Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Scraps of distraction: Part 5
The telephone at home started ringing uncommonly early. It woke me, but - as Fate would have it - not in time to answer it. I threw on some clothes and raced out the door to the newsagent. I knew there would be at least one review this morning. A dash through the park and then across The Green, one of those quaint little parks and gardens that try, valiantly, to save London from turning in on, and suffocating, herself.
The fatigue of the weeks beforehand had coloured the production a rather pleasing rich shade of chocolate-pink grey - almost as though it was happening in spite of everyone associated with it. And the bookings were strong. I had had many glorious conversations with members of the audience, some of whom had once sat with me at the bar until sunrise.
Later today there was also to be a meeting at the theatre with a couple of Producers who wanted to mount a touring production of it. A Number One Touring Company - whatever that meant. In the meantime, my heart, my ambition and I rushed to confirm that we were a success. I grabbed copies of all the morning newspapers (no mean feat in London) and started my return, bubbling with nerves and anticipation, to the house. My landlady (and great friend), Annie, would have the coffee going and together, we would pour over the reviews: "An important new voice in the theatre ... " ... "Brilliant! Stunning!" ... "Don't miss this amazing production before it transfers - as it inevitably will - to the West End!"
I am halfway across The Green. A review! The Financial Times! A quarter trademark pale orange page, right across the bottom! "Wow! Geoffrey! Look at you!" I scream, guiltily and silently, to myself ... "look at all that space they've dedicated to a review of my ... "
"Poor Tchaikovsky! His life was sad enough and one would have liked to spared him some of the rubbish that has been made of it since - of which Ken Russell's The Music Lovers and this play, are, alas, prime examples."
It is like someone has suddenly removed both my legs. I can't feel them ... and I drop to the ground like a wing-less bird. Hard. Thud. I try and keep a hold of all of my newspapers but they slide from my arms onto the damp grass around me. I grapple with The Financial Times and read the opening paragraph again ... and again ... and again. To be sure it actually says what I have just read. My heart is beating so impossibly fast. There must be some terrible mistake!
There is ... and apparently it's me.
The review is by Alistair McCauley and his review is as painful to imagine as it is to read. He slices the actors, my play, my production, my dialogue, my direction, my ambition and my imagination - my everything and my all.
My mind flashes back to many years earlier. I was working as a stock controller for an abbatoir when 'the boys' thought it might be fun to take me on a tour of the slaughterhouse. I remember watching, helplessly mute, as a wide-eyed and terrified bull was clamped into place on his muddy death row. Seconds later, the bull-bolt penetrates one side of his quivering head and appears out the other side. How do you describe that look on his face? The bull-bolt retracts, and with an unbearable shudder, the beast crumples to its knees. Staring balefully. Twitching. Its jaw hits the ground. And eventually dead.
There is no way for the heart and soul of an artist to know how to respond to the slaughter of everything they imagined they were. It is a complete annihilation of everything I have held so near and dear to my heart for months. And everything that was to be my future. McCauley ridicules the emotion and relentlessly eye-gouges every aspect of the thing I have dared to put before him. He picks "particularly awful" lines of dialogue with which to misquote me. I can't sort out the array of nauseous reaction I am having. It's like a fatal internal hard-disk error. Irretrievable. My memory is erased and I only have this damning evidence of my complete and utter worthlessness as a risk-taking creative being. (People often ask me why I don't get a chest x-ray. It's actually quite simple. I've already had the worst news of my life.) Here, on my knees, pathetically surrounded by my newspapers and fighting to contain a sound I don't recognise - my creative being has been hacked to bloodless pieces. And I am not actually sure how I am going to survive my reaction to it.
Of course! I'm not supposed to.
I don't see Annie running across The Green toward me. She has answered the telephone to someone from the theatre telling her to keep me away from the newspapers. It's been a wholesale slaughter of the highest order and they're concerned about the effect it will have on me. She has jumped in her car and driven around toward the newsagent to find me.
I choke on my breath as Annie drops to the ground beside me, collecting my newspapers and encouraging me to stand up.
There's nothing to say and there's no way to say it.
I am suddenly a long way from home. I think of my Mother and Father in Glen Waverley and how shattered and sad they will be. I think of my Sister who will be equally as embarrassed by - and a little for - me. I think of the actors and the sudden and unexpected shock of realisation that they were right all along not to trust me entirely. I think of the script, and the actual versions of the lines misquoted by McCauley - wishing I had not given up on my right to cut them from the script while the actors still had time to adjust and re-learn. Fuck their precious Egos! Look where it got them! Fuck them! Look where it got me! I thought of Sonia and her dreams and expectations for this marvellous play and the wonderfully talented fucked-up dreamer of a boy who had written it. She had plucked him from obscurity for their crazy mad dash onto a mainstage in the Theatre Capital of the English Speaking World.
The shame and the horror of it changed me forever in a split second.
Over the coming days the bad reviews continued to appear. Shockers. I can't quote them. I don't have them anymore. Once, not that many years ago, I burnt them all. Including McCauley's (which is actually quoted from memory here). They were like seeping, angry herpes blisters: every time I caught sight of them, all the fun had to stop.
Tunnels ... limped along. The Number One Touring Company, which ended up being the consolation prize to a West End transfer, never eventuated. At the meeting later that day, they informed me that they wanted me to write two characters out of the script. I responded with "Which two? Tchaikovsky and ... ?" I was merciless. They were fools. There was no other way I could even begin to defend myself from the events of the morning. As far as they were concerned I was no longer the boy with the goose that laid the golden eggs tucked under my arm. Instead, I had somehow miraculously morphed into the parent of a dribbling, snotty-nosed, spastic baby - who was desperately trying to find it a good home. But I have always believed in life after death, and I scoffed at their ridiculous suggestion. Sonia was finally convinced I was utterly mad.
The box office telephone stopped ringing ... almost overnight. A Jewish critic in a Jewish magazine loaded the final bullet into the chamber by referring to the play as "... roast pig's ear ..." - which, when you think about it, is actually quite astonishing in its brutality. People stopped turning up to collect their tickets. The length of the play did, in fact, come back to haunt me - with one critic writing something along the lines of: " ... never mind the tunnels, this terrible piece of theatre is positively interminable!" Or something witty and droll like that.
Regardless, they had achieved their end. The public and private humiliation of me and my beloved, spastic child, was complete. And I was grateful for the silence in my life.
It is impossible to know how to behave in these circumstances. People suddenly stop acknowledging your existence. For my front of house friends, I metamorphisised from someone who had single-handedly guaranteed their rent for weeks, maybe months, into someone who had just kicked a puppy to death on the footpath out the front. Sonia is suddenly, not so sure. She knows we share the responsibility for the crime - but it's quite obviously proving a little too complicated for her to resolve her guilt by association. Box office staff are instantly laid off - I know, because I watch them gather their belongings and leave.
It was like the award winning Child Care Centre I had left my child at had suddenly burned to the ground - and I was the parent of the only child inside who hadn't managed to get out. Everywhere I turned, there was nothing but suspicion, shame, embarrassment and resentment. I wanted - and needed - to defend my play but I needed people around me who believed it was worth defending. None of those people were here. Anywhere. I had been tipped upside down and exposed as a fraud. A cheat. I had coloured their worlds with great hope, passion and inspiration, only to now be the cause of their creative poverty and actual penury. And it had all come as a complete surprise. We were in shock ... not the shock of a somewhat high telephone bill, but the heart-stopping shock of someone facing what they innately recognise as their impending, and instant, demise.
There was really only one thing to do. I left the theatre and decided, in spite of the distance and myself, to walk somewhere ... anywhere ... home. I had been introduced to the concept of Damage Control.
And as suddenly as it had ended, several quite extraordinary things happened. Unexpected miracles which, to this very day - somewhat astonishingly - make me grateful I dared.
There was, after all, still one more New End Theatre record to smash.
Image: The park near my home in Ealing, London.