive cheer and applause another group went on. We approached our starting blocks amongst stressed stage-managers and hectic walkie-talkie messages. We couldn't see each other because of the hoods of our prams but Lee, at the front, gave a thumbs up like a Battle of Britain wing commander, ready for take-off.
Chocks away and we waddled furiously and sat down. Being inside a full-face mask is like wearing a Mediaeval helmet, nobody can see your face but you can peer out, as if out of a Second World War pill-box, at the distant, unreadable faces. Our music comes on but there is a delay between our monitor speakers and the sound in the stadium: it was like being in a double reality. We go through our micro-choreography, surely invisible to most, and arrive at a final flourish (the final flourish). Lee sets off for the side of the stage but it gets caught on the stairs and he tumbles sideways. He wrestles with it while the other prams bump into each other. He is rescued and we escape from the glaring focus of attention. After all the cultural groups had performed the national anthems are played.as the teams of athletes enter the arena to join the performers. God save the Queen starts up. We look at each other with a mixture of embarrassment and glee and looked nervously for the reaction from the British sports team. Whatever the rest of the world had made of it they, at least, were smiling.
Confessions of a Fire-Eater
Who wouldn’t want to be a fire-eater? And not only for the excitement of causing an explosion to come out of your lips but also for the kudos. Certainly for some men, the bravado associated with it sharpens their macho credentials. For me, going into it in my mid-twenties, it was the romantic idea of becoming like some dashing figure from a Nineteenth Century fairground like Sergeant Troy in Far From The Madding Crowd or Zampano in La Strada or even the Player King from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I had played at school. It was the first circus skill I learned and the first I taught (1979). This was because, to my surprise, it is relatively easy, if a little unpleasant.
I received the basic instruction in my first week of rehearsals with Kaboodle and, over that long transformative summer (1978), I became quite accomplished so that, for the following summer, I based a whole show and character on it. For this I did some research, gaining a session with a top professional who did camp burlesque in London nightclubs. He showed me how a flame could be kept alight on the tongue, even inside the mouth. However he was reluctant to tell me what fuel he used; it didn’t smell like paraffin. So I did some painful experiments with a range of flammable liquids – white spirit, lighter fuel, alcohol etc. I made some balls of fire in wire cages that could be swung; decades later this came to be called fire poi, from the Maori martial art. Another object was length of wood wrapped in asbestos rope (still freely available at that time) that, when lit, could be balanced on the chin, or on a finger, or a toe, or be flipped 180 degrees to land in a balance on the palm of the hand. It could also be laid on the ground and I would walk on my hands the length of it with flames licking up round my face. I would juggle fire brands and the finale would be getting myself chained up, escapology style, and placed in a tin bath of burning paper or straw. Another section was the usual rubbing of burning brands along my arms, over my bare belly and ‘down my naked underpants’. I would pretend to both set fire to my armpit hairs and burn my tackle. This section would finish with licking the flame, swallowing the flame several times and blowing fire. This included blowing it backwards between my legs which would have a comic effect because the flame would go upwards and I could appear to have set fire to my bum.
This happened for real in a later version of the show. I developed the comedy of the have-a-go failing macho with a character called Sidney Singe. In the version called The Fair Play I had two assistants and Sidney was a smarmy magician who presented various illusions that mainly went wrong, including a saw-in-half routine with a table I had made. After various setbacks for which he blamed his assistants they turn the tables on him and set fire to the seat his trousers. I had sewn a pad of wadding onto the inside of the trousers which was soaked in paraffin. As long as I kept running around the stage the flames did not go up my back. This worked fine until at the Galway Festival we had to do three evening shows and a matinee. By the time of the matinee, on the last day, my trousers were developing holes and this allowed air to go inside the trousers and flames to develop there. My feigned pain became more real and instead of continuing to run around I disappeared offstage frantically patting my trousers and sitting on the ground. My partners stared offstage at me bewildered not knowing what to do, and not helped by my gestures to ‘Just improvise!’. They floundered for a bit and there was an interesting tension in the audience who could sense that something had really gone wrong. I managed to walk back on for the end and bow stiffly for the applause. We had got away with it but the problem was we had the evening show to do and I was in some pain so I sat with my bum in cold water in one of the sinks in the dressing room for a few hours. We cut that bit for the evening show.
A more traumatic show was on November 5th a few years earlier. This was one of my first bookings as a solo performer and I proudly turned up at an adventure playground near Shepherds Bush in my own van having carefully prepared and packed all of the props. The playground had two low towers with a walk ladder between them. It was fairly dark and there were a lot of young people, mainly male, who knew I was coming but did not know what to expect. In both senses, I was coming from another place; I was used to white middle-class family audiences but here I was the only white person, parachuted in to their community space. My faux posh accent and the bombastic arrogance of the character were taken at face value. I got the impression that my choice to make myself seem foolish and vulnerable seemed incredibly stupid and made me fair game as an outsider. The self-deprecating parody of the macho was not appreciated. I’d had tough audiences before but usually the combination of impressive feats and the obviously deliberate mistakes had won people round. Perhaps because it was dark and my acted facial expressions couldn’t be seen but here the failures were treated with jeers and disdain. With my head tilted up to balance the fire pole on my chin, I found I was being spat at from above and cigarette butts were flicked into my face. The one organiser who had greeted me when I arrived seemed torn between giving me assistance and keeping in with his young people. When it came to the escapology my audience volunteer tied the chains really tightly around my arms and legs and then, to laughs and cheers, proceeded to empty a whole gallon of paraffin onto the flaming newspaper which roared up so much that so I couldn’t complete the ‘daring escape’ routine. As I extricated myself from the chains and tried to wrap up the show I noticed that people were throwing my precious juggling clubs into the inferno and other props were being kicked, smashed or stolen. I hastily scooped up what I could and got back to van before everything was lost or I was beaten up. It was humiliating and frightening, the bullying made me angry but I was also in disbelief; why had they turned on me when I was clearly just trying to give them a laugh at my expense. Going solo suddenly seemed like a lonely place to be.
Unsurprisingly, there are dangers involved in fire-eating but not those that are obvious. At one of the Suffolk fairs in 1978 (Bungay?) Jimi Hignett, from Kaboodle, and I accompanied a rock band by blowing fire in time with the music. We went on for so long, spraying so much paraffin in the air that my hair got soaked and caught fire. The crowd loved it so I did it again, clowning up the suffering. Later on in the summer we both got a gig at a dance club in Camden doing the same thing. I blew for many minutes and later developed a bit of a cough (the paraffin makes one more susceptible to infection). The next day I felt ill as if I had bad flu. It got much worse and I was completely wiped out for days, alone in an attic room with only twice daily visits from housemates, sweating and coughing up blood. When I eventually staggered to the doctor he was horrified after I told him about it. He listened to my chest - double pneumonia - and send me straight to the nearest hospital. There they took it very seriously and I had to get straight into a bed. After hours of various tests they decided I'd already got over the worst and sent me home with antibiotics.
I was asked to do a weekend fire workshop at Oval House. There were not that many takers but we had had about eight people and I went through my methods and warnings. As can be seen from the ridiculous set-up photo these included the dangers of fumes, of setting light to one’s own facial hair, how to cope with wind and how to not burn the audience. The other photo that was taken was of three of the participants blowing fire outside Oval House and me encouraging them. This photo was picked up the Associated Press agency and appeared in national papers and around the world. To my surprise when we got to Kenya six months later I was shown a copy with it in the Nairobi Times. It also led to being featured on the BBC Today programme. A taxi arrived at my house very early in the morning and took me to Broadcasting House in the centre of London where, after a lot of waiting, I was interviewed live in a car, and then blew fire to the bemusement of passing morning commuters. All that could be heard on the radio was the puff of fluid from my lips and the brief soft roar of the ignition. It is seemed absurd that such a purely visual spectacle was worth presenting in audio, like trying to describe a painting from the sound of the brushstrokes on canvas. However, as people pointed out to me, it was an unusual story; nobody else in the country was giving that kind of workshop or could even conceive of it happening.
So where, you might ask, are the confessions? Well, there was a sort of strange erotic quality to my act: the parody stripping off to the waist, the muscle flexing, the phallic stick rubbed over my belly leaning back so that my hips were forward, the chains on muscular flesh, the licking, swallowing and the contemplation of the effect on the inside of naked underpants. There were certainly times, with certain audiences, when the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aahs’ that I encouraged became less ironic. And of course, there would be interest from kids and also young women after the show - ‘How did it work?’, ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’ and these questions could lead into longer discussions and offers to help carry my props back to the van. However, on the whole, any possible attractiveness was mixed with a fascinated disgust: the red marks from mild burns, the smell of sweat and singed hair, and the paraffin breath didn’t help to raise erotic appeal.
BOXING OFFSHORE IN BRIGHTON
n the spring of 1979 I was invited to join the Lemmings theatre company (not to be confused with the Grand Theatre of Lemmings, formed in 1984). It had been comprised of two guys, one of whom, Pete Leabourne had left to join Cliffhanger Theatre Co. in Brighton. The other was John Mckenna. They had performed two street theatre shows, one was a walkabout, the Pink Policemen, which was essentially dressing up up in pink police uniforms and parodying police authoritarianism, and the other was couple of dodgy street traders selling rubbish, for example a broken milk bottle was sold as a home-made vasectomy kit. As well as John, who was the leader, there was his girlfriend, Mandy Travis, and an enormous Canadian actor, known as RJ, who had written a play about the Gold Rush and had come to London to try and launch it. We spent most of our energy on this piece; I built a set and we all learned lines and songs. We only performed it twice (at the Cockpit, theatre). It was deadly.
We also tried an adaption of the Pink Policemen called the Sanitation Army but this didn't go down too well either so we resorted to the dodgy street traders, the Pink Policemen and, to my joy, a fireshow that I instigated, with me fronting it as a showman character called Sidney Singe. This involved various fire stunts, including escaping from chains, in a bathtub of fire. Amongst many other places, I was able to present this show at the Glastonbury Festival, the first two-day event, on a stage that folded down from the side of a double-decker bus. At some of the fairs in Suffolk we also took part in the one-off collaborative promenade shows that were thrown together over the weekend. It was great to be working with a great bunch of varied performers such as Paddy Fletcher’s Incubus, Palfi, Cliffhanger, Covent Garden Community Theatre and Bruce Lacey.
However the most surreal performance we did was a collaboration with The People Show for the Brighton Festival, which, at that time, had a reputation for brave programming of performance art. The year before I had heard of a bizarre performance art event there (by Rob Conn?). He had come without any pre-determined show and spent most of the day of the performance in the pub getting steadily very drunk. As the time of his show approached, he staggered out of the pub, through the Lanes, buying a pair of clash cymbals, a snorkel and mask, and some fish and chips. A gaggle of spectators were waiting on the beach at the allotted time. He walked through them, down to the shore line, put on his snorkel mask and walked, fully clothed, into the sea until only his head was visible. He put the fish & chips on his head and submerged until it was the only thing visible. A pause. Seagulls whirled around and then landed on his head to eat. Suddenly he thrust his arms up and clashed the cymbals together sending the gulls screaming and screeching away. This repeated several times. It was inspired, funny, and surreal. This was in the days when programmers did not require tech specs, programme notes and show descriptions in advance. They trusted the haphazard approach and spontaneous 'happenings' of renowned performers.
Our collaboration with the People Show was called The Unofficial Heavyweight Championship of the World and it centred on a fight between Jose Nava of The People Show and John from the Lemmings (who had been a boxer, complete with broken nose). I was to be his Second and Mark Long was Jose's. In a seafront hotel we performed the preliminaries - the weigh-in, boxing women in dog masks, dancing girls, George Khan and the rest of his band, and the showing of a film that we had shot in a famous boxing pub ((Marquis of Granby?) on the Old Kent Road. This showed the bribery and seduction of the referee, who was played by the enormous RJ. At the interval, the audience were led onto the dark beach, drinks in hand, where there was a floating boxing ring moored just offshore. The idea was that we would wade out to the ring but none of this had been rehearsed because of lack of time. The shingle was steep, so we had to swim out fully clothed and clamber up, (with some difficulty in RJ's case) amidst a breezy swell. Once we were installed, Round One was announced through a megaphone, the bell was struck and they began to box as best they could on the swaying surface. At the end of Round One the bell sounded and the fighters returned to their corners and to the attentive care of the Seconds, as would be normal. When Round Two began, the ring began to slowly be pulled away from the shore, towed by a small motor boat which was much further out. The rounds continued for about 20 minutes as we gradually disappeared into the darkness, further and further from the shore, the sounds of the bell becoming indistinct against the crashing of the waves. There was no clear end but we could just make out some applause before the spectators drifted away. It was only at this point that we wondered what was going to happen next. The motorboat was far away, out of earshot, and the five of us were stuck, with no dry clothes, about a mile offshore, in the dark, being towed to who-knew-where, on a floating boxing ring. It was windy and cold.
Eventually we were towed into the brightness of a marina and got off. The motorboat man only knew about his part of the operation and went off in his boat. It was about one o’clock in the morning by this point. Tempers flared. 'Why has nobody thought about getting us back from here ?!'
We had no money with us to get a taxi, no dry cigarettes, we were hungry and could only keep vaguely warm with the damp towels and dressing gowns. So it was about two in the morning by the time we had trudged miles back to the hotel, passed by drivers who looked suspiciously at this bedraggled crew in odd clothes. The hotel was locked. Somebody had a vague idea where there was supposed to be an aftershow party, so we trudged further amongst the genteel B&Bs until we saw a house that looked like it might have a party going on inside. Remarkable success! It was coming to a close but there was still some booze left and warmth and welcomes. It had been a great night.
GOING DOWN IN SICILY
I'm standing on top of a small mountain in the middle of Sicily looking across at peaks of mountains all around the horizon. It is bright and the wind blows the dust of the patch of wasteground, ringed with prickly pear cactuses. I'm dressed all in white - a loose full-sleeved shirt, thin cotton trousers, high-ankled boxing boots and a toga/cloak. I'm carrying my front-facing tenor horn. Kevin lifts his trumpet; he is wearing a Roman style helmet and a breastplate fringed with suspender clasps, a red doublet and white tights. Tall, willowy Ali has a pink wedding style dress and collapsed wimple hat. She raises her flute. Next to her, short Brazilian Angela is also in white but her huge trousers have gold stars on them and she has a timpani drum strapped round her ample waist. The tall French man, Gregoire, has the big bass drum and Amanda, in blue and silver, lips her saxophone reed in preparation. There are a few other people with us - my partner with her five year-old daughter and an organiser, who is a bit bemused about why we have chosen to come all the way up here.
I check my watch. We hear the church clock strike the hour down below in the village.
'Right, let's do it'
Angela does a roll on the drum and Gregoire finishes with a single boom. Then we hit it - the Mummer&Dada fanfare. This is the usual beginning of our shows but this time there is no audience and as the sound rolls away, fading into the expanse of peaks behind us; there is only the barking of dogs in the distance. We launched into a lively tune and set off down the dirt track that wound around the side of the mountain. After about ten minutes we had exhausted our very limited repertoire of tunes and went back to the beginning. We passed a few small houses and one disapproving old lady in black, holding close some children whose wide-eyes teetered between excitement and fear. Rough looking dogs approached in defiance and barked at us incessantly. We had been told to stop playing as we passed the ornate church and that was a relief because my lips were giving away under pressure from the mouthpiece of my horn. Past the church we came to a tiny square flanked by the village bar, which was the centre of the anti-clerical socialist farmers in this small divided village. Here there was a little gaggle of people so I pressed the mouthpiece even harder onto my lips and we fanfared again, launching into the repertoire with more verve and set off before our tuning fell apart. The main square was virtually empty; a few shutters opened, others closed. Little groups of children would appear suddenly out of the alleys and stare in amazement. More dogs barked. The village petered out a bit further on but we had about ten children following us, the other camp followers had disappeared into the bar. We continued playing as we walked but with faltering tuning and a sagging rhythm. We were now walking alongside steep fields of maize, olive trees and grape vines. If a car passed we revived an appearance of enthusiasm . After a final, half-hearted 'Hey!' for the sake of the kids, we just walked.
The purpose of this micro-procession was to announce our show in the main square that evening. Although only a few people can have seen us word would have quickly spread in this hilltop village where not much happened except the ongoing feud between church and socialists. Every year they held a fiesta and the central event was the show in the main square. In previous years they had had glamorous dancing girls but two brothers, originally from the village, who now ran nightclubs in Milan, had booked us to try something different. The brothers spoke English but the audience wouldn't so we translated key phrases from the script and tried to learn them. The stage was constructed high for an audience who would be standing which made it hard to run in and out of the audience as we were used to.
'Is there stage lighting?' I asked the brothers.
'Oh, si, si..'
Somebody climbed up the lamposts and tilted the lights towards the stage.
We did our best to Italianise the show - Kevin converted his mime horse into a mime Vespa, any reference to food was a form of pasta and Amanda, who spoke a little Italian, tried to get across the complicated story involving a suicide, a trip to the underworld and an acrobatic battle between angels and the devil. It was hard to tell what was understood; they talked through most of it, mainly men expecting something different, but they seemed to appreciate our enthusiasm and our brave attempt to connect with them. Afterwards they all seemed to disappear quite fast and we weren't sure how well it had gone down. The brothers seemed content but we were in a vulnerable position because we had paid for the transport ourselves and we only had a letter of agreement not a proper contract. We were reliant on them to take us back to world of banks, public transport and police. Angela accompanied me to the business meeting to back me up but it was OK and they paid everything in cash counting out the bills one by one.
This was the last booking of the summer and my partner and I decided to make a holiday of it and travel separately from the rest of the company with her little daughter. Because of the late decision we had to fly to Milan rather than Sicily and take the overnight train. It was a very tiring and difficult journey and we didn’t manage to find any wild camping places on the coast as I had imagined. After a couple of days we eventually found a seaside hotel but I was keen to get on to see other exciting Sicilian fiesta event at the festival. However I had left home with very little information about it and when we got there (Enna) we wandered around steep streets looking for some sign of festival activities. Nothing. And the only place to stay was a very expensive hotel where they looked at our dusty packs with disapproval. I was ringing our administrator to find out what was going on and when I eventually got through to her I was informed that the festival was near Enna, not in it. However the organisers would come and pick us up the following day. Relief.
The car took us miles away into the mountains, arriving at a little concrete house amongst a field of ripening tomatoes. there were lizards and prickly pears and a little hose to entertain little Molly in the hot daytime. At night there was incredible storms with the echoes of the thunder booms rolling around the steep valleys. A couple of nights after we arrived the rest of the group arrived. They had had a wonderful carefree few days staying in charming hotels, eating well and enjoying the hot mud pools on the north coast. We were jealous. The next day friends and family of the two brothers arrived and suddenly the house and yard were full of activity - not festival-making but harvesting and bottling tomatoes. They were put through a mincer and then heated in massive pans before being ladled into scores of glass jars. There was a jolly harvest lunch provided and the locals enjoyed Kevin's impromptu manipulation tricks with vegetables and wooden spoons; Ali and Amanda played music. Later they took us up to show us the village and it gradually became apparent that we were the festival. There were a few posters but it was clear some more publicity would need to be done. 'I know, let's do a parade from the top of the hill'.
My second show with Theatre Exchange was Macbeth, in which I played Banquo. We were only eight performers in all (Lee Beagley, Heike Beagley, Ross Foley, Geoff Atwell, Denise Wong, Martin Wagner and I, with Dave Giles on music) so Lee had done an adaption with doubling of parts. I played a courtier at the banquet, alternating with Banquo's ghost by the removal and replacement of a latex mask I had made. Macbeth (Lee) was so traumatised by the sight of the ghost that, in our version, he headbutted the masked courtier. This was done by striking his head on my hand which was concealed from the audience on the upstage side of my head. Lee followed the Grotowski method; getting himself genuinely worked up rather than pretending. On one occasion he was inside his part so much that he ignored my hand and struck my forehead. The thin mask gave no protection and I went down, knocked half-unconscious. The blood from my nose was hidden by the mask. The others got me to my feet and I staggered through the rest of the show. At the end of it, Lee saw the bruising and asked what had happened. He didn't know that he had done it.
As part of rehearsals we had done military-style workouts and early morning running to give us convincingly fit bodies. The college where we were based (Alsager) was within earshot of a munitions factory so we would hear the crackle of machine guns being tested as we puffed around the playing fields. I made helmets and goblets from fibre-glass, a new material for me. The heavy swords were strips of steel that Ross roughly shaped to be handle-able. We worked out some fearsome rough and tumble for the fight scenes, with much carefully choreographed sword clashing and stage blood. At the end of the play Macduff (Ross) throws away his sword for a hand-to-hand with Macbeth and ends up drowning him in a muddy pool that was part of the set. One night at St Lukes College in Exeter, Ross threw down his sword without a careful aim and it hit poor Martin who was lying dead, covered in stage blood, on the field of battle. I was playing one of Macduff's guards and glanced down to see Martin's chin split and blood emerging. It was only two minutes until the end so we carried on and hauled him to his feet for the final bow. We then rushed him to the nearest hospital and when he arrived, they were horrified at the sight of him and ripped off his blood-soaked clothes to treat what they assumed were very severe injuries all over his body. Although there were none, he was lucky to only have only needed several stitches to his chin.
Macbeth is reputed to cause misfortunes and there were a few odd things that happened on that tour. Heike (Lee's wife, playing Lady Macbeth) nearly had a miscarriage, the windscreen of the van shattered as I was driving down the motorway and I saw a ghost, or what appeared to be one. We were staying in a B&B (in Bedford) and a few of us shared a room; my bed was nearest the door. I was half-asleep and the door opened, letting light from the landing into the room. Somebody came in and I assumed it was one of the others coming back from the toilet but there was no sound of anyone getting back into a bed. I listened and waited, becoming more alert as I began to wonder if it was a thieving intruder. After a while I got up and opened the door to let in more light but couldn't see anyone. I lay back down, very awake, and stared at the crack of light under the door. A shadow fell across the strip of light as if someone was outside and then this shadow slowly 'dissolved'. I didn't dream the whole thing because in the morning Ross said he'd seen me opening the door looking white and terrified. Before I could describe what had happened the landlord informed us the place was reputedly haunted.
TRYING TO FIX A CAR IN BATH, 1974
It's just before dawn on a May morning. I'm mixing cement as fast as I can and then shovelling it into plastic sacks. There are car headlights illuminating the work with tense whispering and excited activity all around. It's cold in the pale light but I'm dripping with sweat from the exertion. I'm still half asleep. We have to keep the mix sloppy otherwise it won't go down through the engine when we pour it all into the car. We also need to keep the mix very cementy so that it will set quickly. The plastic sacks are heaved into the back of a Transit van and, when we think we have as much loaded as the van will take, about four of us jump in too. With three in the front, we are driven out of the festival campsite into the centre of Bath. Waiting there on a wide pavement is an old stylish car that had been deliberately manoeuvred onto the edge of a pedestrian area. We all burst out like commandos doing a bank robbery, lift up the bonnet and started heaving the cement mix into the engine cavity. Planks had been brought to shutter up the gap below the bumper and round to the wheel. We need to get it in really fast so that it sets immovably solid before anyone can do anything about it. But the mix has separated so that half gets stuck on top of the engine and we try to push it through with our shovels and then with our fingers; the other half dribbles straight through and is running out through the leaky shuttering. It's not going well.
An early morning dog walker stares in mystification, a passing cyclist stops. Somebody else walks away quickly. We keep going but hear a police siren approaching.
'Keep going, we've only got a few more sacks left and we've got to get it all in!'
Some of the group disappear.
'What do you think you are doing?' Two policemen have arrived in a Panda car. Another comes running up. It turns out the main police station is only around a couple of corners.
Somebody whispers: 'Keep going!'
'Stop immediately. Move away from the car. You are all under arrest’.
We stop. We stand, puffing and panting from the exertion, looking sheepish. A few more passers-by stop to look at the drama.
'So, what's all this about?', the sergeant says. They can see that we are not actually doing a bank robbery.
'This is art activism''
'We are cementing a car to the pavement to make a point about cities being dominated by the car'
'That you can't get rid of them'
The older policeman (I'm only 21) shakes his head slightly, bemused, but with a slight smile. He is relaxing. He rolls his eyes in mild exasperation.
We felt a bit foolish. We'd been shown photos of similar actions in Holland and Germany. In these, immaculate cars had their entire fronts covered in neat blocks of solid cement. We looked at our old banger covered in spills, with its bonnet half closed and cement oozing out of collapsed shuttering. We felt more foolish.
By this time a police van had arrived and we were ushered into the back for the short trip to the police station. There, we gave our names and addresses and, for some reason, our heights were measured. I was with Dave Rowson from Barn House, we were together on a rural commune in the lower Wye valley, and I think Brian Popay of the Bath Arts Workshop was there. Perhaps it was he who provided the main explanation - 'It's the Last Festival, a community event, organised by the Bath Arts Workshop. It's supported by the council and has international theatre companies. They have solar trumpets, geodesic domes and there is a group called Onk, who have done similar actions in Europe'. Telephone calls were made. We waited for a couple of hours with heavy fatigue coming down on us as a result of the labouring, the early morning and the post- adrenalin.
Eventually they let us go, not knowing what to charge us with - Causing an obstruction? Littering? Disrupting the peace? (We had been ever so quiet). We trudged back to the festival site, as the morning rush hour got into gear, hoping that the pre-alerted local press had managed to get some good photos before it was all removed. Apparently it was all gone by lunchtime, the cement hadn't set, and there was only a tiny item in the evening local paper. It didn't have much effect on the city but the play with fear of authority certainly had an effect on me.
SLAPSTICK COMES TO ME
Getting locked out the house is something that happens to everyone but perhaps I have tended to take more extreme measures to get back in. At my childhood home in London I would climb over the wooden side gate into the passage that led to the back door. There was a metal drainpipe that went up towards the toilet window on the upper floor. The house was pebble-dashed and this provided a good grip as I pushed with my feet and pulled up the drainpipe. The window had a very small upper part that was usually left open and I could squeeze my upper body through. The difficult bit was to descend head first over the cistern, taking care to close the lid because one time I knocked the flush handle with my knee just when my head was almost in the bowl.
Thirty years later, in my forties, we lived in the roof of a tall three-storey house. Our flat was on two levels with my room in the apex of the roof and this had a little balcony. Getting into here was more of a challenge but I was still reasonably agile. Our landlord had loads of old cars rusting in the garden but he also kept a rickety step ladder there. I would climb on to the ridge of the roof of the single storey kitchen and then pull the ladder up behind me, mounting a sloping section and perching it astride a horizontal slab. Taking care not tip to either side I climbed up the ladder and could reach the eaves of the roof. Getting over this protruding edge and onto the roof tiles was tricky because, apart from the tiny edges of the terracotta tiles, there was nothing to grip to pull myself up and only tip toes on the shakey ladder below. The guttering was not to be relied on and came loose on the third time I had to do this manoeuvre. From there it was a matter of keeping flat, like a Gecko, on the sloping roof as I climbed up to the balcony. With luck the balcony door would be unlocked but one time I had to go further up, over the roof ridge and in head first through the Velux window down onto my computer table.
However, as you get older this kind of strategy becomes more dangerous. At a later house there was a place where it was just possible to climb over the 6ft garden wall from the alley. Along the top of the wall there was trellis fence 2ft high so I had to get the recycling bin to stand on to get enough height to pull a knee onto the round edges of a brick layer on top. From there it required getting to standing without pulling on the unstable fence and then stepping over it onto the two inch space on the other side, whilst at the same time turning to face the other way, so that I could climb down backwards. This would all be feasible but by my mid-sixties I had to wear big boots to support my ankles and these didn’t help with precarious toe holds. I got over alright but lost my balance slightly and my feet slipped off the top and I descended vertically. Unfortunately my left side hit a post screwed into the wall and this pitched me slightly sideways. Even this might have been manageable but I landed on a pile of brushwood which acted like a trampoline and I was pitched at an angle into the thin fence of the neighbour’s garden. The impact smashed a hole through it, like something from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and I hurtled headlong down into their garden and ended up with my head in their fish pond. One moment I had been standing on top of the wall and a second later I was under water. Luckily I didn’t hit my head on their large stone Buddha otherwise I would have probably drowned. I pulled the weed out of my hair, got back into my garden, realising that I’d had a severe impact to my ribs and possibly inner organs. But I still had to climb up the scaffolding that was, at that time, up the back of the house and into my bedroom window using the same head-first tactic. I had, in fact cracked a rib or two so I decided that, at 65, I’d better just hide a key in future.
Perhaps this have-a-go attitude of ‘just about being able to get away with it’ started when I fell off a cliff when I was about nine. My brother, Dad and I set off from a beach in Cornwall towards a headland. Traversing the rocks at the end of the beach became harder as they got as big as boulders. While the other two went up the slope and onto the grass, I aimed to continue around the shoreline. However it gradually became impossible to go any further and so I climbed up the steep cliff until I was almost at the top. Here the ground was loose shale and I pulled on a handhold that came loose; I began to slide down, increasingly fast, before free-falling. Looking down I thought I was going to die. There were massive boulders below, some of which were just below the surface, but luckily I fell into the deep green water in the gap between them. My first thought was that I was alive. The second thought was that I was in pain; lifting my arm out of the water I could see it was bleeding from a long scrape and I could feel my back had been badly grazed. My third thought was what to do next, because probably nobody had seen me fall; I had to get myself out of the situation. There was was quite a swell surging onto the barnacled boulders and I got further scrapes to my bare knees as I clambered out. I had to go up the route I had fallen, slipping in my wet shoe (the other one had come off) and trembling from cold and shock, carefully going round the shale area, where I noticed there was an ants nest that may have loosened the stones. I reached deep bracken which I waded through until I could see the others in the distance; I shouted and waved my bleeding arm and they came rushing back.
At a similar age, I nearly killed myself by electrocution. We had a two bar electric fire in the living room and a metal poker. I discovered that I could touch one bar to heat up the end but touching the two bars sent a spasm up my arm and into my chest and I flew back and slumped by a chair, feeling my heart pumping violently and almost painfully until very slowly it began to subside.
In my early fifties I nearly drowned myself in a kayak. Sometimes I would have a sudden urge to escape Bristol for the wilds of the Black Mountains or the Wye valley. One autumn I went to a canoe hire place near Symonds Yat. There had been a lot of rain and the river was in full spate. I was expecting to hire a Canadian style canoe but was given a wide open-topped kayak. The man advised me not to go downstream where there were rapids. Seeing me floundering with my big boots to get in, he looked a little doubtful about my ability, asking if I wanted a life jacket and whether I knew what I was doing. Despite never having been in a kayak before or in this kind of water, I played the confident male, assuring him that I was fine, because I didn’t want to be bothered with delays as the afternoon light was fading.
So the only way was upstream against the rapid flow and as I headed out towards the other bank, I struggled to paddle hard enough to stop being swept downstream and to keep the prow from being swung sideways. I was forced into a few full circles before heaving myself through the water across to the other side. Reasoning that it would be easier to go up the edge of the river, I endeavoured to gain some progress but here the water was also shallower, where rocks below the surface caused turbulence and weird invisible eddies. I was pushed sideways and, thrusting my paddle in deep to swing it back around, the kayak tilted and water rushed in, turning it upside down. I realised my boots were stuck in the boat and I was trapped underwater. Luckily I managed to wrench them out and to get my head above the surface, clinging onto the kayak and grabbing the paddle as it all drifted rapidly downstream. I kicked my legs to push the boat towards the bank but with hardly any success. Seeing a clump of willows sticking out from the bank I aimed to get part of the kayak wedged and managed to succeed. I hauled it onto a log and turned it over to drain the water out and recover.
Getting back in I felt I couldn’t go straight back to the jetty because I had only been out for ten minutes of a one hour hire and my dripping state was proof of my incompetence so I kept paddling upstream. The wind and water were cold but it took so much exertion to get just a few metres that I was both sweating and shivering as well as trembling from adrenalin. After another twenty minutes I felt the level of embarrassment at an early return was acceptable. Back at the jetty, the man could see I was in a bit of a state, with wild eyes and sodden clothes, plastered hair and out of breath but I quickly got to the soft security of the car, switched on the heater and drove away from the witness of my foolishness.
A more slapstick accident happened when picking apples. I used to love climbing trees as a boy but, of course, one is much heavier at 43. The best apples always seem to be at the end of the branch and, stretching out, I spread my weight along it, edging upwards until it bent to the horizontal. Suddenly the branch snapped at a point near my feet and I clung on as it angled downwards head towards the ground. Immediately after the impact there was a shower of apples as the tree rebounded.
Of course there have been other real comedy moments. Working as a decorator in a Parisian hotel there were numerous moments of chaos as I struggled with glued wallpaper getting out of hand or one time stepped backwards off a ladder right into a tub of emulsion paint. In Paris I always seemed to be carrying a lot of bags and I would often get stuck in Metro turnstiles, neither able to pull my bags through nor to return. These were more embarrassing incidents because they were in public but fortunately, because of the theatre course I was doing, I was able to think of them as natural clowning and laugh at myself.
THE MADNESS OF ROBIN HOOD
Following on from the success of the Mummer&Dada Mediaeval Show in the summer of 1985, the second year was based on the Green Man, the wood spirit, but popularised as Robin Hood. Robin, played by myself, is in an idylllic woodland frolicking with Marion (Ana Vasquez) around a tree, played by Lee Beagley. A rider approaches: it is Father Christmas holding a horse mask. He seems jolly and sits Robin on his knee and gives him a present, which explodes. He tears of his disguise, revealing himself as the Sheriff of Nottingham, (with authentic American accent because he is played by Kevin Brooking). There is an acrobatic fight, with a parody mime section, and then, with the help of Marion, Robin subdues the sheriff. However the tables are turned again when foreboding drumbeats announce the arrival of an evil -looking (French) Sir George (Gregoire Carel). There is another fight with wooden swords, more acrobatics, knife-throwing and, at this point, Robin is killed. Marion sings an unaccompanied Andalusian lament. She turns on the evil pair with a whip and chastises them until they feel guilty and agree to help by calling for a doctor/wizard. Lee reappears from the back of the crowd as a bizarre witch doctor with fur coat, fur nappy, a rubber nose and German accent. They gather potion ingredients into a bucket and, with the help of a child volunteer, they do a little dance, some fire juggling and then Robin's body begins to levitate horizontally (false legs). He arrives at standing and then, leaping onto the thighs of others, proclaims 'I'm alive!'. There is a final circular dance ending in an acrobatic embrace with Marion.
Early in the tour, at Winchester Hat Fair, having triumphantly proclaimed 'I'm alive!' I jumped down and twisted my ankle. I couldn't get up or conceal my pain. Robin was half dead again. Unfortunately, that year I was the only legal driver of the van and so afterwards I had to drive up to our base in the Midlands with a strapped ankle, groaning at the pressure of the accelerator pedal. We had to cut out some of the most impressive acro flips and I staggered through the shows over the next month but it was still bad a month later when we performed in the Street Performers Competition at Covent Garden, which was sponsored by a London radio station. The show normally ran for forty minutes but we were required to cut it down to twenty. As it was a story with a beginning, middle and end, we had to condense it drastically. Having raced through this version, we were selected to go into the finals which had to be ten minutes long. We tried to keep in as much as possible and hurtled through it. Perhaps the pressure was what caused the accident. Marion and I sheltered behind a shield so that Gregoire could throw knives at it. He normally had a good aim even though the knives didn't always stick into the wood. This was good because the audience were often on all sides of us so a complete miss could do them some damage. On this occasion he didn't hit the audience but he did hit the back of my leg. Fortunately these were not real knives but pointed strips of metal so it didn't stick right in. Because of the competition we just kept going but everyone was noticing the blood spreading through my yellow and green tights.
We had a really good response but only came second. The apologetic winners, a raucous Scottish street band, the Merry MacFun show, were chosen, possibly because their pieces would work better on radio. However when we got in the van we were pumped up after all the adrenalin and drove through the crowds setting off for the long drive ahead. The leg stopped bleeding but stiffened up and we drove for four hours from early evening up to our base near Crewe. Early next morning we set off again to get to Caernavon for a midday performance. We hammered up there but it was hard to calculate exact times in those days before sat-nav and we arrived at 11.55. We changed into costume in the last few miles (it’s hard to get tights on while driving but not impossible). After the sun and warmth of the day before, it was cool, windy and on the edge of drizzle. There were only about 30 people in the audience which seemed a bit of a let-down after the hundreds we'd had the day before. The assorted tourists had that spaced-out look that wet North Welsh holidays can give (round the castle in the morning and then fish and chips by the harbour). The others in the troupe were not very awake but I was on super-charge after all the frantic driving and the pain and effort to get there. A sort of madness took hold of me. I was reckless of what the audience thought and attacked the routines with a manic glee, leaping into wild-eyed improvisations, chivvying the others to accelerate so we could get this minor performance over with as soon as possible. The tourists and local organisers stared out of their plastic anorak hoods with a mixture of awe, fear and astonishment. These mad performers, with their crazy show, had certainly come from somewhere else.