Lappeenranta, Finland. November 2004.
I stood in the shadows of a darkened stairwell, another man standing close to me, nervous energy hanging in the air around and between us. He bristled with anger and intent while my mind raced over what was about to happen. I concentrated on my breathing, willing myself to be loose and limber and receptive. I looked up to make eye contact but he was in his own world, shutting me out even though we had both willingly accepted to walk the same path. Suddenly a door opened above us and a dark figure descended the stairs. He moved quickly and lightly. Stopping just short of the floor, he rested his hands on the banisters and leaned over towards us. A mischievous glint was perceptible in his eyes as he excitedly whispered two words: “Let’s play!”
So begins the first chapter of my new homoerotic crime novel, ‘The Coils of Adonis’.
No, not really. What I am actually describing is a little moment that happened in the wings of a small Finnish theatre almost twelve years ago. I was touring a new Irish play in a company of four – three actors (one of whom was the writer/director/producer) and a production manager – and we had fetched up in the university town of Lappeenranta to offer our wares. An honest, remorseless piece of work, it was essentially a monologue play that presented the verbatim accounts of three recovering addicts. We went down well in our Finnish theatre as our word-driven drama was received as an antidote to the prevalence of physical theatre there; they were longing for words. The addicts’ stories revolved around abuse and violence, overdoses and neglect, and their own experiences of need and longing. Our monologues were long and unsparing and dwelled in the darker regions of human struggle so it was nice to be reminded of the artifice of our efforts by the stage manager in Lappeenranta with those two well-chosen words, “Let’s play.”
It was also a reminder of the collaborative nature of putting on a piece of theatre. The conspiracy that must exist between actors and production team on one hand and the audience on the other. The tacit agreement that we will pretend it’s real. The investment. The faith. The offer of a story. The offer to embark on a journey. That offer and its acceptance or refusal depends on how successfully all the requisite elements coalesce into a cohesive whole. And even if there is cohesion that is no guarantee of lift-off. With live performance there can never be a guarantee of, to recall a word from an earlier post – transmutation. Can’t we argue that all art is the attempt to turn base metal into gold?
I remember seeing a beautiful production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when still an acting student that seemed to have all the variables in place – story, writing, dramaturgy, acting, set, costume, lighting, music and of course, direction. It was a new American play called Moscow and it was inspired by Chekov’s Three Sisters. The high concept of the play saw three gay men trapped in a mysterious space with no information as to how they got there or whom was responsible for their incarceration. There was a Beckettian existential quandary in the set-up but the narrative then had the characters while away their ennui and helplessness by re-enacting the aforementioned Chekovian classic. Their own boredom and fear and frustration of course echoed the longing and striving of the Three Sisters: Olga, Irina and Maria. It was funny and moving and quite beautiful.
Returning to Edinburgh three years later with my then girlfriend, now wife, I was delighted to see Moscow in the listings again. I enthusiastically bought two tickets and looked forward to my wife’s response to what I assured her would be a memorable theatrical experience. How wrong I was. It was a dud. It fell flat. Despite the same personnel being involved, the offer I remembered receiving the first time round simply wasn’t there. The same inner life of the play seemed to be absent. One of the actors had transformed himself physically and was almost musclebound which smothered the delicacy he had brought to the role previously. The chemistry between the cast had fizzled out and the result was a well-dressed mannequin – nice clothes, good form and posture, standing in the right place but ultimately, inanimate, unliving, dead.
Of course, I was not the same audience member I had been when I first watched it with the eyes and appetite of an earnest acting student. The cast was the same, yet changed. But I too was bringing different things to the party. The relationship was never going to be what it was.
Relationships change. They shift. And they don’t wait. They have a momentum all of their own. They resist being fixed in one place or one moment. At a certain point in our lives we come to understand that not all relationships last. Life steers us along new paths and old routes are no longer tread. Once familiar places and people become no more than the hazy tones and shadows of our subconscious. Death. Geography. Time. Focus. Necessity. All these things and more dictate the ever-shifting pecking order of priorities that shape our daily grind. And that same grind becomes a gatekeeper to the who’s and what’s that populate our existence. Some losses we bear more gamely than others simply because they are less painful or no longer as resonant as they once were. But others never lose their poignancy; the barb of their passing never quite loses its spike.
Up until quite recently acting was in this category for me. For various reasons I had consigned my acting career to a reluctant coffin that I had yet to find the courage to definitively inter. The coffin was in the cemetery but I hadn’t dug the hole. I hadn’t even selected the plot and I wasn’t exactly rushing around looking for a spade but the coffin was there, and in it, my once cherished acting aspirations. Life was moving on and I stepped into line like a good soldier, eyes front, shoulders back, and no more backchat. And then I got a gig. A new Australian play with a brilliant cast and creative team being produced by one of Australia’s most storied companies. And now I am doing that gig and reassessing my relationship with the vocation and the profession to which I once dedicated myself so assiduously.
I am different. Older. Less earnest. More lines. Less hair. Less fear. Quieter demons. Different strengths. Untapped resources. Old habits. New discoveries. But open to the journey. Open to the offer. And crucially, happy to be here. Wanting to be here. Ready to play.
“Let’s play!” he said. The words ‘play’ and ‘act’ suggest simulation, fantasy, unreality. But to act is to do. It is to take action. It is no longer thought or intention, it is reality. It is a ‘now’ moment with immediate consequences, reactions and counteractions. It is a domino in the game of life. And in the life of a play, of a performance, of theatre and of art, everyone is in on the game. Everyone is looking for reality. Everyone wants to be taken somewhere. To be transported. Transformed. Transmuted?
There are no guarantees with art, only an offer and its acceptance or rejection. I am just glad to be standing in the wings once more, waiting to play my part in making that offer.
Any coffins of your own that need dusting off? Don’t reach for the spade just yet!