Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Scraps of distraction: Part 4
How should a boy from Bairnsdale feel about the fact that his play is opening in London? And what should he spend the day doing? He can't go to the theatre because they are painting the entire inside of it black. By lunchtime, the paint will be drying and the dry-cleaned costumes will arrive shortly thereafter. Cleaners will be going through the place from top to bottom. Instead, he messes around at home and fields phone calls from Australia and from all his friends in London. He will get to the theatre in time for a drink or two and sit down with Sonia to go through his schedule of formalities, including a brief meet and greet with some local dignitaries, the West End producers and a couple of directors from the RSC.
I had been 'seeing' a wonderful boy - whose name escapes me completely. He worked for some kind of impossibly secret service agency in the United States. The first time we had a dinner party at his place, there were five of us. I was the star, of course, and I held court with due aplomb. I was still a very different person then. I had performed in musicals and plays all over London. I had sung Sondheim for Sondheim. I had trained as an actor, writer and director there and had visited Mel Gibson on the set of the film version of Hamlet he was making somewhere or other. I had flown in more jump-seats than I care to remember (including one especially memorable and delightful experience with Aer Lingus, which I will write about in more detail another time). I had spent a week in Luxembourg wandering about, wide-eyed, in the Ardennes. I had flown to Paris for dinner.
Life was grand. Impossibly.
My boy always offered our guests a wonderful cocktail at the end of the evening. It was called a "Security Leak" ... and within minutes of consuming it, you would be unconscious wherever it was you were sitting ... or reclining. Nothing, and no-one, else has ever managed to stop me mid-sentence. Except Alistair McCauley. But we'll deal with him shortly. And when you woke up, some half an hour later, you would be unable to remember a single thing about the entire night. He and another friend of ours - a colleague of his - were to be my guests at Opening Night.
I don't recall much about the day at all. My mind was totally preoccupied with the night ahead. There were still a couple of flat sections in the performance ... and an especially messy transition into the final scene in Act One. But the music took over. Tchaikovsky was my fallback. How could I fail?
The theatre foyer and office was full to bursting with flowers and cards. The bar was being stocked and I collided with the caterers who were delivering the Opening Night Finger Food. Sonia was buzzing. She looked gorgeous! She had mirrored my blanket enthusiam and love for this difficult child of mine from the start. I had sent it to her as soon as it was finished. To the best of my knowledge, there were two 'transfer' theatres in London: The Hampstead Theatre and The New End. Fatefully, I picked hers.
Sonia had rung me some days after receiving it and told me she thought it an amazing script ... but that her theatre was full until the end of the year. There were weeks of pre-Edinburgh try-outs and something else was currently limping toward the finishing line. I thanked her for liking it and we wished each other 'all the best'.
My problems actually all stem from one simple fact: I had never really expected anything to come of this play. I had written it in three days after months of research and hours and hours of intense and illuminating discussions with several renowned Musicologists - each of them a Tchaikovsky 'expert'. They had guided me through the canon in prayerful and awe-inspiring ways, highlighting the journeys of particular instruments within each score. Tchaikovsky, unlike almost all of his peers - past, present and future (his and ours) - wrote for the entire orchestra. Every single instrument. Most composers write for the instrument of their expertise (generally piano) and work with someone else on the orchestra parts - or hand the responsibility for the orchestrations over to someone else entirely. Not Tchaikovsky. The journey of every single instrument through every single one of his compositions was mapped out by him. I first became captivated by him for this reason: what the fuck must this have sounded like in his mind?
This is also why he is the greatest composer to have ever lived - and I also believe that this little known aspect of his powers of creation go most of the way in explaining why he was, and still is, so popular. Even if the lay-person really has no definitive idea of why his music moves them in the way that it does. My understanding of Tchaikovsky's music literature is something that, to this very day, gives me great pleasure. An example, perhaps, is to find a really great recording of his Fifth Symphony and listen to the journey of the trumpet. It was once affectionately described to me as 'a symphony for the trumpet and orchestra'. In a really really great recording, it's actually quite easy to hear why.
If a ballet company anywhere in the world is struggling financially, they'll whip on Swan Lake. You might like to listen to the flute in the maelstrom that follows Siegfried's realisation that he has been deceived by Odile. The manner in which the orchestra drowns out the flute is utterly heart-breaking in a great recording. And Swan Lake gets 'em in every time. Without fail. (Within the space of six months this year, there are two Swan Lakes in Australia: Matthew Bourne's and The Paris Opera Ballet's.) A mind-bogglingly high percentage (something like seventy-eight) of people who have ever attended a live orchestral concert have chosen to attend for the first time because Tchaikovsky was on the programme.
I have certainly picked an incredibly popular subject with which to plummet to the very depths of unpopularity. Ken Russell would end up looking like David Lean by the time Geoffrey Williams was through with Maestro Piotr Tchaikovsky!
Less than a week later, Sonia called me again and told me that she could not get my play out of her head ... and would I come to her theatre and see a play. And have a meeting. Of course I would! A couple of days later I danced into the New End and met with Sonia for the first time. She had a problem. The play that was on at the moment was playing to almost empty houses (a concept of Sonia's I would help to utterly redefine for her in the weeks ahead). So ... if she closed this current catastrophe early and brought one or two of the pre-Edinburgh try-outs forward, would I be interested in bringing Tunnels ... into her theatre (she pointed to a date in her diary) here?
What I should have said - and very nearly did say - was said "No." "Thank you."
It is very, very clear to me now. In the lush embrace of hindsight. "No" was the right answer ... as it so often should have been - and only occasionally has been - ever since.
"Thank you anyway, Sonia," I should have said, "but are you out of your God-damned fucking mind? It's a play about the greatest composer that ever lived, to be staged in the city of his greatest fulfilments ... not to mention his most ardent admirers and defenders!? Tchaikovsky himself said that English musicians performed his music better than anyone else in the world! I'm Australian you Stupid Woman! The English press HATE Australians! In their gruesome, post-colonial paranoia they still thought that there were wooden ships sporting the Union Jack conquering great, previously unchartered continents for the acquisition of King or Queen and Country! Most of the sad little perpetually soft cocks still do! Sorry guys, but your Piotr The Great is actually Piotr The Great Big Pillow-biting Shirt-lifting Turd-burgling Arse Bandit! ... and if you don't believe me, I'm gonna show you because he's going to spend - what is it now? - at least three pages of somebody else's artless and ultimately pointless fucking dialogue in bed with a Russian Prince who didn't even fucking exist! There are monologues in this crap that run for four pages. That's four A4 pages Sonia. Jesus Christ! There's one monologue in there that's so fucking long and verbose it's practically a short fucking play of its very own!"
What was this woman thinking? What was I thinking when, instead, my Ego said "Yes".
Tonight she was on fire. Her theatre was glittering with artistic, creative and theatrical potential ... and the bar was doing great business. As a Director, I don't interact with actors before a performance. I acknowledged their arrival with a smile and a wave ... or a kiss ... and watched on proudly as they gathered up their flowers and took them down in the direction of their respective dressing rooms. They were certainly nervous, but I was already well on the way to complete sensory obliteration at the bar. My friends had started arriving with flowers and gifts and as early as the half hour call, I was already propping myself up on the bar.
The foyer bell suddenly started ringing ... and the second I heard it I had to excuse myself and go into the office toilet where I promptly threw up. I have had many deep, meaningful and lasting relationships with any number of repositories of my turgid and tormented fear, but this one was unique. "This one will go down in theatre history!" I remember thinking, somewhat obliquely. I tried to stand up, but couldn't. Every flaw, doubt and anxiety about what all these people were about to witness punched hard at my eyeballs - from the inside of my head. I tried to get up, but slipped on the tiles and cracked my lower jaw so hard on the toilet bowl I thought I was going to slide into a technicolour coma on the spot. Vomit stained rented tuxedo and all.
It would have been preferable.
My boy was finally sent in to get me and - for what would turn out to be the final time - he looked at me with so much love for my pain. He couldn't comprehend why I wasn't going to watch the performance ... no matter how much I tried to convince him I knew what was going to happen ... better than the people who were about to make it happen.
Once he finally had me on my feet, he doused me with breath-freshener and we walked together out into the nearly empty foyer. He reluctantly let go of my hand and disappeared into the auditorium. The doors shut and the moments between then and the music starting were laced with an indescribable panic, mixed with hope and fear. I stood by the door and listened. It had started. There was no stopping it now. And I walked up the stairs to the bar.
"The horror." "The horror."
I sat at the bar drinking vodka and orange juice. It's hard to remember precisely what I was thinking. I could see it unfolding and falling over ... dazed and confused ... a scratch on his knee. Bandaids. More bandaids. OK, this is serious ... we need to get him to a hospital. The bar staff and front of house staff eventually started to busily prepare for the interval. Covers came off the finger-food and champagne started to be poured into glasses. Ooops! Here we go! The end of Act One. Is there still anyone awake in there? Alive? The barman looked at me and then looked at the back door to the very top of the auditorium. Ha! I remember thinking. Wouldn't it be funny if I snuck in to watch, only to discover that the audience had all walked out an hour ago and were up the road at the pub? Or gallantly throwing themselves in front of oncoming traffic ... anything but this! Anything but this terrible, terrible play!
I nodded ... and he quickly and quietly opened door into the auditorium. I poked my head in and looked at the stage. There he was, Robert's and my version of Piotr Tchaikovsky, supporting his chin with the back of his hand, and fiercely conducting the end of the Fifth Symphony. Antonina was stage left in her 'cell', madly scribbling a slogan in chalk on the jet-black wall. Nadia von Meck, his patron, was tearing up music and letters on the opposite side of the stage before collapsing onto the floor in a fit of jealousy, hatred and rage. Act One was certainly ending.
Polite applause. The worst kind. Sustained for an almost impolite amount of time. Maybe, I thought, they would refuse to stop clapping in the hope that they may prevent - or prohibit - what was to come. Were they demanding the curtain calls? I know I wasn't ... and I ducked back out to the bar to be met with the concerned frowns of the entire theatre staff. They had heard rapture all week. This was something they didn't recognise. But The Universe stepped in and made sure I did. She wanted to soften the blow. Immediately, and instinctively, I knew it had failed to lift off the ground.
I tried to lift my spirits as the foyer bar filled with punters ... but the buzz was hopelessly subdued. Act 2 was lighter, and shorter ... the fruits of the labour which was Act One were waiting to be harvested. Drama is tough on Act Ones. Audiences often conveniently ignore the fact that there's still much more of the story to come. Act Ones do the hard yards. Act Twos get to stand on the podium. (I remember a conversation with a theatre manager at another production of a play in mine in Melbourne who thought my Act One was "a dog", but he adored Act Two ... so much so that every night he was on duty, he would sneak in to watch it and sob quietly to himself in a curtained off alcove. After many conversations, he finally agreed that Act Two was only as good as it was because of the work that Act One had done to set it up.)
Sonia made a point of coming up to me and gripping me a little too tightly on the shoulder. My boy and his colleague left and I never saw or heard from either of them again. I picked at least two notebook-wielding critics, stealing food and engaged in quiet, almost catatonic, conversation. They didn't dare look at me. But sitting here today, I recognise the expressions they wore. I've worn one like it myself on those nights when you curse the obligation that prevails over your right to run as far and as fast away from this travesty of what some people think is theatre.
My friends from the Royal Opera were fighting with all their might to increase the buzz in the room. One of them called it 'compelling' ... a little too loudly. I just wanted it all to be over.
It would be. And it was. The only thing I was less certain of was the extent of the damage. Not yet anyway.
Following the performance, the company were invited to an extravagant supper at a nearby restaurant which Sonia and Roy had booked out for the purposes of our Opening Night Party. Forced jovial congratulations punctuated tense, deprived silences until Sonia made a speech about how proud she was to have my play in her theatre. She was actually quite convincing. I made a speech about how wonderful it was to have made it to Opening Night ... and how proud and grateful I was for everyone's efforts to get us here. I was genuinely moved by the impression this rancid beast of a play of mine had made on everyone. There may not have been plaudits galore, but there was creative and spiritual exhaustion ... the best kind.
In the days that followed, Sonia and my relationship would crumble underneath the most painful layers of betrayal, legal threats and toxic, unspoken blame that neither of us - in that blind passion-fuelled meeting so many, many weeks ago - ever imagined possible. In the meantime, I went home in a cab and lay awake all night ... hoping, against hope, that my instincts were, in fact, wrong. Until I fell asleep - dreaming of The Reviews.